Richard Craven's culinary influences can be traced from South Africa to Italy, but he's most comfortable in a cosy pub in the peaceful village of Whatcote. Lisa Jenkins reports
The Royal Oak is an oasis of calm, burrowed in the centre of the picturesque village of Whatcote on the Gloucestershire-Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border, just 10 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon and 25 minutes from Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds.
Owned by Henry Jervis of Jervis Homes, the lease is now in the hands of chef Richard Craven and his South-African wife Solanche. The pub reopened late last year after three years of refurbishment, and Solanche says it now "feels like home".
Richard began his chef career as a part-time pot-wash for a small Italian-owned hotel in Chipping Campden. By the time he had finished school, he was doing breakfast shifts and working on the larder. Four years later at sous chef level, his career was kickstarted when he joined chef Emily Watkins at the Kingham Plough. The restaurant was lauded in the national press, and as a former Fat Duck sous chef, Watkins had an abundance of knowledge to share. The Cravens then briefly relocated to South Africa to work at Le Quartier FranÁ§ais before returning to the UK.
Richard aims to use British ingredients and makes the most of his surroundings. "We forage where possible; things like meadowsweet, wild horseradish, wild garlic, blackberries and hogweed are often on the menu," he says.
"We're not tied to organic produce as such, but one of our KPs is a gardener at Daylesford's farm, so every week we get a run-down of what's being picked and planted. It would be remiss of us not to take advantage of the connection." Richard's speciality is game and they are lucky enough to be surrounded by estates that host shoots. When in season, they use local mallard, pheasant, deer and rabbit. They also use suppliers Paddock Farm for their Tamworth pork products and Flying Fish for seafood. A pig's head and black pudding lasagne with cider reduction and toasted hazelnuts (£8.50) hasn't been off the menu since they opened. A rich risotto of Crown Prince pumpkin and rosemary with Graceburn cheese from the Blackwoods Cheese company (£16) is served with griddled Little Gem lettuce, and a sensational dessert (pictured top) of strawberry, caramelised white chocolate and fennel (£8.50) has an intense strawberry aroma and delicate basil notes. hard describes his dish of rabbit ravioli as the one that best represents him: "My first experience in a kitchen was under an Italian head chef, so I've always had a bit of a soft spot for pasta. We use the whole rabbit - we confit the legs, sauté offal and loin and then combine it all into the raviolo, which we serve in a consommé made from the bones. We've also made this dish with squirrel to help a local estate with their woodland management, as they can be incredibly destructive. I hate the idea of anything being killed for no purpose." The menu at the Royal Oak changes with the seasons. "It just tastes better that way. You don't have to do much to an ingredient when it's at its best," he says. When we visited in early June, Richard was taking seasonal inspiration to create a summery dish of trout mousse, watercress, apple, gentleman's relish and toast (£7.50). re is a five-course tasting menu (£50) and bar snacks, including pickled pheasant eggs, Paddock Farm's pork pies and home-made biltong, which is usually pigeon, but also mallard. "Visitors love to prop up the bar as much as dining in the restaurant," says Richard. Solanche ensures the wine list features South African wines, such as Waterkloof 'Seriously Cool' Cinsault from Stellenbosch. She sees her role as making sure everything works together to make the guest experience the best it can be. Her days are varied: from food prep to working the bar on dominoes night, or running the floor at the weekend. "It's a different ball game to the Chef's Dozen; we have to think about musicians and making sure we have prizes for our quiz night. No two days are ever the same!" The Royal Oak, Whatcote, Warwickshire CV36 5EF www.theroyaloakwhatcote.co.uk](http://www.theroyaloakwhatcote.co.uk)From the menuStarters •Isle of Wight tomatoes, Laverstoke Park mozzarella, basil, granola £8 •Crisp hen's egg, Wye Valley asparagus, black truffle, lardo £8.50 •Pig's head and black pudding lasagne, cider reduction, toasted hazelnuts £8.50Mains •Cornish pollock, Jersey Royals, Little Gem lettuce, salsa verde and pickled cockles £19 •Hay-smoked hogget, beetroot, Wye Valley asparagus and ewes' milk cheese £22 •Pea and broad bean risotto, Tymsboro goats' cheese and garlic scapes £16Desserts •Lemon curd soufflé, honey and thyme ice-cream £8 •Dark chocolate pavé and hazelnut ice-cream £8.50[Get The Caterer every week on your smartphone, tablet, or even in good old-fashioned hard copy (or all three!).
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In