Sunday, August 5th 2018 – The Red House, Marsh Benham
Back in the late 1980s, towards the end of my first decade as a wage slave, I worked for a company that moved its offices from Bromley, in south London, to Aldermaston, in the middle of nowhere, and thus ended up buying a house in Newbury. The new mortgage wasn’t exactly cheap, and, having spent 6 months of my post-degree year working in an hotel halfway up the Swiss Alps, I supplemented my income by working evenings behind the bar in a local pub. That pub was the Red House, in a tiny village about 5 miles from the centre of Newbury, in the village of Marsh Benham. Back then it had a reputation for decent beer and very good pie and chips, and although it was a cut above the other local pubs, it wasn’t exactly fine dining.
It’s changed a bit over the intervening decades, and nowadays, under the stewardship of a Frenchman whose cheffing skills are of a very high level, it’s an excellent place to stop for lunch, especially if you’re either headed down the A34 or along the M4. It’s changed on the inside too, the two tiny rooms that used to comprise the bar and the snug having been knocked through into one, and a restaurant space added on at the back.
We’ve eaten here a couple of times before, with Lynne’s Dad, Tony back when he was still with us and we were shuttling him back and forth between his house and ours for Christmas. He loved it, and we’d promised we’d go back some time now it’s less painful to do so. We arrived bang on 1 o’clock as booked, and were soon seated in the restaurant, having eschewed the garden on the grounds that it was just too hot out there.
A glass of Champagne was required as coolant, while we decided what we wanted for lunch.
Water was also supplied, in a rather attractive vintage jug. It was nice that it had obviously been cooled in advance, though it did make a terrible puddle on the table as it started to warm up in the dining room atmosphere.
We decided against the set menu, or the roasts, and roamed loose in the a la carte menu, deciding that starters and mains might well prove to be enough. The starters were certainly big enough, and very, very French inflected. Lynne ordered the prawn cocktail in Devon crab mayonnaise, which was an interesting take on something that was, as some of you will know, an absolute standard of dining out in the UK back in the 1960s and ’70s, and which now tends to appear only in the spirit or irony. It didn’t matter; this was very nice, very rich and fishy, and it came with some rather nice thinly sliced rye bread.
I ordered the rope grown mussels in white wine and cream, which was just right, exactly how I would expect moules mariniere to be, all garlicky and with plenty of lovely liquid to mop up with the soft brown bread that was supplied. I was also supplied with a bowl of water to clean my fingers in, much needed after I’d extracted all the lovely little bivavles from their shells ready to slurp down.
We ordered a Comte de Provence Côtes de Provence 2016 Rosé, a typical mix of 40% Grenache, 10% Carignan, 25% Cinsault, 15% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre that was, for me anyway, evocative of the time I’ve spent in Provence, around 6-7 years if I add it all up. It was lovely, fresh, fruity and summer in a glass.
It went well with the mains, especially Lynne’s massive slab of tuna steak, cooked perfectly pink and served with olives, capers, cherry tomatoes and herb crusted new potatoes. It looked good, and she certainly didn’t leave any of the fish. The massive portion of vegetables proved slightly more of a challenge, but she gave a good account of herself even if she couldn’t finish it.
It made me quite glad that my dish looked substantially smaller. It was absolutely delicious, comfort food in a small, cast iron frying pan. A gloriously gooey, sticky, savoury cassoulet, studded with chunks of chorizo, pork, smoked bacon and some tiny Toulouse sausages, and capped with a bon-bon of confit duck leg meat, coated in breadcrumbs (traditional on top of a more conventional cassoulet) and fried to a crisp coat. It was quite the best cassoulet I’ve eaten this year, and given we spent two weekends in Pau that’s high praise. It’s still not fine dining; it’s a hug in a pan.
I didn’t leave much, that’s for sure.
All that was left now was the question of dessert. We probably shouldn’t, but we were both tempted, Lynne by the sorbets, in the shape of raspberry, lemon and mango, which was very refreshing, as I suppose you would expect. It was also very colourful.
I had the strawberry Pavlova, which might almost have been called deconstructed, but was none the worse for that. The strawberries were perfectly fresh and sweet, and the meringue was not too sweet, with a vanilla-flavoured custard-like quenelle for contrast. It was a light and delicious end to lunch.
Meal done, we headed for home and didn’t need to eat until Monday!