It was one of those spooky coincidences: there we were, en route to Sainsburys to get a spinach and ricotta pizza to satisfy my partner’s craving for spinach (no she is not pregnant!), when we found the road closed off because of a serious car accident. How sad! But all was not lost. Turn right, then right again. Soon we were driving through Great Tey into the middle of the Essex countryside in search of a favourite pub. And sure enough, there nestling in the village of Chappel is the very old and quaint Swan, as it presumably has done for Centuries. For a couple of those Centuries, a magnificent aquaduct has loomed in the valley beyond, a landmark that features strongly 0n the pub’s website. For the unwary, reversing into a parking spot can be hazardous – overdo it and you’ll be down the bank into the river, a fate that has befallen a fair few over the years, you suspect.
The Swan does show signs of fairly recent refurbishment, indicated by the sign pointing to the Courtyard Restaurant and Lounge Bar, perhaps indicative of a middle class grazing zone rather than a working man’s ale house. All very nicely done, it has to be said – decor selected for quality and good taste rather than planned quirkiness or paint-it-on-by-the-yard chain interior design. The pub has been opened out but retains the historic beams that once divided a barn (or similar) to separate sections of dining room.
First good find: cask ales served, the casks on view. A good selection of Adnam’s ales, though my bitter could have been a little perkier than it was. My guest was well satisfied with a JD and coke, but then that is pretty standard fare everywhere!
Clearly an ambitious menu aspiring to quality food, though you do wonder about the improbable variety on offer. Around the walls are specials menus – lots of them! Pies featured on one, fish on another. Add to that a sizeable standard menu and you know that not everything can be freshly made in their own kitchens, though to be fair a reasonable proportion of dishes do say “home-made” and looked it too.
When I next visit, I will try the home-made steak and kidney pudding, a lost art these days. Who actually makes good old-fashioned suet pudding, other than Messrs Fray and Bentos? My friend was in the mood for one, and spinach too, so she selected a suet pudding containing spinach, mozzarella and a few other goodies, which went down a treat despite a serving big enough to feed a family. The boiled new potatoes alone would have been spread between 3 plates minimum in a nouvelle cuisine establishment. She wolfed this down and declared it to be utterly delicious, even if she ended up leaving a sizeable proportion of veg.
Do the good villagers of Essex demand American portions, or is that just equated with value for money? I ponder this while tackling my monster plate of slow-roasted pork belly, mash and veg with a cider gravy. This is a dish that has been fashionable for a few years now, since cheap but tasty cuts go far. It is starting to look a trifle passe, though, possibly because it’s never quite as good as my 24 hour Aga roasted belly pork. This version consisted of two large chunks of porky mass plus a strip of crackling that graduated in pliable chewiness but scored a D- in the crispy test. The meat itself tasted more medium-roast than truly slow-roast – chewy, and with the copious fat not rendered down into a caramelised gooey blob and the meat into succulent tender surrender. Instead the fat sat on my plate in a blubbery mass and the meat was somewhat chewy. A shame, because the rest was admirable.
Full marks for the desserts though – who wants a menu when you can have a tray to see your potential puddings. Sadly the promised creamy peanut dish was off, but the trayful of the remaining puts looked highly inviting. My co-diner went for a chocolatty nutty confection in the end, not quite mousse and not quite fudge. We christened this a ‘mudge’, shortly after it had vanished for good! I tried a petite and dainty raspberry trifle, which ate well and certainly did taste home-made.
Overall, I want to give the Swan another tasting, not least because it tries so hard to get things right. Maybe a busy Saturday evening did not see them at their best, but there was enough to entice the diner. And that steak & kidney pudding sounds too good to miss…