Phileas French made a very exciting discovery last night. Somewhere I’ve been looking for North of London for a surprisingly long time. The perfect country pub for food and drink.
Most people have a favourite pub, or one they favour for food, one for real ale, whatever. If you haven’t trawled Home Counties drinking spots with my dogged enthusiasm, you might think that there’s a cute, characterful boozer on every village green, with a welcoming vibe and local delicacies. There really isn’t. Last night we decided to drive out into the howling monsoon, spray flying off trucks on the M1, and head for the environs of Berkhamsted, to a lovely hamlet in the Chiltern Hills.
The Alford Arms
lies at the end of a series of dark, winding roads through the Ashridge Forest. It’s in the tiny village of Frithsden, 300 yards from a little brown sign which encourages you towards a “public house”. Suddenly there it is, twinkling, pretty, and offering the rural miracle of a spacious parking lot.
I knew that The Alford Arms
prides itself on its food, and wasn’t sure if I should expect a snooty vibe around the wet jeans and Ugg boots I was sporting, even if my dining companion was compensating in a smart suit. When we walked in, though, the atmosphere was warm, genuine and totally unforced. An adorable dog rushed up, tail wagging, the staff beamed and waved us to a comfy table, and the other happy inhabitants of the tavern grinned and greeted us. Even on a freezing January Monday it was busy, but just enough to create a convivial atmosphere. The whole merry scene felt entirely timeless, like Chaucer’s pilgrims could have had a similar experience taking refuge from the pouring rain on their way to Canterbury. Frithsden first gets a formal mention in 1291, so I guess the villagers have become adept at entertaining outsiders after at least 723 years.
For my overseas readers, I’m not saying that typically on walking into an English country pub you can expect an experience akin to entering The Slaughtered Lamb
. What you can often expect is anonymity and irritating jostling at the bar beside some fruit machines, and the Alford Arms could not be further from this.
The wine list is inspiring, diverse and fairly priced. In a remote spot where one of you is likely to be driving, it has a really great range of wines by the glass, bucking the grim English pub trend of forcing whole bottles on anyone who hoped to venture beyond sampling the house Chenin Blanc. You order at the bar but get the sense that the staff are so relaxed and competent that they’d bespoke how and what you felt like ordering pretty much anyway you signalled.
The cat is already out of the bag regarding the delicious food that you can enjoy, as The Alford Arms won Hertfordshire Dining Pub of the year in 2013. They are certainly not resting on their laurels in the new year, is all I can say – the plates that we shared were fantastic. It was hard to choose from the appealing menu plus a specials board of seasonal and local delicacies. The kedgeree fritters were incredible. (Kedgeree is really a thing again now, isn’t it, or have I just spent too long in Sri Lanka recently?)
The food might be best described as the very best of rustic fare. They’re not trying to do a silly new twist on a Scotch egg or a fish finger sandwich. They’re not purporting to offer fine dining, either – if you want that then go to the peerless, extraordinary Yorke Arms
, one of the Great Inns of Britain
. It’s fresh and straightforward, intelligent good eating, where you clear your plate and then fight other people for theirs.
It was a relief to spot plenty of fish and vegetarian options. Even better, these dishes dodged another obnoxious English pub trend of incorporating one unwanted element into every pescatarian dish – perhaps I don’t want blood sausage with my sea bream…? My smoked haddock with rosti and salt and pepper squid was divine, preternaturally light and crispy. Jonathan’s trout in clam chowder looked equally good but disappeared too fast for me to grab a forkful. As for the side of fried courgettes with honey yoghurt, that’s a new sensation which I will doubtless fail to recreate in my own kitchen some time soon.
We didn’t want to leave and we can’t wait to go back. I’m on such a high after finding this place that I’d love to know of any other recommendations for dining pubs as wonderful as The Alford Arms