You wouldn’t chance just upon this gorgeous country gastropub, but then the best of pubs are always a little out of the way and yet attract a keen following from map-wielding real ale enthusiasts. They tend to repay the effort of navigation tenfold, and the Square & Compasses, a good and properly managed free house in the hamlet of Fuller Street, a couple of miles beyond Fairstead in deepest rural Essex is no exception, for this is the real deal in British country dining. You can eat in bars the world over, but there is no real equivalent to the British country pub anywhere.
Although it’s only January, I’m going to stick my neck on the line here: the Square and Compasses is now the mark to beat for the race to become Millward’s gastropub of the year, and it will take a bloody good establishment to beat it for ambience, beer and grub. If crowned, it will join a very commendable list of truly splendid pubs, the very heart and soul of the British countryside.
A quick word on the beer, since the ales on offer came from, respectively, South Woodham Ferrers and Maldon. Both were well-kept, though it would have been good if the casks could have been cellar cool and hand-drawn. At least if you seen the pint pulled from the cask you know there is nothing inbetween.
Typically for this sort of place, it occupies a very old building, dating on this occasion back to 1652 and replete with beams, delightfully crumbling brickwork, a log fire at each end and the usual eccentric collection of ephemera dotted around the walls, including a wall of books. No dogs but positively dripping in character.
The quirkiness extended to the toilets, where gentlemen engaged at the urinals could read an array of cartoons posted on the walls, much like one of my locals, The Victory at Mersea.
The S&C was also surprisingly quiet for a Sunday lunchtime, though things did pick up before we left. Luckily for us, this meant plenty of staff to serve our table.”We” on this occasion is my family, meeting for a traditional Sunday lunch, plus a couple of pints of local ales poured directly from the barrel with a little help from gravity. Local is the watchword for the menu too, with great store being set on using ingredients with low carbon miles from the best of rural Essex, and indeed on being cooked from scratch.
That the standard menu combines what you would describe as “traditional pub grub” shows you can please the comfort-food demanding customers and use the best of what can be sourced nearby. The blackboard gives way to a greater range of slightly more adventurous fare (fewer options would possibly make for a fresher dinner?), but for this occasion we all went for the Sunday roast – of which there was one, but a top notch roast.
What it proves to me is that you don’t need to get over-cheffy and wield tweezers with dainty and fussy presentations to serve excellent food. We can leave the debate about sophistication versus comfort food for another day, though I’m not a fan of restaurants serving “ironic” renditions of simple and solid dishes.
The roast beef dinner chosen by all was a case in point. 28-day aged sirloin, served medium-rare, proved tender and had the depth of flavour you would hope for. Not perhaps as tasty as rib but way better than the average pub roast beef dinner, for sure. It did not need more attention than it had been given: simple and delicious.
It was accompanied by a spectacular yorkshire pud flavoured with rosemary, properly al dente savoy cabbage and carrots, both of which bore the hallmarks of having been freshly prepared from scratch. Thin beefy gravy came in a small jug, and the accompanying horseradish was a step up from the average, giving a jolt of heat down your nostrils. Only minor blemish came in the form of roasties that were fluffy inside but not crisp outside, an indicator of having been kept warm for a while.
Four empty plates demonstrated the efficacy of good cooking, followed by four more empty plates as we polished off two portions of sticky toffee pudding and one each of cheesecake and lemon & lime pannacotta. The latter is an example of a dish either served from supplier to bowl without action, or screwed up by getting the gelatined texture wrong. I’m happy to report that this version looked and tasted homemade, but had neither deconstructed itself nor set like blancmange – a dessert that leaves me with bad memories of the 60s!
En route to the loo, you can see the cheese board, served on a trolley in the same old-fashioned way some Italian restaurants still serve their desserts. As a known cheese-lover
A lovely pub and a good dinner – credit to the owners, whose names I sadly can’t give you since that page on their website is “under construction.” However, they were much in evidence and were the epitome of friendly and hospitable pub landlords. Next time I visit, it would be great to put chef Craig Loveridge and team through their paces and see how effectively they perform at a stretch, but be assured no visit will be wasted.