Leaving London for the countryside on a Friday is a particular pleasure for the overworked and stressed. Add in the rare occurrence of a child-free weekend in an eighteenth century coaching inn with log fires and a tasting menu, and one has a perfect recipe for relaxation.
Waving the teenagers goodbye – they chose not to accompany my husband and I to Goring-on-Thames, making jokes about boring and snoring – we pootled down the M40 on an autumnal evening. The sun set beneath a magnificent cloudscape worthy of Turner as we approached Goring and our two night break at The Miller of Mansfield, situated on the border between South Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
Invited to review The Miller of Mansfield, I discovered that we would be in very good hands. Mary and Nick Galer bought the local inn a few years ago. Mary had been in charge of training at The Hind’s Head in Bray while Nick had been Head Chef at The Crown. Both pubs are well loved by admirers of Heston Blumenthal, myself included. When The Miller of Mansfield came up for sale, Mary and Nick followed their dream to run a hotel, restaurant and pub.
Situated on Goring’s main street The Miller of Mansfield is clearly an important hub of the community. The cosy pub, attended by Mary and a host of friendly and well informed bar staff, was packed with local people day and night. On Friday evening a local business entertained its guests while on Saturday afternoon a group of men fresh from the morning shoot made merry drinking Good Old Boy ale from West Berkshire Brewery a few miles up the road. A Goring-based artist has work for sale on the walls while on the tables some delightful earthenware is locally produced.
Having Mansfield in the name may suggest that the hotel is situated in Yorkshire but in that lies a story, told to us by one of the staff. Back in the days of King Henry ll, the royal party were out hunting when they were approached by a poacher who, not recognising the group, set about trying to sell his wares. The King allegedly punished the poacher by sending him to Mansfield (in Yorkshire) and having him carry a sack of flour all the way back to Goring. In the cheerful, yellow walled dining room there hangs a portrait of the mythical miller painted some forty years ago by a Goring resident then in his twenties. Sacks of flour are scattered about the room warming to their theme.
Shown to our bedroom with just enough time for a hot bath in the roll top, we discovered a much needed tea tray with assorted organic teas and a Nespresso machine, plus two gift wrapped pairs of home baked biscuits which were so divinely buttery and sweet that I had to content myself with only one, lest I spoil my appetite for dinner. Oh happy days when they were replenished by the housekeeping staff the next day.
The Mansfield suite was a lovely bohemian chic affair with a Philippe Starck Ghost Louis armchair alongside a perspex desk and an iron day bed. The main bedroom, in the eaves, had a very large bed, adorned with stripy cushions. It was very comfortable. The sizeable room also accommodated a white coffee table with two upholstered chairs on which were perched perky fuchsia cushions. I could happily have stayed a week.
We made our way into the cosy bar where we sampled a few ales in a delightfully convivial atmosphere. With a large meal ahead we sadly had to resist the bar snacks – goat’s cheese, caramel and curried flavouring for the popcorn, while roasted peanuts were doused in salt and vinegar. Served in small kilner jars they were dinky and fun. Pork scratchings hail from O’Shea butchers in London who also provide the rather excellent black pudding at breakfast.
Dinner on the first night was the Tasting Menu and I was expecting it to delight and entertain as a good tasting menu should. I always declare on reviewing these long menus that I find it difficult to get to the end of the 8 – 9 courses. I often feel that they are a test of endurance for the diner while at the same time being a showcase for the talents of the chef. Fortunately Nick plates up appropriately sized portions so that the meal, well-paced over several hours, can be enjoyed in full.
Proceedings began with a Miller Sack of Bread and three toppings. I begin to tire of the ubiquitous hessian sack of bread served in so many restaurants, but at The Miller of Mansfield the bag is true to the theme of the establishment. The breads were accompanied by whipped smoke bacon butter – richly creamy, smoky and dangerously good. It rather reminded me of smoked cod roe to which I am particularly partial.
In tiny stoneware bowls were a home churned salted butter and a cream cheese topped with tiny diced pieces of apple. These were accompanied by Canapes . Cod croquettes were tiny bites of upmarket fish fingers. A slice of duck ham was skewered along with small apple balls and slivers of cornichon.
When I saw Lobster soup on the menu I was excited as it one of my all-time favourites. The server brought a dish in which nestled tiny capsules of lemon and carrot purees, micro herbs and two, meaty chunks of lobster. She then poured over the creamy bisque. I was not sure at what temperature Nick proposed the soup to be eaten as it was tepid by the time it had been passed from jug to unheated stoneware bowl. I loved the hit of ginger in the soup and could definitely have ordered a full portion of this course.
The fourth course, Mushroom Ragu, was served in a beautiful white bowl. This delicate dish had deeply earthy flavoured, silky black mushroom and cep slices and was topped with mushroom shavings. We mopped our plates for the last drops of mushroom liquor and agreed that this too was a dish we would happily eat another plateful of.
Grilled halibut was course number five. Served with pickled cabbage, Alsace bacon and pear, this was excellent. We enjoyed the nod to the current fermentation frenzy and the pairing of the herb crusted fish with a riff on a ham and sauerkraut duo. The wafer thin slices of pear crisp and tiny balls of pear added a seasonal touch to a well-balanced mélange of flavours.
