Richard Craven on the Cotswolds restaurant scene, pigeon biltong, and trading blackberries for beer

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Richard Craven on the Cotswolds restaurant scene, pigeon biltong, and trading blackberries for beer

Related tags: Wine

Formerly at The Chef’s Dozen restaurant in Chipping Camden, the chef has taken on the nearby The Royal Oak at Whatcote with his South African-born wife Solanche.

The Chef’s Dozen was a hit - why move on? 
We outgrew the Chipping Camden site. We only had nine tables and the kitchen was tiny. There were only two places I could stand up in it – luckily one was at the pass and the other was at the stove. The strip lighting was positioned roughly in line with my temples. We made the decision to move shortly before getting a great review from Giles Coren in The Times​, which was a bit annoying.

Tell us about your new place…
It’s an 800-year-old country pub in the Cotswolds village of Whatcote about twenty minutes to the north east of Chipping Camden. It had been closed for three years because it required major structural work. 

Have you kept it as a pub?
Yes absolutely. Roughly 60% of the trading space is for drinking and bar snacks and we don’t lay it up. It is affluent round here but not everyone is loaded. There is a lot of social housing for older people. We ensure we always have some beers and ciders on that are priced at under £4 a pint. We also offer meals at a lower price point for some of our regulars. We have a dominos team, to

What’s on your current menu?
Starters include beetroot, ox tongue, crisp barley and horseradish; and Tamworth pigs head and black pudding lasagne, cider reduction and toasted hazelnuts. Mains include mallard, elderberry, salt baked turnip, rainbow chard and gamekeeper’s pie; and pheasant wellington, mashed potato, farmhouse cabbage and my dad’s crab apple and rowanberry preserve. Starters are around the £8 mark, mains average £20 and desserts are £8.

Is the food similar to The Chef’s Dozen?
Yes. We’re still focused on game. About 80% of our meat is wild. We’re very seasonal and we use a lot of foraged ingredients. The food style is modern British but there are a few South African influences because that’s where my wife Solanche is from and we both worked out there for a bit. We serve biltong made with pigeon and the ‘parma lamb’ is also inspired by the time we spent out there.

And then there’s the wine list…
That’s by far the most obvious South African element. It’s a short list curated by Solanche and the vast majority of it comes from South Africa. It was tough to get people interested in the country’s wines at first but people are starting to realise that they offer incredible value. We can have something on the list for £40 that would be more like £70 for the French equivalent. Our cause has been helped by the fact that a number of newspapers and specialist wine publications have highlighted in recent years how good South African wine can be. 

Where did you work in South Africa?
We both worked at Le Quartier Francais in Franschoek (near Cape Town). My wife oversaw the wine list at the brasserie and I worked at The Test Kitchen (which has appeared on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list) as the sous chef under Margot Janse, who has just left following the sale of the hotel. When I was there the restaurant started to focus on African ingredients – we were cooking wildebeests and warthogs. Obviously the species available in the UK are rather different but the skills are transferable – it’s all lean, red meat that needs to be treated carefully in order to get the best out of it.

Why did you leave?
Solanche preferred the lifestyle in the UK. Living costs were high because the area that surrounds Le Quartier Français is very touristy and wages weren’t that high. Over here we can afford to eat out and also travel back and forth to see Solanche’s family – if you’re earning rand, flights are pricey.

We hear you operate a bartering system at The Royal Oak… 
Yes. People turn up to the bar and swap produce for drinks and in some cases cash. We started off trading pints of beer for pints of blackberries and we now have game catchers and farmers coming in with half a dozen braces of mallard and leaving after having had a few free pints with £40 in their back pockets.

You’ve spent most of your working life in the Cotswolds, how has the restaurant and pub scene changed?
There are far more places to eat but more importantly there are much better quality places to eat. When I started out in the late ’90s it was all generic dishes such as twice-baked cheese souffle, lamb shanks and sticky toffee pudding. It was generic stuff and it felt like we were stuck there for about 10 years. But now there are some skilled chefs who are taking the local and seasonal route.

Is there a sense of community there?
Yes. We get our veg from the team at The Wild Rabbit (which is owned by Daylesford Organic). We’re all trying to do nice food and there is obviously a big crossover in terms of the local ingredients that we use. 

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