I like Hertfordshire. If you don't know England, this is an understated county of meagre size, found to the north of the London suburbs. Here the urban sprawl gives way to a rolling landscape: golden wheatfields, red-brick shuttered cottage ornées, church spires and tarred clapboard barns. Very Biedermeier. It reminds me in a way of the Belgian countryside around Waterloo; of Benjamin Pollock's re-imagining of the battlefield for the tuppence coloured sheets of the Victorian Toy Theatre. Or so I so imagine, conveniently forgetting the brave new world of Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City, where the post-war architects reinvented the English market town for the nuclear age, and bowler hatted bureaucrats dabbled in the dark art of social engineering.
It was at Hatfield, sitting beneath the branches of an oak tree in the autumn of 1558, that Elizabeth Tudor first learnt she was Queen of England; the famous oak now felled, a victim of the all-pervasive tyranny of Health and Safety.
Attributed to William Scrotes (fl. 1537-1554), The Princess Elizabeth, circa 1546, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle
We had a relaxed Sunday to kill in Hertfordshire, and decided to try the Fox and Hounds at Hunsdon for a light and late lunch. It's about an hour's drive from the Big Smoke. The Fox and Hounds describes itself on its website as "one of the most romantic restaurants in the South East". Well.
As a gastropub, The Fox and Hounds is pleasant enough: it's been Farrow and Balled, with a ubiquitous, slightly anti-septic, re-jigged saloon, now de rigueur of the Home Counties canteen: box framed modern prints, open brickwork, scrubbed tables and a separate "dining room", leading off a corridor framed with photo-copied reviews by the likes of city sophisticates such as Tom Parker Bowles.
Personally, I miss the days when pubs were pubs; when public bars sported cracked daguerreotypes, worn brasses, dart boards, Landseer engravings, nicotine stained ceilings, dusty oak settles and a sleeping tortoiseshell cat, accompanied with nothing more than the tick-tock of a longcase clock. Where a steak and kidney pie would be served in a ceramic pudding basin.
The Fox and Hounds was more or less empty apart from two pink-skinned, bald headed gentlemen in tight England t-shirts who gave us filthy looks as we dithered over where to sit. Actually, I tell a lie. They weren't dressed like that, but they could have been, so I trust you'll get the picture. But this is all beside the point. The food was excellent. Really, utterly lip smackingly good, and the service was charming. Which helps.
I had the "Lamb's Sweetbreads in a Curried Sauce". The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked: crisp and caramelised on the outside, soft inside, and served in a piping hot black iron skillet with fresh, slightly undercooked green peas and a creamy, aromatic curry sauce. Mrs Aitch's "Calf’s Liver Persillade & Duck Fat Potato Cake" was a briliant choice on her part, the liver beautifully cooked, with the parsley and garlic "melting" (her words) over the generous helping of offal beneath.
My plaice was a trifle undercooked for my liking (maybe that's a personal choice?) but served with lovely crunchy salty samphire. Bread was, presumably, home-made and genuinely delicious. The bar was stocked with interesting local ales from Adnam's and the Red Squrirrel brewery at Hertford. Service was friendly, welcoming and efficient.
Witchfinder General (1968), Tigon British Film Productions, directed by Michael Reeves
Architecturally, Hunsdon village is slightly enigmatic. I hadn't realised that the East Anglian vernacular extended so far to the west. The white-painted clapboard cottages, lattice windows, and timber framed houses are more typical of the flat counties of Suffolk and Essex; reminiscent of the locations used in Michael Reeve's "Witchfinder General". There's even a painted village sign over-looking the immaculate Green; the only thing missing was the village pillory.
The Fox and Hounds, Hunsdon, Ware, Hertfordshire, SG12 8NH (01279 843999)