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The pub that heralds the way to foodie heaven

Published 4 July 2004
News Review
573rd article

Michael Winner and the Brooke-Little family at the Churchill Arms (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Now that summer is ebbing away, you might like to take a spin in the country and visit a typical English pub. In which case don't go to the Churchill Arms in Paxford, Gloucestershire.

The first thing that warns you the place is a bit odd is when you visit the toilet. It's full of armorial bearings and coats of arms. Some prints, some hand-painted, all beautifully done.

The landlord, Leo Brooke-Little, has a father (don't we all?) who was Clarenceux King of Arms. Until recently he was responsible for granting new coats of arms.

"Have you got a coat of arms?" Leo asked me. "Two fat pigs and a cow," I replied.

Leo said he could do them for anybody. You don't have to be a lord or anything. I told Leo I'd ask readers to suggest what my coat of arms should be. Well?

There's another reason why the Churchill Arms is not your normal English pub. The landlady, Leo's wife, is a marvellously cheerful black woman from Barbados called Sonya.

They met when Leo was working at the Feathers in Woodstock. Sonya was the pastry chef, then head chef. Sonya is the most sensational cook.

"Are you going to have three courses?" she asked. "I certainly am with you," I replied. Geraldine ordered salt cod brandade with poached egg and chorizo. I chose chicken and lamb sweetbreads terrine with leek dressing, which was 50p less!

For my main course Sonya said I should have slow braised blade of beef with potato, bacon and parsley ravioli.

Geraldine ordered baked sea bass with raisins and pine nuts.

You may have gathered this pub, which has the quaint look of old England and is in a very pretty village, is primarily foodie heaven.

I was once asked to appear in a television programme called Neighbours from Hell. Sonya was the neighbour from hell. I declined. "All the neighbours said I was nice, so they had to cancel the programme," explained Sonya.

Pinned above the bar is the Winner Guide Best Pub Meal Award. Leo said, "It's curling at the edges." "So am I," I said.

All the food was sensational.

I tried a bit of Geraldine's cod brandade. It was far better than one I'd had at a posh restaurant in France. Stuffed potato cakes, beetroot, cabbage and beans arrived.

Some delicious looking chips went by. "Am I getting chips?"

I asked Jane, the manageress.

"I'll make sure you do; they're made here," she said and headed for the kitchen.

When the chips came, Geraldine moved them away. "They're my chips. I ordered them!" I expostulated. Geraldine said, "Eat your meat." I asked, "Can I have some chips with my meat?" Geraldine said, "Yes, one," and put one chip on my plate. "Chips don't come in ones!" I commented. "In your case they do!" said Geraldine.

For dessert I got an Italian doughnut called a zeppole with an olive oil and rosemary cake. Geraldine had chocolate and red wine terrine with a red wine poached pear. I tried some. It was historic. My doughnuts seemed to be just out of the oven, they were so fresh.

I ate something with the doughnuts which I couldn't identify. That's not unusual.

"It was sweetcorn custard with blackberries," explained Geraldine helpfully.

I noticed Jane was wearing a blue shirt with "Churchill Arms" beautifully embossed on it and a heraldic motif. "Have you got extra, extra large?" I asked. "I'm afraid we don't," said Jane, "but we can always get some."

She brought a large shirt, which she assured me would fit. With difficulty I did one button up. It would have pulled off a minute later. Very embarrassing. We considered putting a gusset in the back of the shirt. We could use the material cut off to make it short-sleeved.

This turned into a major discussion, thankfully curtailed by the arrival of Sonya's children, Heidi, 8, and Tyler, 5. Heidi's at dancing class. "Are you going to be an actress?" I asked. "Probably not," said Heidi.

"What will you be?" I queried. "I might be a swimmer," replied Heidi, "I'm good at swimming."

Leo told me Oliver Reed was a cousin on his father's side. They look a bit like each other. That's enough about the Churchill Arms. Just go there.

On your way to Paxford, or back according to where you come from, you may pass the Royal Oak Farm in Beckle, Oxfordshire. Don't be put off by its somewhat transient appearance. It serves the best cakes, the best light lunches, the best soups and so on.

The chocolate fudge slice, the coffee sponge and the chocolate orange chip shortbread are amazing. There are animals around for voyeurs and lovers of nature programmes. I stuck to the food.

Winner's letters

You were once an icon for those of us who admire good taste and refinement. Not any more, having seen your terrible, 1970s, "I've been to the National Gallery" tablemats. Even worse, what is the cruet set about? The one depicting two twee figures playing up to the camera. And we know who ate all the pies. There is photographic evidence every week.
Alan Rhodes Nottinghamshire

Your comments about Oustau de Baumaniere (Winner's Dinners, June 20) reflect our experience. We found the service perfunctory and the food good but lacking the pizzazz the Michelin rating would suggest.
Keith Westhead, London

At Oustau de Baumaniere we were pleased to receive your article. Some of our British customers had already telephoned to keep us posted on the mystery of your green glasses. Be assured we immediately contacted top inspectors at Scotland Yard as well as the Lost and Found service in Maussane les Alpilles.
J A Charial, Les Baux de Provence

Now you're telling us how to make tablemats! I had no idea you started your career on Blue Peter.
Angus Palmer, Surrey

If I were Michael Winner - which mercifully I am not - I would be asking the insurance company for whom he works part-time on television whether they could extend his hours; I cannot see The Sunday Times continuing to pay him for self-indulgent drivel such as we endured in last week's column.
Denis Pallis, Kent

After last week's piece on home-made place mats I wondered if we'd get a new column - Winner's DIY. We can hardly cope with Winner's Dinners! The thought of you in our local B&Q on a Wednesday (10% off for OAPs) is just too horrifying. Stick to being a pompous restaurant critic and spare us the photo of the ever faithful Geraldine pushing your trolley to the checkout.
Robert Fox, Lancashire

Am I the only diner who prefers to avoid a restaurant where the kitchens are proudly full of verbal filth and bad manners? Some of it must rub off on the food.
Alan Broad, Oxford

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk