Wednesday 25 April 2007

Culm Valley Inn

December 2006

Crikey, it’s getting busy. Today I had my usual pre-Christmas lunch with my best friend from school. Every year she gets the train down from London and we meet up and have lunch and exchange presents. Usually we go to Taunton but I couldn’t think of anywhere I really wanted to eat there so instead I got her to go a bit further to Tiverton Parkway. Then we drove a civilised ten minutes or so to Culmstock and the very delightful Culm Valley Inn.

The first time I came here I was horrified. It was our wedding anniversary and Adrian had said he’d take me out for a fabulous meal. So, when we pulled up outside what looked like your average slummy pub I wasn’t terribly impressed. Adrian (aka The Beer God) is a real ale enthusiast (that should probably be real ale bore) and I have spent more than my fair share of time in back street boozers, dodging smoke and chewing on pork scratchings. Actually (and I digress) I could have him under the Trade Descriptions Act. When I met him he was wearing designer suits and he took me off to the opera, to interesting bijoux restaurants, coffee houses and wine bars. Then we moved to the country and he transmogrified into an instant country squire (tweed jackets, moleskin trousers, hideous checked shirts) and stopped drinking wine altogether in favour of Cotleigh, Exmoor, Otter and O’Hanlon’s best bitters, stouts and pale ales.

But anyway. This pub. He cast a quick look at me and raised a finger:
‘Before you say a word, wait until we get inside.’
I bit my lip and followed him sullenly. Inside my worst fears were confirmed. Smoke so thick you could barely see your hand in front of your face and the usual whiskery coves propping up the bar. Now I think it’s great to see what is obviously a local pub being used by locals but I didn’t have a ploughman’s in mind for my special supper. But I was in for a surprise.
‘What’ll you have to drink?’ asked the man behind the bar.
Did I dare try wine? Probably not. But Adrian had pounced in.
‘A red wine surely?’ he turned to the man. ‘A Fleurie, Richard.’
‘Richard’ dived away and returned with a bottle of something.
‘Try this. It’s not a Fleurie but it’s very similar, and totally scrumptious.’

He was right. Richard (who, it transpired is the owner and often chef) loves his wine. And he doesn’t mind opening a bottle even if you’re only going to drink one glass….bliss. Then we went a bit further down into the pub and the smoke cleared and we were in a really pukka restaurant – all pale and interesting walls and floor and modern prints, with an open kitchen. The food is superb. No question about it. Richard has been known to take a week to make his cassoulet – he starts by making his own sausages!

So this seemed the ideal place to take Jane. She was suitably impressed, particularly by the two dogs and the ginger cat that wander around looking hopeful. We both started off with French onion soup – rich, unctuous and simply far too much to get through if we wanted any hope of eating our main course. Jane had crab (Richard advised her to have a small one – thank God as it was the size of a small nation). I had wild duck with onion marmalade. Oh yes. Absolutely delicious.
We staggered out to the car and drove to the station only to find Jane’s train had been cancelled and we’d have to wait an hour and a half. Never mind, more chance to gossip – and at least the station has a decent little café.

She’s hoping to come to stay in the New Year to get her Labrador fix. Jane adores Labradors but, living in London and working full-time, she can’t have one. So she comes down to Exmoor, God’s own Labrador county, to get her fill. In fact, what I really want is to find her a nice man (with Labrador) – but that’s another story.

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