My friend Nina who started the first farmers market in London, as well as a host of others since, invited me along on one of her farm visits. We thought wed have a gentle tootle through the countryside and stop at Brown and Barrow - purveyors of mail order smoked eel and salmon - who have recently started offering a light lunch at their smokery in Somerset. Lovely - a road trip. Thelma and Louise in a borrowed Ford Escort, singing country and western songs all the way down the M3.
Well, it would have been lovely except that someone had unwittingly poisoned Nina the night before and just twenty minutes short of our destination, she swooned elegantly, like a tightly corsetted Victorian suffering an attack of the vapours and, naturally, since she was slumped across the steering wheel, we had to stop the car. Even Im tired of my driving stories, so suffice to say - there I was, back in the driving seat, trying to change gears in Manolo mules.
Thankfully, country lanes are very, very quiet. As was Brown and Barrow when we arrived. Despite our expectations, the restaurant is more of a food outlet, with the small menu merely offering a selection of their own smoked produce paired with salad, new potatoes or granary bread. Ive already sampled many of their products by post so the home visit didnt add much to my knowledge except that - as the two starters on offer were either smoked eel on rye with beetroot and horseradish, eel pate, or carrot and ginger soup, it seemed like a bad time to admit that actually, I loathe eel with a pathological passion. Nina is the big eel fan and I had naturally assumed she would be sampling it. But this was before she slid off the chair and asked for water.
Now, yes, I do know that eels are really romantic fresh-water creatures who swim back to the Sargasso sea to breed, their larvae gradually washed back to Europe by ocean tides. Furthermore, the eels at Brown and Barrow are caught locally and brought in by the anglers themselves to be smoked. But ever since a friend served a slick black Freudian eel, curled like a muscular whip around the plate in the middle of the dinner table, I have been unable to think of them without shuddering. Nor do I like the taste, the sharp, oily pungency of the flesh, not even cut into transparent slivers and disguised with a sweet and sour dressing as sampled recently in Passione in Charlotte Street. But, I do keep on trying - hoping that, like cigarettes - if you persevere with the sheer visceral awfulness of it, you get hooked.
Well not this time. One bite of the pair of eel fillets overlapping a slice of rye bread and I was once again a recalcitrant five year old, sitting with my mouth clamped shut while Nina did her stern Thelma impression, complete with airplane noises, and ordered me to just swallow it for Gods sake. Oh please cant you just shoot me instead? However, Thelma strongly urges me to say that she has eaten their eel often and that for aficionados it is excellent stuff, to be highly recommended. Both the ham and salmon I brought home and consumed later was divine.
Main courses on offer were hot (as in spiced) smoked salmon steak, smoked trout and Hassler, my choice, thinly sliced pork loin with a curried mango chutney, absolutely wonderful garlicky potatoes with that melting, earthy flavour that reminds you just how glorious the most basic of foods can be. The salad was good, fresh and lightly dressed though a slice of kiwi fruit made a bizarre appearance amongst the leaves. You know in London, they do shoot you for that sort of behaviour.
Nina managed only the potatoes and salad, but I had one of the puddings - also made on the premises - a banana, nut and toffee pudding - but more of a cake in texture - with a scant teaspoon of clotted cream. All this with change from £15.00. Amazing.
The restaurant, in a stone flagged outbuilding with jolly red and white check tablecloths is sweet and unpretentious, but Bowden's Farm, a collection of corrugated sheds, complete with diggers and tractors, looks like an industrial farm park. However, this is the real working countryside and not a Laurie Lee wet dream. Visitors should not be put off, but value its integrity and instead drool over the pretty rural location.
But Cider with Rosie, or in our case Thelma, is to be found at nearby Burrow Hill in Kingsbury Episcopi. Here you can stock up on Cider Brandy pressed from English apples grown in their own orchards and distilled on the premises. Our final stop was Cherry Hill Farm in Froome, Wiltshire, home of 101 goats and luscious non-goaty ice cream. After some of that, Thelma revived. She sung a few verses of Im sick but Im still a woman on the way home and managed not to drive us over a cliff. Though the oncoming lorry doing 70 in the wrong lane, did have us worried.