Let's Hear it for the Boars
How many of us have bemoaned the closure of our local pub? When you live in a village with just one pub, losing it is a double blow, and often spells the end for any sense of local community. There has been a pub in Spooner Row near Wymondham since the 17th century. Known alternately as The Blue Boars, the Two Boars and The Three Boars, it has physically and metaphorically been at the centre of village life for more than three centuries.
So when it was threatened with closure last year, one local couple decided to do something about it. Russell and Clare Evans were concerned it would be the end of the road for the pub when its previous owner wanted to retire after two decades. Rather than see it disappear, the couple - who had been using the pub for 19 years themselves - bought it, and set about transforming it into a modern village hub.
It is clear that there has been much investment here. The interior has been considerably smartened up, avoiding the temptation to create a pastiche of an Olde Worlde inn, and instead giving the place a bright, contemporary look. But the first thing they did was reopen the kitchen, realising that the best chance of prospering was quickly to create a reputation for food which would attract not just locals from the village, but foodies from farther afield as well. There are two bars, and a small, smart restaurant, which is where we chose to have dinner.
Russell is the man behind the rejuvenation of the Bullards brand, and so our aperitif had to be a Bullards Norwich Dry Gin and tonic. Served with dried orange and cucumber, plenty of ice and Fever-Tree tonic (of course), it was the perfect way to prime our palates for the meal that was to come. Starters were a tartlet of smoked mozzarella, and a dish of black treacle cured salmon. The tartlet base was a surprisingly light circle of puff pastry, topped with sun-blushed tomato and rocket pesto, the tangy smoked mozzarella, Granny Smith apple and confit beetroot. The combination of flavours was well balanced, the sharpness of the apple cutting through the pastry and cheese, the whole pleasingly light. The salmon was cut thick, and served with torched Little Gem lettuce, soused cucumber and coriander mayonnaise. Once again it was the balance of tastes which was striking. Here is a chef who evidently has a good palate, and understands how to combine different flavours to good effect.
We were there on a Wednesday night, which is steak night. Five different steaks are on offer, with different cuts of beef, a bacon steak and a tuna steak, as well as the regular menu. A well-cooked steak is surprisingly difficult to achieve, so I plumped for a sirloin to see how they did. It was perhaps more medium-rare than the rare I ordered, but it was well seasoned, and the peppercorn sauce (which came in a little jug on the side) was light and not overpowering, as such sauces so often can be. The steak came with proper, skin-on chips, a large Portobello mushroom and a cooked tomato, and I added the surf and turf option: three delicious large prawns swimming in garlic butter for a very reasonable £3 supplement.
Meanwhile, Becky chose from the regular menu. Her first choice of oven-baked hake with potted brown shrimp butter was sadly not available, so she instead chose a pan roasted stone bass fillet, which came with a crispy fishcake (in fact a tennis ball-sized sphere), wilted spinach, lemon shaved fennel and a shellfish bisque. Stone bass is actually a type of grouper, and its flesh is sweet and silky, so the bisque, with its shellfish sweetness, was an inspired idea. The danger was that it would overpower the fish; in fact, the chef had shown admirable restraint with the flavouring and seasoning, and the result was a sauce which perfectly complemented the moist, flaky fillet. The fishcake gave a lovely smoky flavour, and our suspicions that it included smoked haddock were confirmed by the waitress. This is a kitchen which shows a deft touch with the smoker, lifting dishes to a new dimension without overpowering them.
We were quite full by that stage, but cognisant of our duty to you, the readers, we bravely made our choice from the pudding menu – and were very pleased we did. Desserts are often the Achilles heel of pub menus (and indeed many a restaurant menu), but here they were the highlight. I went for a honey and almond Norfolk crunch cake. This, it turns out, is their most popular pudding, and with good reason: really moist, laden with honey, with, as the name suggests, a crunchy top. Served with an elderflower poached pear and vanilla ice cream, it was delicious.
Becky’s pudding was also tremendous. An ice passion fruit parfait, it had been tempered so that it was just the right temperature and texture, soft and melt in the mouth. It came with a Norfolk raspberry curd, frozen raspberries and a mango salsa. As you would expect, the selection of beer at the pub is wide-ranging, with six real ales on tap, along with four lagers, two ciders and Guinness. But it was to the wine list we turned to accompany the meal. Thanks to the adoption of the ‘Verre du Vin’ system, they offer the entire list by the glass as well as the bottle – and also in 500ml carafes.
The list has a dozen whites and a dozen reds, along with five fizzes, three rosés and three dessert wines. It has everything you would expect, as well as one or two surprises. A glass of textbook Albariño and an unusually restrained Australian Viognier accompanied our starters; a carafe of Appassimento from Puglia went down a treat with the mains. This unusual Italian red is made from grapes which have been dried on the vines, giving an intense fruit flavour. It is a favourite of mine, and good to see on a pub wine list. It is worth mentioning the service, which was struck the right balance of friendliness and informality combined with efficiency and attentiveness. Our waitresses were able to talk knowledgeably about the dishes on the menu, and were clearly interested in them, which is not always the case in village pubs.
I’m a city boy at heart. I like the fact that I have a whole range of places to go and eat at my disposal. But a pub like The Boars could make me consider village life – and that is high praise indeed. A year on from being saved by the Evans, The Boars is thriving, and based on our visit, it will continue to do so.
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