Saturday, 20 December 2014

XT Brewery and the Eight Bells

Saturday sun came early one morning
In a sky so clear and blue
Saturday sun came without warning
So no-one knew what to do

Well, that last line wasn’t completely true. When the winter sun shines then what better than a brewery visit to stock up on festive supplies, followed by a boozy afternoon at the pub.

The brewery in question was XT, based at Notley farm way up in the wilds of North Bucks. We normally manage to make at least one visit at this time of year, as our Christmas guests have become rather partial to their beers; and I don’t mind a drop, either.

While our last visit was so foggy you could barely see past the pint in your hand, this time we were blessed with one of those glorious December mornings – brilliant blue skies, a crisp frost on the green fields – that made driving through the chocolate box villages, with their thatched cottages and wood smoke curling from the chimneys, an utter joy (save for the resurfacing argument about who had last seen the Cure CD that I wanted to listen on the drive, and the bit where the Ewing clipped someone’s wing mirror in one of the aforementioned  villages).

To get us in the mood we started off with half pints (quite the bargain at pound each) of their standard Xmas brew, the 25, a decent enough red AltBier. We also tried the 8, a rich dark beer brewed four different malts. The good weather meant we could sup these out in the sunshine, although it also meant the Ewing spied their sign offering free broken pallets alongside a help yourself hop compost heap – although I suppose further repeat visits will have to involve the purchase of beer, too.

As well as brewing beers under the XT moniker, they also offer a range of Animal beers, which allow them to experiment with a few more quirky flavour combinations. This time they had the Christmas-themed Gobble on cask (this version especially cellared in oak barrels), a rich dark stout brewed with roasted cacao nibs and a hint of orange, a beer the Ewing (and I) was so fond of we also picked up a two litre bottle straight from the keg for drinking later.

Next up was a visit to the Eight Bells - a pretty pub dating from 1607 in the nearby village of Long Crendon and perennial star in Midsommer Murders  - where I was very much looking forward to a long and lazy lunch and a prime spot in front of the log fire; circumstances which, alongside the Saturday papers made a very warm (literally) welcome. They also had the XT’s 25 on cask, so I settled for another pint of that.

Starters we decent enough; the crab pate was great, but the bread to crustacean ratio was a little off (too many carbs not enough crab) while the advertised and anticipated smoked garlic aioli was either absent or (possibly?) the dressing on the side salad.

The duck rillettes, served with granary bread, befell the opposite problem of too little bread – clearly not really a problem, who minds scooping up tender shreds of confit meat straight from plate to mouth? While the duck was nice enough the clementine marmalade, freshly made in the kitchen, was outstanding; a perfect bittersweet counterpoint to the fatty meat.

Sadly the mains fell as flat as the pizzas. Normally pub pizza is best avoided, but a whole section dedicated to their thin crust Italian bases and seasonal toppings including blue cheese and mushrooms and the ‘Porky Pig’, including chorizo, black pudding and pulled pork, were too tempting to turn down.

While the toppings -especially the glorious black pudding and mushrooms - were good, the base was far too thick and pallid and the intriguing ‘pork veloute’, replacing the familiar metallic tang of tomato, just bland. Add the fact that the extra pineapple salsa (the Ewing made me do it) looked suspiciously just like something tipped out of a can by the man from Del Monte and it was rather underwhelming.

That said, the remaining pizza that they boxed up for us to take home made a great post drinking snack after being  given a further crisp up in the oven the following evening, so it wasn’t without salvation. Prices, at around eight quid a pop, are also fair for a something that is often given astronomical mark ups.

Restraining ourselves from getting too pizza-logged also meant we had room for pud, which for me was the standout part of the menu. Despite not having a hugely sweet tooth, and often not being very excited by deserts when eating out, there was nothing here I wouldn’t have happily buried my face in – literally or figuratively.

In a very strange turn of events, confirmed chocoholic the Ewing turned down the chocolate bundt cake with Mexican hot chocolate sauce and coffee ice cream; which meant, with that description, I was almost duty bound to order it. It was pretty much perfect; gooey cake, subtly spiced sauce set off by the creamy and caffeinated accompaniment. The only thing I rued being that by choosing it, I missed the opportunity to order the spotted dick and fresh custard or the apple and custard millefuille.

The Ewing, thankfully, wasn’t disappointed with her choice. A butternut squash bavavois served with red wine poached pears and homemade amaretti biscuits. The bavavois was particularly noteworthy; smooth, sweet and slightly claggy - like the best sort of cheesecake, but this time served with the biscuits on top.

I liked the Eight Bells; while the cooking could do with a little work, the menu’s interesting without being too outrĂ© -  there’s still plenty of room for lunchtime baguettes and staples such as fish and chips and steak pie – the greeting is friendly and there’s plenty of local ales and cider to slake a thirst.

While it might not all have been perfect, to get through a few drinks at lunch followed by Saturday afternoon visits to both Waitrose and Lidl (to stock up on the all important reserves of marzipan and stollen) on the way home and avoid a murder, Misdsommer related or otherwise, seemed like a pretty good result. Pass me the bottle opener.

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