The Bull in Charlbury describes itself as “primarily a pub with good beer” but it is so much more. It could even be the start of a foodie revolution.
The sixteenth century pub which stands on the corner of Sheep Street and Enstone Road was taken over by friends Phil Winser and James Gummer last year. Local boys, who cut their catering chops with a string of restaurants in New York (sounds intriguing, right?). After returning to the UK their first move was to take on the uber-chic Pelican in London’s Notting Hill. I’m aware that at this point in the narrative it’s sounding as if I could be describing some metro-bro’s takeover of one of Oxfordshire’s best loved towns, but, as I mentioned, Phil and James are locals and their love of the land is apparent in every detail.
The Bull is striving to embrace a farm-to-fork ethos, a philosophy which has long distinguished Phil Winser’s approach to food. Further, when I met him last autumn he told me of his firm conviction that the local pub could be the conduit through our country could adopt a more sustainable and therefore planet-friendly approach to food. After all, there’s a pub in most high streets and Phil’s imagining a UK filled with pubs supporting their local farmers, food suppliers and makers. There’s not much to argue with; rather than ordering in freezer-fulls of meats and air-mile heavy veg, support local. And, of course, working with locally sourced produce will help ensure that what we eat, as well as how we eat, is more healthy, more seasonal, less predictable and, inevitably, more delicious. A far cry from the gastropubs of the 90s which started nobly enough but inevitably morphed into identikit spaces serving pub classics with bells on, for twice the price your average boozer would dream of charging for burger and chips, never mind the dusting of truffle salt.
With a group of other journalists and content creators, the team at the Bull took me to nearby Bruern Farm to show off the space they are cultivating there to grow produce to be used at the pub. As it was early autumn, the polytunnel was filled with tomatoes and as we were learning their long-term plans, we were offered one of the best Bloody Mary’s I’ve ever had – heavy on the vodka, sweet tomato juice freshly blended from the fruit growing around us.
Back at the pub, the refurb has created a pared back space which is timeless in its simplicity. Dark leather seating, whitewashed walls, scrubbed wooden tables, flagstone floor, candlelight and low beamed ceilings. The first thing I was struck by on entering was the fragrant scent of a roaring wood fire, the second sensation I experienced was a feeling of complete relaxation: the aesthetic is calm and restful, neutral and natural, stripped of all distraction and visual chatter. The design extends into the bedrooms which are thoughtfully designed and beautiful. A respite from the melee of the every day. Of the ten available (some dog-friendly), six are above the bar and the remaining four in the barn, reached through the courtyard garden (which has its own covered bar area and fire-pit for convivial outdoor revelry).
My room was on the ground floor of the barn. Open plan, the impressive bathroom was divided from the sleeping area by a single step, meaning that the roll-top bath (but not the loo or walk-in shower) was visible from the large bed. There’s no telly, and no capacity to make a hot drink but I missed neither. Instead a call to the main building was all that was needed for a pot of tea (and also my morning coffee) to manifest at my door. There is, however, fresh flowers, folders of information including walks in the area, activities which are bookable through the pub, a Bluetooth Roberts Radio and heaps of Neal’s Yard goodies to plunder as you bathe. There’s thought that has gone into this design, creating a haven of quiet luxury; very clever and very on-trend.
Clever, too, to hire George Williams as Head Chef. Ex-River Café, George presides over an open flame in the courtyard, creating alchemy with the farm’s daily yield. Tomatoes were transformed into, variously, bruschetta; tomato broth; freshly sliced and laced with finely grated Lincolnshire Poacher and a pesto-style dressing; an unctuously rich slow-cooked sauce, coating melt-in-the-mouth muntjac meatballs; a salsa topping for a fat scallop roasted over the fire; and my personal favourite, the revelatory pickled green tomatoes which lent their acidity to a plate of hand cut slices of cured trout. All innovative, all elegant, all memorable as was the salted chocolate mousse and plum tart which rounded off the feast. Other highlights from the smorgasbord of food with which we were presented include ray wing garlanded with samphire, juicy briny oysters, seaweed-infused soda bread and the most glorious meeting of oozy-soft leeks and floury potato cube smothered in more of that Lincolnshire poacher with judicious quantities of black pepper. Comfort food par excellence. In fact, all of George’s food is food you want to eat; unchallenging but unbelievably good. Indeed, as I write this I’ve hopped onto their website to book a table for my return visit.