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Dinner review: The Chequers, Fowlmere

PUBLISHED: 12:08 09 July 2016 | UPDATED: 09:42 11 July 2016

Calves liver and bacon with mashed potato, Savoy cabbage and jus (Brian Arnopp)

Calves liver and bacon with mashed potato, Savoy cabbage and jus (Brian Arnopp)

brian arnopp

Dining where Samuel Pepys feasted on roasted veal, food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne thinks the diarist would have approved of the 21st-century Chequers at Fowlmere

Vegetarian antipasti platter with halloumi, tzatziki, grilled peppers, focaccia, sun-blushed tomatoes, balsamic onions and a crispy egg (Brian Arnopp)Vegetarian antipasti platter with halloumi, tzatziki, grilled peppers, focaccia, sun-blushed tomatoes, balsamic onions and a crispy egg (Brian Arnopp)

Samuel Pepys, a man who among his other appetites knew a thing or two about hostelries, was familiar with the Chequers in Fowlmere, an attractive village 10 miles from Royston. More to the point in his case, it was a handy stop-off when travelling by horse from London to Cambridge. As recorded in his diary, Pepys made the trip regularly, staying at inns along the way. In February 1660, he ate at the Chequers and stayed overnight after playing cards. It was the day after his 27th birthday and Pepys duly noted the Chequers in his account of the journey. A framed extract of the entry, which notes he had ‘a breast of veal roasted’ for supper, now hangs in the bar.

Pepys did not record what he thought of his meal, but given his forthrightness elsewhere, his lack of complaint is a good indication that he enjoyed himself. He probably would have felt equally at home today and approving of the way the Chequers is easing into its 21st-century role under the new ownership of Herts-based restaurateur Tim Lightfoot.

Some 30 years ago, the Chequers was one of the first gastro-pubs, attracting a clientele that included Cambridge dons. Since then, as Lightfoot, who also runs the Three Tuns at Ashwell, puts it, the Chequers has had its ups and downs. He took over about nine months ago and is first to agree it is still a work in progress as he moves towards his aim of making the place ‘more inclusive’. The website already proclaims the new Chequers as dog- and family-friendly and there are moves afoot for a community village shop on the grounds. With the onset of summer, there is an improved conservatory, patio and garden for al fresco eating and drinking. Four en-suite guest rooms are also being developed.

As the pub itself is transformed, so too is the menu, under head chef Bob Tabvirwa, following the path of ‘seasonal locally-sourced dishes, from pub classics to modern British cuisine’. The classics on the mains list include chargrilled beefburger, gammon and eggs, smoky barbecue ribs and – possibly stretching the point – Thai vegetable curry.

The Chequers dates to the 15th century (Brian Arnopp)The Chequers dates to the 15th century (Brian Arnopp)

Since there is not much one can say about gammon and eggs, satisfying though it undoubtedly is, we turned to the moderns. Some interesting touches were immediately apparent among the starters, which included beetroot two ways with pickled red onions, carrots and brioche, or Stilton-and-spinach stuffed mushrooms with sweet potato purée and salad cress. Salmon gravlax with saffron aioli, pickled carrot, cucumber and crispy capers was another option. We chose the similarly-intriguing shared vegetarian antipasti platter (£13.95) with halloumi, tzatziki, grilled peppers, focaccia, sun-blushed tomatoes, balsamic onions and a crispy egg and were impressed with the freshness and taste combinations of the ingredients.

Main courses included a beef bourguignon with truffle mash and kale, or pan-roasted lamb rump with pea purée, minted potato croquette, baby carrots and leeks and rosemary jus. My companion however, had already spotted a favourite of hers, calves liver and bacon (£13.95) with mashed potato, Savoy cabbage and jus. We weren’t sure whether that qualifies as a ‘modern’, but it is so rare to find it on a menu that choosing it was a foregone conclusion. It’s one of those dishes that seems simple but can go terribly wrong. This one passed the test with colours flying.

Equally rare on menus is curried fish, which seems a natural combination but which restaurants seem to shy away from. The Chequers plugged the gap with hake masala (£15.95), with spiced saffron potatoes, cherry tomato and chorizo purée, kale, onion bhaji and mint yoghurt. Full marks to the chef for inventiveness and it proved a satisfying, unusual meal.

Desserts included coconut cheesecake with pineapple and chilli salsa, mango gel and coconut tuile, or warm chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream and cherry gel. It was also good to note that the cheese selection is supplied by the Cheese Plate in Buntingford and comes with fruit, crackers, celery and home-made chutney.

We enjoyed our evening at the Chequers, taking in the history, which includes wartime connections with local airfields, and enjoying the cosy atmosphere. In the words of many a TV commentator, it is one to watch.

The cost of this meal for two was £53.85, including a large glass of wine and a pint of Doom Bar. Service is extra. This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and experienced by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.

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