The Woolpack Inn
Stroud, GL6 7QA
It isn’t so much Cider With Rosie as bitter with Matthew. But at The Woolpack in Slad, it’s impossible to escape the eternal lure of Laurie Lee. He was the village’s most famous son, and lies buried in the graveyard opposite, between, as they say locally, pulpit and pub.
And the pub, handsomely ramshackle, seems to hang off the edge of the Slad Valley, with views out over a luscious patchwork of undulating curves, and woods that still flow ‘over the lips of the hills like layers of thick green lava’. And fields, virescent and gold, sewn together by hedges of the most verdant hue. Those ugly modern developments may be creeping ever closer, staining the land with brash brick, but this vista seems eternally unchanged. Wood pigeons coo, glasses clink and, in the distance, the low hum of tractors melds with the impertinent growl of mighty motorbikes.
The pub, bought 20 years ago by artist and designer Dan Chadwick, is many miles removed from some trite tourist trap
The pub walls are whitewashed, floors roughly wooden, the bar cramped and crowded with punters. Better still, they sell Scampi Fries; the sign, as everyone knows, of a serious pub. There’s a piano, and a guitar on top (with a broken string), alongside maracas and an old accordion. Evenings, I’m told by Matthew, a local, tend to end in a song. Or ten. And Lee’s spirit still lurks by the bar, with his collection of old beer bottles, and various black-and-white snaps, and a gathering of his books.
But the pub, bought 20 years ago by artist and designer Dan Chadwick, is many miles removed from some trite tourist trap. The crowd is eclectically eccentric, with nodding regulars, passing bikers, boozing teenagers (over 18, of course), Stroud stragglers, retired air commodores, elegant older ladies and folk drawn from further afield, for Lee or, perhaps, just the food. Because the menu is a quiet marvel, one that mixes pub staples with dishes of a more modern flavour.
Matthew has been raving about the place for years. ‘We really must go,’ he’d say again and again. ‘Those devilled kidneys on toast… magnificent.’ Sadly, the offal is off. It is mid-summer after all.
We drink Uley bitter, and eat a mozzarella and peach salad that whisks me from Stroud to Sorrento, the cheese fresh and gently lactic, the fruit as plump and ripe as a cherub’s cheek, lavished with good olive oil, and fistfuls of basil and a lusty dose of pepper. The tinned tuna has run out. But there are pert, sweet marinated anchovies instead, and grilled, peeled peppers, those big Spanish ones, and a scattering of pine nuts, all piled high upon charred toast. A dribble of langoustine oil adds intense marine tang, and gathers the whole dish together.
It’s one hell of a dish, both simple and slyly sophisticated, pub grub with an Elizabeth David tan.
Tomatoes, at their best now, come in a creamy aioli embrace, studded with pieces of bread that teeter on the edge of soggy. It’s a sort of Tuscan panzanalla salad that, despite all that garlic, seems essentially English. While a perky, well-dressed leaf salad is studded with sharp capers and topped with a gently oozing egg. Head chef Adam Glover has the confidence to let the ingredients shine. Even the cheeseburger, so often so damned dull, is a work of hand-held beauty, the patties made from freshly minced steak, stuffed with proper pickles and sharp cheddar, the bun just firm enough to soak up all that juice without collapsing into a useless mess. Matthew eats onglet, cooked bloody with a couple of pickled walnuts and fat chips, and a great blob of bolshie horseradish.
A perky, well-dressed leaf salad is studded with sharp capers and topped with a gently oozing egg
The service is as warm as it is wonderful, and after a wobbling custard tart (the filling, that is, not the pastry) we wander outside to talk with Chadwick, gently hirsute, and a local musician, and a couple of younger fellas, smoking and gassing. Glover comes up after service, along with Harry, the great GM, and we sit outside in the warm gloaming, over a last pint, talking about everything and nothing. Soon, it’s dark. And time to go home.
We bid our adieus and totter off into the crepuscular gloom, our hearts and bellies filled with succour and good cheer, protected from ‘the night-light of our fears’. Because this is an old-fashioned boozer with a discreetly modern menu, a place of pilgrimage, with cooking to adore. By all means go for Lee. But do make sure you stay to eat.
About £26 per head
What Tom ate this week
Lunch of snails, veal and foie gras pie, choucroute and lentil salad at the vast and rather lovely Brasserie Georges, Lyons.
Decent sea urchin nigiri sushi at Sushi Bar Makato in Chiswick.
A fiery lunch of dark larb, sour prawn curry, som tum with salted crabs, chicken kuala gling and rice at 101 Thai Kitchen.
More sea urchin nigiri, o toro sashimi, tuna tartare and Korean lamb chops at Roka Mayfair.