The first time I came across Worton, I didn’t get it. A cold winter’s morning trudging round a few barren vegetable beds and empty greenhouses wasn’t really doing it for me.
I don’t know what made me go back, but it was summer the next time I went to Worton. And by then it was unrecognisable. Wild abundance in the muddy fields. The previously barren paths almost hidden. Rickety tables now outside. Greenhouses bursting full of all manner of produce. Pigs. chickens. Flowers. It was like The Good Life had recreated itself in this little corner north of Oxford. Untamed. Glorious. Bucolic.
That first summer visit, two years ago, I walked through the front of the shed. Life is a miracle, it says, at the entrance. There’s a food shop at the front, most of the produce homegrown and all of it organic. It’s laid out simply and elegantly and you will want to be buying some of it, so forego your normal Ocado delivery and come here instead. Bring your own bags or you might get a look from the owner.
It is, today, another miserable day in late winter, when the rain won’t stop and the sky is heavy. Instead of sitting under the boughs of apple trees, we are inside, sheltering from the rain. If you didn’t know it was serious about the food, one look at those slightly worn cookbooks would confirm the kitchen’s credentials. These are classics, rarities, quirky and mainstream, many of which I have used and loved. Some I’ve never even heard of.
As we wait for the food, we have three of the different ferments on offer. Each is spot on. The kimchi is particularly good. A hefty portion of it, bought yesterday, is currently in my fridge, but you can smell that funky music as soon as you walk into the kitchen. I could also have had a bang on trend drinking vinegar, but I noticed it too late.
We order the home-baked bread. We always do. It’s the law. A superb crusty wholemeal sourdough. The butter is fresh and unsalted. I would come here for the bread alone. Correction: I have previously come here for the bread alone.
Today, a classic fish soup, all rich grainy stock, a bisque really, with a hint of fennel. A fresh rouille (a proper amount) and some of that sourdough, toasted into crispy croutons, with a bit of sharp melted cheese, baked in. It’s the cheese detail I like. Often this soup is served with grated cheese but this cheesy crouton thing is better and there is a slight sourness to the toasted bread and cheese. I have to eat both mine and the bits that are (inexplicably) left by C, because I can’t bear waste.
I follow with braised endive, wrapped in prosciutto. This comes in a rich bechamel sauce, the prosciutto crisp, in part, a lot of it, the sauce bubbling and slightly cheesy. I can eat this until the end of time. The cook tells me that he made this dish last week and no one ordered it. I weep at the waste. Fools.
I cannot explain the magic by which this endive dish becomes more than the sum of its parts, but it is a thing of pure umami joy. I mention this to the chef and he agrees. If you haven’t, do. You’ll thank me.
C meanwhile is putting away the better part of a pig, with his salt pork, pease pudding and mustard sauce main. Hearty is a word that you might use. Or enormous. Or comfort. All will work.
We talk about the food and I try (and fail) not to be too fangirl and mention how much I love it and how it is such a special place and how if I was ever going to do something with food it would be like this. I hear myself and inwardly cringe but I can’t stop now.
And the this that I mean is the attention to detail. The uncompromising freshness and authenticity. The seasonality and simplicity, without being up its own backside. The willingness to serve things that not everyone will eat. The fact that C’s salt pork and my prosciutto came from their own pigs. The knowledge that the chicory was grown in the field outside. Knowing that the ferments are all made with vegetables from the garden. Glad I asked what was in the game pie before ordering. I don’t want to find out later that I’ve eaten Tufty, even if it is sustainable. Despite the squirrel adventure, they do not ram their philosophy down your throat. This is sybaritic sustainability. There are no hair shirts to be seen.
I decline the East End cheesecake even though my name is practically engraved on it because I am on the precipice of a slippery fatslope and the daily carb-denying struggle is becoming dull even to me, but I almost inhale it through the glass. The recipe may or may not have come from Grodzinski’s in the East End, according to the cook, but it looks the East End biz. I know exactly how it tastes, without actually tasting it. Which makes it worse.
C, meanwhile, is happily demolishing a perfect Tarte Tatin, crisp fine pastry flaking into each mouthful. Do you want to try some, he says. As if that is even a question. As if I have ever refused a taste of a dessert, particularly when I am not having one myself. The crisp burnt sugar crackles on the end of my tongue. The pastry melts. There is just the right amount of sweetness from the apples. The dopamine receptors go into orbit. There is thick whipped cream, because we needed.
This is, in the words of the cook, food that you would cook for your best friends, when you wanted to make them happy and you were pushing the boat out. It is uncompromising in its pursuit of flavour and quality. It’s the sort of place I’d visit every week, if I was a local. It’s the sort of place I’ll willingly drive 45 minutes to get to, on a wet afternoon in winter, when the rain is sheeting sideways and there is no reason to leave the warmth of the house. It is not fancy in a Thyme sort of way. It has not been manufactured in a Daylesford sort of way. It is special in a slightly eccentric, severe, left of centre, hippyish Worton sort of way and I love it all the more for that.
Scores on the doors
Ambience: 9/10 as long as you know the deal
Value for money: 9/10
Best for: middle-aged eco warriors
Worst for: prissiness. There’s an eco loo.