Course six was a striking dish. Served on a plate with black and white swirls, sirloin steak was served medium rare atop onions and sliced potatoes and topped with micro watercress. The watercress theme was beautifully continued with a gorgeous bright green pool of watercress mayonnaise. The steak was pepper crusted, briefly seared and accompanied by a very rich reduction. Our taste buds were zinging from the black pepper – another well-crafted and executed pairing.
Course seven, Pumpkin Pie, was a delight. It arrived on a plate so charming that I wondered where I could possibly buy a few to take home. It looked like a slice of tree trunk providing a visual pun of a log at autumn time being used for bonfire night. It being just past Halloween, the pie was seasonal and deconstructed. A biscuit base was provided by a tiny square of gingerbread which was topped with a cinnamon marshmallow and accompanied by a quenelle of pumpkin ice cream and a sprig of lemon verbena. Caramelised pumpkin seeds were scattered about the tree trunk plate.
This is precisely the sort of dish one hopes to find on a tasting menu – one that combines the visual and the gustatory mixed with a good dose of the chef’s sense of humour. Crockery matters these days with chefs and public alike. Some tasting menus sport more interesting plates than food. The Miller of Mansfield gets the balance right.
The final course was Pear Crumble with Buttermilk ice cream and presented a quenelle of ice cream along with a reappearance of the pear crisp from the fish course. It had a crispy topping, sweet pear and a waft of cinnamon but was overshadowed by the Pumpkin Pie.
An Americano and a mint tea were accompanied by macaroons – grapefruit and a coconut, white chocolate and passion fruit flavour.
The next morning felt far too soon to be eating again yet my husband happily put away a bowl of muesli followed by a Full English. It must be the country air. I enjoyed poached eggs on toast and a welcome pot of tea.
Having brought our walking shoes in anticipation of a clear, crisp day we set off into the hills where a fine view of the Thames and surrounding countryside could be enjoyed.
The path led down to the river where we ambled along the Thames Path enjoying the truly magnificent autumn blaze of leaves. We fantasised about owning one of the large homes that sit alongside the river, our own Toad Hall. Mind you, if I ate too many of Nick’s Tasting Menus I would come to resemble Mr Toad in no time.
Arriving back at The Miller of Mansfield my husband slept the afternoon away in that enormous bed while I sat fireside in the inviting pub lounge, reading in a most comfortable armchair. Periodically one of the staff would add a few logs to the fire. It was a rare few hours of utter repose.
The evening meal was à la carte and an enticing menu was presented to us. We began with a selection from the Nibbles section which included Crispy guinea Fowl Croquette with Smoked Onion Relish. Three round croquettes stuffed with guinea fowl were served with a delicious smoked pearl onion which cut the richness perfectly.
The Miller Meat Board traversed the globe with an unusual mix of goose ham, salt beef, chicken paté and cured lomo and was accompanied by charred gherkins, pickled artichoke and caperberries.
Who could resist a starter of Chicken on Toast whose simple description belies the complexity of the dish. It included a cockscomb which Mary told us is a delicacy in France where they once worked. This was one of the most inventive starters I have eaten of late and was visually pleasing too. It was served as a deconstructed chicken – a chicken on toast or, rather, a crispy slice of toasted brioche spread with a creamy chicken parfait. It was topped with a pipette of egg yolk, just set, a Porto gel, crispy wafers of chicken skin, tiny pieces of crisped black pudding and the cockscomb. The cockscomb and the chicken skin wafers stood tall giving the dish some height. The plate was anointed with spirals of red wine gastrique which added a lovely sweet and sour note and looked beautiful. Bravo Nick.
One of my favourite seasonal dishes – roasted pheasant (local of course) – was served with hay baked celeriac served in thick, smoky rounds. A pastry cigar filled with pheasant meat stood like a chimney stack on the plate, a cylindrical pastilla. Shredded trompette mushrooms were truffle like in their depth of flavour. The musky trompettes, the sweet pheasant jus and the tart pickled pear provided the perfect notes for bringing this dish to full volume.
My husband chose Spiced Monkfish Tail which displayed a corn theme, the vegetable playing various roles – a charred cob, a spicy purée and some popcorn dotted about. This accompanied two medallions of monkfish. As with all Nick’s dishes, it looked delicious.
For dessert we chose a chocolate mousse which, served on a biscuit base, was beautifully creamy and topped with crunchy chocolate flakes. It was accompanied by a whisky ice cream served with blood orange and a cinnamon spiced mini meringue. A fine looking cheeseboard was also on offer.
The second dessert had many elements competing for attention on the plate. Autumn Apple with caramelised white chocolate, brown sugar and green apple sorbet had crispy segments of apple which had been poached or baked, an apple crisp, spun sugar and a quenelle of fresh apple sorbet. It was a seasonal variation on the apple theme.
The dining room was relaxed and comfortable, the service excellent throughout.
After breakfast the next morning we returned to London well rested and very generously fed indeed. The Miller of Mansfield is clearly popular with the residents of Goring. For those further afield it is well worth a visit for any – or all three – of its offerings. A lovely pub, delightful accommodation and inventive and delicious food provide for an hour, evening or weekend of pleasure. I hope to return.
The Miller of Mansfield
I was invited to a review weekend including meals at The Miller of Mansfield. All comments and observations are my own.