Saturday morning, and the house looks as though it has been burgled, except that surely your everyday sort of passing thief would not have thoughtfully sorted the laundry into himalain piles accross the kitchen floor, or fried eggs for fifteen people before/italics/ ransacking the living room. You lucky readers for whom Saturday morning just means a lie in followed by a gentle stroll around the local gourmet shops for a baguette, a bunch of fresias and the papers. I know you are all sitting there reading this in your beautiful kitchens with your perfect omelette and a glass of wine thinking youre Elizabeth David. Aha - have children. Watch it all disintegrate into chaos.
For the rest of us, there is but one solution to squalor. Put your coat on (preferably having changed out of our nightie first) and leave. Dont look back because in case your tidy gene kicks in. Instead, drive, or even better, be driven, up the M40 to Exit 6, through Chinnor, to The Sir Charles Napier, surrounded by beechwoods and tucked away on the Chiltern Hills.
It looks like a typical country pub - all displaced cartwheels, head-banging beams and log-burning fires, but it tastes deliciously like a stolen moment away from life and laundry. Its Brief Encounter, with hats and handbags, but without the sexual frisson, despite my companions rather racy tie. Do you like it? he asked. Lovely, I replied, flipping it over to read the label (oh yes - Im that sort of girl about mens ties) and trailing one end, unforgivably, in his gravy. No, no, he said, its the pattern, but all I could see were little winged hammers. No, look again, he insisted. Reader - I blush, and move on...
The bar area has two open fireplaces and is furnished with a junk shop mix of shabby armchairs and multihued Lloyd loom chairs. This leads into a long, rather dark, dining room and beyond, into a brighter room with large windows, overlooking a terrace which, in the summer, is covered with wisteria and vines. We sat next to the window. Great view, old fashioned-cutlery and generously upholstered, faux gothic dining chairs of the kind usually found living singly in bedsits. We were surrounded by several parties, one an extended family, complete with infant, another couple earnestly discussing their home renovations (kill me now), and another bearing two cannoodling lovers who arrived in a Ferrari. It was like a diorama of courtship: meet, marry, talk about wallpaper. If only one could stop at the Ferrari. Ah well, you can always eat.
The restaurants menu features a great many big, hefty dishes that you should really walk off afterwards. Portions, particularly in the main courses, were huge. The lunch menu priced at £15.50 for 2 well-considered choices appeared to be a good representation of the a la carte. I had the pheasant boudin blanc taken from the lunch menu - wonderfully moist with a pleasing mousseline texture and intense flavour, served on a bed of chopped leeks. Simon had tagliatte with crab and ginger, nicely balanced with the merest whisper of chilli. Other choices might have been a stilton souffle with chicory salad, Mediterranean fish soup, or scallops with Jerusalem artichokes, though not the latter if youre sleeping with me afterwards.
To follow tuna, sea-bream or wild sea bass were all options, with more tagliatelle for the stoic vegetarian, this time served with courgettes. What would the poor veggies do without courgettes? Restaurants seem to think they eat nothing else but these or, if its a party, maybe aubergines. The Charles Napier is possibly not the place to come if youre looking for lentils. I had calves liver, a little less pink than I would have liked but still tender and properly served with gorgeous braised cabbage, a balsamic sauce with a tiny bit of mash. Unfortunately, it was presented as a tower, layered like a childs stacking toy, but it suffered little from this. Simon had a monster helping of achingly tender loin of veal with spinach sandwiched between crisp wavers of rosti potato. He barely managed half of it which meant I had to stop eating too - just for show. All those years my mother kept telling me to clear my plate or eat my vegetables, and finally - too late - it has paid off. I even eat my crusts.
Pudding let the meal down a notch. I had quince tart tatin, an assembly job that would have warmed the tower-builders heart, if not the diners. Deadly pastry, a couple of slices of barely caramellised apples and some rubbery quinces, topped with a ball of ice cream made with crystalised ginger. Simons creme brulee, he thought, was over-egged and had been done in a bain marie instead of a pan, resulting in a rigid wobbliness similar to creme caramel, with a layer of fag-ash-like vanilla on the bottom of the ramekin. However, we barely needed it. The place has a good and well-priced wine list, and we were lost in Simons delicious bottle of Californian Ridge Montebello, gazing at the mist mingling with woodsmoke, drifting across the fields outside.
Anything, rather than look at that tie.