Thursday, 30 March 2017

Oxford: Pints and Pizza Tour

Last year Chiltern Railways announced that, for the first time in 100 years, a new route between a major British city (Oxford) and the capital was going to be opening. Meaning the city of dreaming spires was now a little over half an hour away from home. 

For most people this would have probably meant planning a nice trip to the Ashmolean, or the botanical gardens, or punting on the River Cherwell, but the one thing I was most excited about was all the fabulous pubs we could now visit and still be able to stagger safely home. And, after having recent cravings for a 'proper' pizza, the Ewing promised me I could combine my two great loves (after her of course) on the #pintsandpizzatour.

Our first stop was supposed to be Beerd, the second branch of the 'craft pub' off-shoot from West Country brewers Bath Ales. But, after pretty much jogging all the way from the station in my excitement, this sign was the first thing I saw.

Upon enquiring inside - on the hopeful chance the poster was out of date - the bar staff reported the closure of the kitchen was linked with St Austell's takeover of Bath Ales, with the company currently reviewing if the pub will continue to be managed or be passed over to a tenant landlord. While skipping food for an early beer was tempting, there were still several stops to get through and I needed some ballast to stop the ship from keeling.

Thankfully we still had enough strength for a stroll around the corner, just in time our next port of call to open its doors for the day. The White Rabbit is an independent pub serving real ales and pizza just off Gloucester Green. And, with a kitchen headed by an Italian and fresh ingredients imported from the homeland each week, I had high hopes for our first lunch.

To drink, the Ewing tried a new XT brew the Jester experimental the first using the CF125 hop, to be renamed something catchier if the beer takes off. I went classic with an Oxford Scholar, a traditional English mid-strength bitter from the nearby Shotover Brewery. Both were decent enough (especially after several weeks of not drinking), although the enjoyment was slightly marred by the 'floaties' of yeast in the bottom of both our glasses.

My margarita, with a swirl of chilli oil cleverly disguised in a amaretto bottle to make us appear like hardened drinkers to the table next door, was perfect simplicity. The crust was a little more robust than a classic Neapolitan pizza, meaning you could cut a wedge and fold it up NYC style, and as I ate it I imagined I was Kevin MaCallister, on Christmas Eve. Which is a very good thing.

The Ewing went fancy with a Lumberjack - a pizza bianca with mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, truffle cream, speck & parsley. While I was initially a little dubious the smoky ham and funky mushrooms riffed nicely with the milky mozzarella and puffy base. Dare I say, it might have been even nicer than mine.

Next we went straight back to the old school with a trip to the White Horse on the High Street. The building dates back to the 16th century and has become more recently famous for appearing in episodes of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour. Eagle-eyed fans might even have noticed the photos of John Hancock on the wall during a recent episode of the latter show. Very meta.

Regular beers include Brakespeare’s Oxford Gold and White Horse’s Wayland Smithy. I tried the latter while then Ewing went for another Shotover Brewing co. beer, this time their session bitter, Oxford Prospect (the last pint in the cask, much to the chap behind hers dismay). Two ales I’m sure Endeavour - or his creator, and beer fan, the late Colin Dexter - would have been very happy sipping while ruminating over the latest body.

I’m not sure our detective would have been quite as pleased to be cheek to jowl with the throng of (very entertaining) tourists from Oklahoma drinking mulled wine – it appears hot wine is big business in Oxford, even in March. And yes, I am aware of the irony of my comments, being a day-tripper myself. Although, thankfully for the Ewing’s sake, I seem to be getting less curmudgeonly as time goes by.

Another of Oxford’s plethora of famed hostelries is the Eagle and Child (A.K.A the Bird and Baby) where The Inklings - a  1930's writers' group with members including Tolkien and C.S Lewis - who would meet to discuss unfinished manuscripts in the 'Rabbit Room' at the rear. 

Now it’s a Nicholson’s pub, and while it retains its original frontage, the interior – once you walk past the atmospheric and cosy alcoves by the entrance -  has more of an identikit feel, not helped by the narrow proportions of the building and lack of natural light.

The selection of beers is sound though, with four ales on offer including the serviceable Nicholson’s Pale. I chose the, so-so, Hopback Winter Lightening, being as it was geographically the closest and a beer that I have enjoyed in its famous summer incarnation. Better was the Ewing’s choice of a pint of Dave from Great Heck in North Yorks. A very decent toasty dark ale that she kindly let me share while we plotted our further adventures thanks to a postcard we had picked up at the White Horse.

Our penultimate stop was the Rickety Press, in a sunny corner of Jericho. The pub is part of the Dodo group (along with the Rusty Bicycle on the Magdalen Road), which, certainly from the selection on offer when we visited, seems to be tied to Arkell's beers. A fairly uninspiring looking range (I had already told the Ewing to stay away from the Old Rosie cider), although I was pretty pleased with my pint of 3B Bitter, with a tight creamy head not often seen south of the Watford Gap.

Already, less than a third of the way into the new year, a contender for Best Thing I have eaten in 2017 is the Rickety Press’ n’duja pizza. Not so much for the chunks of fiery Calabrian sausage, delicious as they were, but for the tangy, chewy sourdough base speckled with charred spots from its ferocious firing. I didn’t even need the home made dipping sauce for my crusts, and I love a dipping sauce for my crusts.

The topping on the pizza bianca here - speck, rocket, gorgonzola and pickled pears - was slightly less successful than at our previous stop. Although the magic of blue cheese on a pizza (or on anything) should never be underestimated, especially when paired with the same gloriously chewy base.

And, as even we struggled to finish our second round of pies, it meant I got to enjoy the leftovers (thanks to the Ewing for carefully carrying the box upright all the way home) later that evening with a, judicious, splash of truffle oil like our pie at the White Rabbit - the best of both worlds.

After all those pints and pizza it was time for a little pudding and what better than a G&D ice cream, from their Davis branch on Little Clarendon Street. My waffle cone - filled with a special Rolo flavour, designed for Valentine's Day (I didn't share) was the perfect accompaniment to a stroll across to the Denys Wilkinson Building. The beautiful Brutalist home to Oxford's Nuclear and particle physics departments. 

As we slowly swayed our satiated way back to the station, I'll leave you with the, rather apt, words of Max Beerbohm; 'that old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford Station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannels, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line'.

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