Travel: A stay at the pub where chef Jamie Oliver grew up
- Credit: Emma Cabielles
Some of the very best holidays and breaks begin with a magical mystery tour. You know, the kind of journey where you pop the address into your satnav and blindly follow the directions, half happy someone else is doing the heavy lifting of the navigation, but also having that little seed of doubt in the back of your mind that you’ll end up in the middle of nowhere. I can’t be the only person who remembers an episode of Top Gear where the TomTom wanted to send Clarkson and co (as it was then) off on a wild goose chase hundreds of miles across the English Channel to get to their, British, destination.
And so it was on a freezing cold late autumn night, in the kind of dark you only find in rural parts, while trundling down a ‘hollow lane’, my mate and travelling companion Sarah said: “Er, are you sure we’re going the right way?”
Thankfully it wasn’t long before we stumbled upon The Cricketers in Clavering, which was lit up invitingly like a Christmas tree.
You could be thinking, ‘hmm The Cricketers, I’ve heard of that place’. And you’d be right. Up until last October it had been in the safe hands of Trevor and Sally Oliver for 44 years. It’s where young Jamie first got bitten by the foodie bug, in turn going on to revolutionise the way a generation of people thought about cooking and eating. Maybe one day they’ll put a blue plaque on the wall?
Anyway, today it’s operated by Chestnut – the independent group behind spots such as The Packhorse in Moulton and The Northgate in Bury St Edmunds.
So we expected good things.
Like dating, first impressions count, and it would be a fair assessment to say both Sarah and I were wooed from the moment we stepped across the threshold of the 16th century inn.
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While it’s clearly been, what I call, Chestnutted (with modern light fixtures and elegant interior touches), the pub has retained its historic charm. Fairy lights and festive frippery festoon the dining and drinking spaces, curling around beams and framing the brickwork. There’s a warm, amber glow about the place. And the low ceiling (almost touching my head at a teeny 5ft 4ins), only adds to the sensation of cosiness.
Armed with our ‘un-loseable’ bedroom key (attached to a hefty cricket ball), Sarah and I took our positions at a window seat for dinner, between a roaring log burner, and a grandfather clock that gave both of us a frisson of excitement (sad I know), whenever it chimed.
Dinner began, as all good things should, with a glass of fizz. A buttery, beautiful Cremant de Limoux for me, and for Sarah pink bubbles from nearby Saffron Grange vineyard – filled with citrus, a little brioche and loads of ripe berry fruit notes.
While we tackled a few slices of fresh focaccia bread, we perused the menu. A list of largely traditional fare, from pate to fish and chips and steak, all the kinds of things that, let’s be honest, you really want to find when you eat at a pub.
Knowing full well we were going to load ourselves with the hearty stuff later on, Sarah and I chose lighter starters.
A salad of hot smoked salmon and smoked mackerel with confit grapefruit was delicate, filled with bold flavours, and balanced by pops of juicy, sharp fruit for Sarah.
I went for the pub’s superfood salad. This was quite a mouthful, made up of avocado, leaves, pomegranate, rainbow beets, broccoli, toasted seeds, walnuts, cucumber – a feast of health.
The first half of the salad was delicious. Bright with fresh, hidden blueberries. Toasty from the seeds and nuts. A little sweet. However there was too much oil in the dressing, which put a dampener on the plate once I’d gotten a few bites in.
Onto the main courses. Sarah sipped on a cool pint of bitter Wherry as she tackled a tender lamb shank, which fell apart over creamy colcannon mash, with a kaleidoscope of roasted carrots, and tasty lamb jus.
On my side of the table was a buttery shorthorn ribeye, the ribbons of fat melted through, ensuring the cut (cooked to perfection) was steeped in flavour. The crunchy chips on the side were faultless. And I lapped up the spiky, booze-tinged peppercorn sauce. With it I highly recommend a glass of the pub’s house Malbec from Mendoza - a classic pairing with beef. It was a lovely drop, heavily drenched with jammy berries and violet.
Dessert was 50/50. Neither of us was mad about the millionaire’s shortbread tart, which saw over set caramel mousse and chocolate jelly set into a pastry case. But the sticky toffee pud was a cracker – still soft, plump and luscious.
Fit to burst, we made our way over the road to one of the pub’s rooms, set in a converted bungalow, with far reaching countryside views.
Again, like the pub, the décor here is true Chestnut style. Understated and comfortable, with bursts of colour and modern creature comforts.
The oversized bed was on the right side of firm. Pillows were the squishable kind you can really bury your head into. And the hospitality tray was one of the best I’ve seen in ages, packed with posh French breakfast tea, Teapigs, Paddy & Scott coffee bags, Illy pods (for the in-room Illy machine), hot chocolate, and even a dinky Thermos of fresh milk.
The bathroom was modern and gleamingly clean, laden with bright, zesty lotions and potions, and had the best shower I’ve probably ever used in a hotel, with excellent water pressure, and a shower/bath nozzle that doesn’t require a degree before use – I can’t count the times I’ve been squirted in the face by freezing water from an unruly hotel shower!
Naturally we spent the rest of the night doing what any self-respecting British hotel guest does after dinner – watching trash TV (Come Dine With Me and ages old repeats of The Chase) and reclining with a nice cup of tea. Ahhhh.
It was back over the road to the breakfast room in the morning for sustenance before the day ahead.
Served until 9.30am, The Cricketers’ breakfast offering is exemplary. While being nosy, peering into the open kitchen with its ancient brick bread oven, you can help yourself to a selection of bread and Tiptree preserves (apricot has to be the fanciest one), homemade granola, fresh chilled fruit, juice, cereal and yoghurt, before ordering your cooked ‘main’.
Still full from dinner, I prayed the kitchen and other diners wouldn’t swear at me for ordering the Lowestoft kipper, which was cooked just right and was an absolute whopper to boot.
Sarah’s full English though did make me a little jealous, bringing together high quality local bacon and sausage with eggs, a medley of mushrooms, baked beans and black pudding. It’s fair to say neither of us needed lunch, and we left The Cricketers feeling rested, sated and ready to take on the day.
The pub is absolutely ideally situated for a jaunt into nearby Saffron Walden – a town neither of us had, inexplicably, visited before. We just couldn’t believe what we’d been missing out on. The main shopping thoroughfares of pastel-shaded shops and almost Dickensian-looking double fronted windows is gorgeous. I was almost reminded of my time shopping in York’s Shambles this summer. While there are a few high street names, the town centre is largely made up of independents, including the superb indy book shop Hart’s, gift stores such as Between the Lines and Talents, and Angela Reed – a shop that just goes on and on and on.
There are cafes and restaurants of all price points. And you just cannot miss a visit to Hill St – which I (having sampled their wares many many times) think is one of the best chocolate makers in the country. We both only wish we had time between now and Christmas to head back and really make a dent on our credit cards!
Sometimes the best things really are closer to home than you think.