DISH DETECTIVE: Modern cuisine at a countryÂ pub steeped in WIÂ historyÂ Â
Little more than 100 years ago in a former hunting lodge nestled in the South Downs, some no-doubt rather formidableÂ women sat down for the first meeting, in England, of the Women'sÂ Institute. A century later, the WI is trying to shake off its jam and Jerusalem image with high-profile campaigns on issues as diverse as legalising prostitution, calling for more midwives, and urging the government to support dairy farmers.Â
But in 1915, in the snug back room of what became the Fox Goes Free, atÂ Charlton, in the heart of the Goodwood Estate, talk would have been ofÂ the war effort and, specifically, how to ramp up food production during the First World War.Â
And food isÂ certainly on our minds as we drive along narrow, rain-lashed country lanes, pockmarkedÂ with potholes, to this charming 17th century pub,Â about 40 minutes out of Portsmouth.Â
I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't heard of the Fox until recently. But plenty of people have.Â We arriveÂ on a cold TuesdayÂ night to find it '“ to our great surprise '“ absolutely packed. To us it seemsÂ tucked away in the middle of nowhere but enough people know and love it to ensure it's fully-booked.
And apparently it's like that every night. You're unlikely to get a table if you walk in off the street. Â
We were asked when we booked if we fancied eating in the restaurant or in front of the fire. You canÂ guess which one we chose, and thank goodness we did on such a freezing night.Â It's a big pub with several rooms to it but it still feelsÂ intimate, with low lights and that roaring log fire.
We are parked next to the bar and there areÂ plenty of comings and goings '“Â a big celebratory familyÂ meal, couples with dogs, laughing groups of friends '“ but there's a relaxing feel to the place.Â Â
The menu is extensive and you can choose from Ã¡ la carte, sharing platters '“Â with lots of fish and shellfish '“Â or flat breads with weird and wonderful toppings.Â
I plump for a starter of wild mushroom, spinachÂ and artichokeÂ in a filo pastry parcel with red onion marmalade (Â£7.25). It isn't as garlicky as I expect,Â and I'mÂ pleased about that. The mushroom comes through beautifully and my only complaint isÂ the pastry isÂ a little greasy.Â My companion couldn'tÂ resistÂ the gluten-free duck liver parfait with bacon jam, toasted olive and basil bread (Â£8).
It exceeds their expectations with aÂ generous serving of rich and flavoursome parfait and chutney. But they longÂ for one more piece of bread.
If there's wild game on the menu, Dish Detective must have it. So it isÂ seared venison haunch served with buttered mash potato, seasonal vegetables and a cranberry andÂ red wine jus (Â£16.50) for me.Â
The vegetable side of broccoli, green beans, carrots is cooked perfectly. The jus isn'tÂ too sweet (as it sometimes can be, overpowering the meat), and the venison itself is thick and juicy. And there is lots of it.Â
My hungry friend has the turkey and wholegrain mustard pie with crispy chips and buttered veg. The pie is in the shape of a parcel made with a wonderfully well-cooked short crust '“ surprisingly moist and bursting with savoury meaty mustardy notes.
Pancakes with maple syrup and ice cream and coconut, and cardamon creme brulÃ©e (Â£6.25 each) follow '“ both delicious.Â Â
The young staff are attentive but we have to wait a while for dessert, so we wander around to find the plaque dedicated to Singleton and Dean WI.
The pub hasÂ changed little since then,Â but the food, I'm pleased to say,Â would be unrecognisable to those pioneers of the WI.Â
The Fox Goes Free, Charlton, Chichester
Ratings out of 5: