Monday, 7 April 2014

The Plough, Winchmore Hill

When I was a student, I, very briefly, found myself with a job in a seat belt factory. Needless to say carefully measuring lengths of webbing, before cutting them with ferociously hot, sharp blade, wasn’t to become my forte; although it turns out I was rather adept at using the injection moulding machine that made the little ‘clickers’ that hold your belt in place.

Of course, this story bears no relevance to the Plough, apart from the fact that, rather incongruously, both seatbelt factory and pub occupy the same road in the small Chiltern village of Winchmore Hill (compounding coincidence, my Mum also lived in the very same village for several years). So now, every time I return here, I wistfully think back to those carefree days where everything seemed more fun -even with the copious plastic burns up my forearms and little red marks on my clocking in card.

Back in the seatbelt factory days, like most students, I was also beholden to pizza, and wasn't very fussy  about what type; from family holidays in Italy, to consuming bags of the 10 for a pound pizza 'biscuits' found in the freezer section of Iceland. And all while taking full advantage of Stealth's 50% discount for having a part time job in Pizza Hut.

While I may (or may not) have matured in many ways my love of a good pie remains, and I was very pleased to hear that, after laying idle for a while after a failed gastro pub venture, the Plough had been revamped as a pub/ Italian osteria hybrid.

And they've done it rather well, as I noticed during my first revisiting for a weekday lunch with the Ewing. To the left as you walk in is the long bar and flag stoned floor, complete with open fire and ale on pump, while to the left is a smart and tidy, two-tiered restaurant, with views into the open plan kitchen and shelves full of Italian wines.

It’s pretty rare for somewhere to retain two distinct spaces without having to compromise somewhere, but the Plough genuinely seems like the sort of place you would come for a drink as well as to eat. The picnic sets outside on their beautifully manicured lawns mean there is also plenty of space for dogs and children to roam in less inclement weather, and boasts lovely views across the Chiltern Hills.

While there's the usual roll call of Italian favourites - home made pasta, soups, sharing platters of cured meats and fish, grilled steaks and the like, it was the pizzas and calzones, fired in their wood oven, that were the main draw. Add the fact that, according to their website, they 'members of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana', and I was steeling myself for a treat. 

My first pie from the Plough was the Pulcinella, with an icy pint of Peroni to accompany; if I had any fears, they quickly dissipated, with the pizza being a rival to any other I've had on these shores, and many I've eaten abroad, too, with a crust that was both chewy and charred in just the right proportions.

This was essentially a pizza bianca, with the milky richness cut through by the fresh cherry tomatoes. The cheeses, the sharp ricotta and milky mozzarella were plentiful, as was the ferrous note from the spinach, but I could have done with more of the crisp pancetta which pepped up the odd mouthful with its salty, porcine note.

The Ewing was swayed by the lunch special, a dish of lobster taglietelle with a glass of Pecorino wine, for a not unreasonable £18. I've pretty much given up ordering seafood pasta dishes in restaurants, after being served far too many sparse plates of cotton wool-crustaceans drowned in metallic tomato sauces, but this dish was a simple triumph; plentiful chunks of sweet lobster entwined in toothsome pasta.

We both went with something from the special board for pudding, enticed by our charming Italian waitress who assured us they were worth it. I had the warm torta di riso with candied citrus pieces and pouring cream, a perfect mixture between cake and rice pudding, two of my very favourite things. While the Ewing chose the chocolate and fresh raspberry torte, a perfect mixture of two of her favourites, too.

After our initial recce, we were soon back for Sunday lunch with my aunt, uncle and cousins. On this occasion they were hosting one of their local and Italian food fairs, and there was plenty of chance to stock up on canoli shells; rose wine; magnificent pecorino, hewn from a huge truckle; and Piedmont hazelnuts covered in chocolate for the kids (and the Ewing).

This time we started with a, very good, platter of cured meats - including bresola, fennel-flecked salami, parma hama and a lovely coppa, served with oil, balsamic and their wood fired bread.

I then moved on to the Parma pizza, a Margarita base strewn with rocket leaves and topped with a generous amount of Parmesan, and Parma ham. The crispy and chewy base was spot on,with the home-made chilli oil provided a decent kick.

The Ewing enjoyed her unusual autumnal combo of (rather sparse) taleggio, pears and walnut, while my aunt was very happy with her favourite, the Napoletana, the classic mix of tomato, mozzarella anchovies and capers. As you can see, my cousins, G and L, were also fans, with big smiles and empty plates all round. (As a bonus, the Ewing also got all of L's Olives).

Our latest trip was when I took my Mum, Sam and Grandad for lunch to celebrate my Mum's birthday. This time the Ewing and I decided to split the Gamberini, with chilli, rocket tomato and prawns; and the la Scozzese with mozzarella, smoked salmon and fennel (sans the fennel, as they had run out).

While fish and cheese make a controversial pairing for most Italians, the mild and creamy mozzarella worked pretty nicely with the smoked fish, especially with a spritz of lemon and lots of freshly ground black pepper. The Gamberini was also good, with plenty of sweet prawns and spiked with fresh chillies and peppery rocket. 

Despite the fact we were now flagging ever so slightly after our celebrations the night before, the hazlenut meringue with a spiced fruit compote and the milk caramel and walnut tart, both from the specials board, looked too good too pass up.

The tart was heart-stoppingly sweet and rich, and all the better for it; crumbly pastry holding a buttery filling chock-full of toasted walnuts and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The Ewing also enjoyed her Ottolenghi-esque nut flecked meringue, served with sweet and sour stone fruit and whipped cream.

To finish, 87 year old Grandad tried, and enjoyed, his first espresso; stating, in his words, 'it's always good to try new things'. But, while he's right, when you've got some where as good as the Plough on your doorstep, it's also good to return to a familiar favourite.

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