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Fat of the land

Published 22 June 1997
Style Magazine
207th article

Free range: Nathalie Soames and Michael Winner and friends at Royal Oak Farm (Vanessa Perry)

The B4027 runs north off the A40, shortly before you reach a hideous roundabout on the outskirts of Oxford. It is the sort of road I always feel greatly relieved to come upon; it smacks of the past, when tracks wobbled about between fields and occasional little villages.

It was about 1pm - lunchtime. I had made no reservations. We passed a ramshackle farm: barns with corrugated-iron roofs, cracked concrete courtyards, and a sign saying, "Royal Oak Farm: Teas".

"It said light lunches, too," said Vanessa.

"Let's try it," I suggested. "Go on and see if we can find something better," Vanessa replied.

But I was already backing the Ferrari to go and investigate. I crossed a courtyard beset with fountains and strange garden ornaments of girls sitting on poles, and walked into the farm shop. A sign announced vacancies for children in the Jan Weller playgroup. I ventured through an open door that led to a concrete path through a back-garden area full of animals, many with pens named after them. There were African pygmy goats: Baldrick, born in March 1995, Capricorn, and many more. A large number of ducks, cockerels, pigs and other animalia abounded.

At the end of the path was a hut. In it were four tables, with four chairs round each, and, at the rear an opening to a kitchen. Nobody was there, but one of the tables was full of home-made cakes and biscuits that looked highly attractive. I walked back into the shop and the farmer's wife, Nathalie Soames, appeared. She offered an enormous array of home-made soups. I checked that one, at least, had no meat stock, Vanessa being almost vegetarian, and established that there were various quiches and ploughman's lunch. Drooling over the cakes, I assured Vanessa it would be terriļ¬c.

Vanessa's lentil and thyme soup would have graced any Michelin-starred establishment, as would my leek and orange. Bethany, the chef's three-year-old daughter, established herself. She had already told us which table to sit at.

"I have tea the same as my daddy," she announced. "I don't have sugar, I only have milk."

I accepted this as fact. "Are those scones?" I asked.

"Yes," said Bethany.

"Are those more scones?" I continued, pointing to brown and white bags on the table. "No, those are goat and chicken food, because people buy them to feed the animals."

Bethany asked for apple juice and occasionally said loudly: "Where is my apple juice?" Then she went to a full yell, "Mummy, get my apple juice!" followed by: "Is it coming, mummy?" When it did, she bashed the table to show exactly where she wanted it. This kid could take over any time I have a week off.

I had chosen a tomato, cheese and onion quiche; Vanessa had a ploughman's lunch. Both came with fresh salad. Mrs Soames, who had frizzy hair and was wearing a Royal Oak Farm T-shirt, offered salad dressing of mustard and garlic, spicy herb, Californian tomato, roasted garlic and mayonnaise, or salad cream. Not bad for a hut off a B road. The quiche was terrific and the cakes amazing. I'd tried a lemon and lime cookie before lunch. Now I had a chocolate fudge slice, some coffee sponge and a chocolate-orange-chip shortbread. I started on the chocolate fudge slice, which was hard to cut but unbelievably delicious. They all were.

Bethany was having lettuce and ham. "And I want tea," she added. "I'll wait for my daddy to get it." Then, after a brief silence: "I've got a big shirt on today."

I walked through the garden, where they serve teas and lunches on less rainy days, to see five ducks ganging up on another duck. They held it down and peeked at its face. Death Wish in animal land. When I came back, Mrs Soames explained it was an attempt to mate, and told me the cockerels also think they're ducks, so they "tread" the ducks as well. Life on the land is riveting. They have 900 free-range chickens, and sell lamb and game off the farm, as well as wild boar and ostrich.

I was tempted to have meringue and clotted cream, with maybe a bit of pear and butterscotch flan, but narrowly chose against it.

Bethany, who had never stopped talking, became extremely shy when it came to the group photo, but as a number of sheep and goats entered, eager not to miss exposure in The Sunday Times, it didn't matter.

This place is a real find. If you want a meal that tastes like food, and not like over-mucked-about plate decoration, get out your road map - the nearest town is Headington, Oxfordshire. And bring me back a chocolate fudge slice, will you?


I was delighted to read about Michael Winner's benevolent queue-barging tactics at the National Theatre restaurant (Style, June 1), and decided to put them to the test at my local sandwich shop. I approached the customer at the front of the queue and offered to pay for their food on condition that I could pay for mine at the same time. However, instead of the fawning gratitude that Mr Winner's account had led me to expect, my offer was met with a condescending sneer, so I rapidly retreated to the back of the queue. Could it be that the strategy only works for someone with Mr Winner's ineffable charm?
Tom Sullivan, Manchester.

I am writing in response to Michael Winner's review of the Cafe de la Plage (Style, May 18), in which he complained that the milk shake "tasted thin and bitter". Reading the article, I couldn't help noticing that Mr Winner has rather an acid palate, and that it might be this, and not the shake, that is at fault. Might I further suggest that if he wants a solid, chemical-tasting shake, he would have more success at a fast-food joint?
Florence Peletier, Cafe de la Plage, Juan-les-Pins, France.

In a recent article, Michael Winner mentioned a letter he had once received that questioned his objectivity (Style, May 25). I would like to come to his defence. To quote from the Bible: never knock a loser when he's down, nor a Winner when he's doing a service to the palates of the nation. At the end of the day (or perhaps that should be at the end of the meal), we, the customers, are the ones expected to pay the bill - regardless of whether the chef can actually cook. Too many restaurant owners don't seem to care. We need people like Mr Winner to point out their errant ways.
Stewart Nielsen-Cocks, Frederiksberg, Denmark.