I never really found this time of year particularly endearing when I was growing up. It’s still cold, still muddy, still not light enough to play outside after dinner. The lengthening days means the snow doesn't settle, yet still it falls (normally while I was doing cross country in running shorts and an aertex t shirt). Most of my memories are waiting with a child-like impatience for something good to actually happen.
Now I’ve slowed down a little, although no less impatient, I can appreciate the subtle changes that herald a new year rolling around. The wonderful pale light that bathes everything in a Northern Renaissance glow as the sun climbs a little higher in the sky each day. Then the first of the snowdrops peeking through, followed by crocuses followed by daffs followed by bluebells followed by blossom.
In another nod to the rituals of growing older, we seem to have started taking an annual late winter pilgrimage to Oxford, which always seems a touch too early to see my favourite blossom – the pink blooms on the almond tree outside the church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street - in its full splendour. This year, however, we made up for it by taking a lovely walk along the canal path in the low sun for Sunday lunch at Pompette in Summerstown.
Currently the critics' darling, the space at Pompette is split into half restaurant, half wine bar the former offering a tight menu of French classics, the latter a separate selection of snacks and charcuterie. As I fancied a relaxed afternoon of getting sloshed (the name is the French for tipsy) and eating a variety of cured meats and fried things, we chose the latter option, a good call as we ended up with all the warmth and atmosphere without the slight starchiness of the other side of the room.
We started with glorious bread and glorious salted butter and more glorious salt to sprinkle on the salted butter and all accompanied by a cold bottle of Austrian pet nat, as that’s what all the cool kids drink. I thought it tasted like funky cider, The Ewing thought it tasted of ‘funky grapes’, both of us enjoyed it a great deal as we are obviously still cool, if slipping further and further away from our youth.
The cervelles de canut - a fromages blanc flavoured with herbs, shallots, cider vinegar & walnut oil – has got to be the best thing (fifty pence under) a fiver can get you in North Oxford, or North just about anywhere. A Lyonnaise favourite, the name translates as "silk worker's brain", after the canuts, or weavers, who worked in the city; thankfully the dish itself is far less gruesome than it’s moniker might suggest.
The aforementioned glorious bread here has been turned into crisp, golden toasts for dunking, with the only disadvantage being the airy holes give the cheese more escape routes as you move mouthwards.
Anchovy, shallot & butter toasts were yet another incarnation for the humble loaf, and possibly the best of all; lightly toasted and topped with a slab of butter you could leave teeth marks in (the correct depth, according to my wife) and topped with plump salty anchovies and small rounds of sweet shallot. An unassailable combination one I’m already excitedly thinking of replicating in the garden with a cold bottle of rose come the first sniff of summer.
Croquettes were crisp breadcrumbed nuggets of wobbly fried bechamel, studded with chunks of superlative ham. Available per piece, I could easily have taken down a dozen. In the back ground you can see a superlative celeriac remoulade; an unassuming looking dish of the finely shredded root veg in a creamy dressing that packed a huge mustardy and caper-flecked punch.
Terrine maison — classic pork, chicken and veal terrine with pistachios, was a stunner looks wise but could have possibly benefited from a little more time warming up before I launched in. That impatient streak again.
Alongside the terrine came a large terracotta jar with a pair of wooden tongs and the announcement; ‘cornichons, for you’. Possibly the three most romantic words in the English language. Certainly the three most dangerous, as an unlimited supply of pickled cucumbers to accompany the cured pork products saw me eating well into double figures, as attested by the Zantac later that evening.
Cornichons also came adorning the plate of duck rillettes. Originally the Ewing wanted to eschew either these or the terrine, but I pressed for both and was rewarded with what I named ‘rillettes face’; the look of joy when she had scooped up some shredded meat and a little pickle onto a crust of bread and popped it in her mouth. The fact it was initially neglected, due to a surfeit of other goodies, allowing it to warm up a little also helped boost unctuousness.
'Green salad' was tacked onto the end of the order to try and make myself feel better about eating my greens. I'm not sure the wonderful creamy dressing had any tangible health benefits, but it tasted bloody good.
You would think after such vasts amounts of food even my wife would be satisfied but, after finishing the second basket of bread she forlornly proclaimed 'is that all' in a mournful Pooh--like voice, before confessing she briefly thought the succulent decorating the table was another dish we had ordered. She was only thwarted when she inspected it a little closer and realised it was still potted in soil.
Luckily, and this was a pre-requisite on eating in the bar, puddings could be ordered on both sides of the divide, and the Ewing was most excited by the kirsch choux bun with Griottine cherries and hot chocolate sauce and, despite my sugar ban, I was excited for her. While the first attempt arrived sans crème pat the second bun was plump with custard and gave her another chance to anoint it with the jug of hot chocolate sauce it came served with; immensely satisfying, even just to watch.
Obviously I was still being superciliously smug about not eating sugar, before promptly ordering a glass of Sauternes that was pretty much liquid honey, and quaffing a good bit of the Ewing's port - Graham's Six Grapes - for good measure.
A wonderful lunch with wonderful company; and another reason to love this time of year is the light flooding through the window that made my wife postprandially glow in the most lovely way - ably aided and abetted by all the desert wine.