Don't let the rustic façade fool you: Mike North's cooking at the Nut Tree Inn in Murcott, Oxfordshire, produces pub food at its very finest. Tom Vaughan reports
It's the dream of many an urban chef: move to the country, grow your own veg, rear your own pigs, and serve your food in a little rural bolt hole. And that's exactly what Mike North, chef-proprietor of the Nut Tree Inn, is doing. Except it's not just the rustic setting that marks out the Nut Tree, but North's pedigree behind the stove.
Formerly in charge of the kitchen at the Goose in nearby Britwell Salome, North became one of the youngest Michelin-starred chefs in recent memory when, aged 25, he won a star there, retaining it in January 2006.
The Goose changed hands in March 2006. North departed and, after six months of searching, landed the quaint 16th-century Nut Tree. It finally opened on 8 January with North in the kitchen and his partner Imogen Young - who was with him at the Goose - front of house.
The Nut Tree has all the trappings of a country inn: low-beamed ceilings, a log-burning stove - the only source of downstairs heating - and a smattering of local drinkers. The 50-seat dining section, with its white tablecloths, occupies the back of the pub and the conservatory.
As well as the popular pub dishes (sausage and mash with home-made venison sausages) there are dishes such as chicken liver parfait with a fig chutney and toast (£7), which followed North from the Goose.
The menu changes almost on a daily basis. One end product of the seven Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot pigs wallowing in the garden is terrine of ham hock, chicken and wild mushrooms (at present trompettes and girolles) with braised cabbage hearts wrapped in outer cabbage leaves and served with a celeriac rémoulade (£8.50).
It's the kitchen's aim to be self-sufficient in pork once the first drove of swine are fully reared. North's father is a butcher, so he helps dismember the pig carcasses plus the two lambs, venison and beef that the kitchen receives whole on a regular basis.
None of the carcass goes to waste. North even has plans for a pig's head terrine, roasting it till brown, braising it, stripping the meat, scooping the brains and reducing it to a paste, pressing it all into a terrine then setting with the clarified and reduced stock. "It costs nothing to make, so we can embellish it with luxury items like truffle," he says.
North uses a defunct drinks fridge to smoke his own salmon, making a gravadlax before getting one side of the fridge smoking with oak sawdust and shutting the fish in the other side. "It's not quite airtight, but it works fine," he says.
Two highlights among the main courses are a confit belly of Oxfordshire pork, exquisitely tender and crispy at the same time, with salt and vinegar potatoes, celeriac purée and apple gravy (£16), and an olive oil-poached fillet of halibut with herb risotto (£18). The fish is gently poached in oil under the heat lamps of the tiny kitchen's pass. "It's almost a confit," says North. The fish comes apart in moist chunks and the unctuous olive oil edge is perfectly juxtaposed by the creamy herb risotto of parsley, chives, dill, marjoram, sage and tarragon.
The plans for the pub are almost too long to list. An acre-and-a-half is set aside in the back for a vegetable garden, so the kitchen can be virtually self-sufficient in late spring, summer and early autumn. Herbs, soft fruits, salads, young carrots, young leeks and specialist new potatoes are all planned. One dish North is looking forward to is a tomato and basil salad. "It'll literally be fresh tomatoes, sliced, with fresh basil. Nothing clever or special, except that they will be fresh straight from the garden," he says.
His sticky toffee dessert (£6.50) was popular enough to merit mention in the Michelin guide. The richness of the mini pudding is cut into by the acidity of a mini caramelised apple tart and the textured crunch of praline ice-cream. The garden, again, is helping dictate the menu: stewed damsons with tonka bean rice pudding is planned as the garden starts to produce its first early-autumn fruits.
The pub is currently doing 400 covers a week, with an average spend of about £35 including drinks.
After the star at the Goose, is the pressure on to repeat the feat at the Nut Tree? "By no means," say the couple. "The Nut Tree is first and foremost a pub. We weren't expecting it at the Goose by any stretch of the imagination, so we're certainly not here." But you wouldn't bet against it.
What's on the menu
- Baked crottin de Chavignol with apple purée, roasted shallots and chestnuts, £7.50
- Puff pastry with wild mushrooms and a soft poached egg, £7.50
- Six Fowey oysters with lemon and Tabasco, £9
- Grilled fillet of sea bream with roasted fennel and sauce vierge, £16
- Roast breast of Gressingham duck with fondant potato and creamed spinach, £17
- Wild mushroom risotto with aged Parmesan and white truffle oil, £14
- Hot raspberry soufflé with raspberry sorbet, £7
- Caramel with toasted marshmallow and chocolate ice-cream, £7
- Fresh fruits set in a light white wine jelly with chantilly cream, £7
The Nut Tree Inn, Main Street, Murcott, Oxfordshire OX5 2RE. Tel: 01865 331253