Review

‘The pappardelle was a masterclass in fresh pasta’: The Swan Inn, Oxfordshire, restaurant review

3/5

Our critic finds much to like at an Oxfordshire gastropub

The Swan Inn
'The menu is a vast and meandering affair of gastropub-style dishes' Credit: The Swan Inn

I have a soft spot for Swinbrook, a village in Oxfordshire. Not because it’s a Cotswold gem of stone houses, quietly nestling into the landscape, with the little River Windrush winding its way through under a pretty bridge and past the ancient inn. Nor because there are Mitford sisters buried in the churchyard and a cricket pitch with its wooden pavilion.

The village might have everything a Chinese tourist company might wish for, so they could recreate it brick by brick in an industrial area outside Wuhan, but its main appeal to me has always been that this was the village where the Fettiplaces once lived. And the finest Fettiplace was Elinor, who married into the family and, in 1604, wrote one of the greatest cookery manuscripts of all time.

She wrestled cooking from the medieval period and dragged it into the 17th century. Her recipes were for six people, not 600. She paired roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, added cloves to bread sauce with roasted turkey, and her buttered crayfish remains a perfect summer dish, with the modern addition of a crusty bread roll and a glass of chardonnay.

I bored my friend Matilda about this as we stood at the bar of the Swan, a fine inn clad and overgrown with greenery (it might have been wisteria; the night was drawing in), but modernised within and absolutely brimming with people (distanced appropriately, mind).

We needed to wait for our table to be ready so stood by a sign that told us not to stand there. The bar was covered with used, empty glasses and the odd plate, a gaggle of six girls stood by the entrance as several members of staff crowded over a phone and the reservations book.

It was as if the swan had been turned upside-down; its webbed feet flapping chaotically. I fear the girls’ reservation was never found and they left to scour the Windrush in the dark for crayfish. My dog Cyrus then added to the chaos, leaving my side to inspect tables and bark at people. My bad, but it was quite funny.

Our table was round a corner and a little quieter, and my fears that we would be forgotten amid the hubbub were unnecessary; we were well looked after.

The menu is a vast and meandering affair of gastropub-style dishes, from soup and parfaits to pig’s cheeks and Cornish lobster, haunch of local venison and Cajun-spiced burgers to a chocolate pot, cheesecake, Eton mess and sticky toffee pudding. It was the upside-down swan made writ.

I started with a little pot of chicken-liver parfait and toasted sourdough with a heap of salad leaves. The parfait was a little too chilled, which of course renders it hard and makes it lose its flavour; the fault, if I may be so bold, of a too-large menu.

Matilda was enjoying her smoked mackerel pâté, meanwhile, although they were a little mean on the toast. When you’ve run out by the third bite, and have to spend five minutes catching a waiter’s attention and then pausing while the toast is sorted, it is a little frustrating. But I, graciously, slowed down my chowing so that by the time the toast arrived, my parfait was up to temperature and tasting very good.

The utter triumph of the night for us both was pappardelle with girolle mushrooms, baby spinach and Parmesan. It was a masterclass in fresh pasta and its cooking. The mushrooms oozed rich, earthy flavour and a hint of basil lifted it to regal heights.

But the swan was upended again by the chocolate pot. Massive, too cold and solid, with a confit of raspberries jammed in. It’s not my idea of a choc pot: soft and dark, a degree under room temperature with a raspberry or two on the side.

The Swan happily bustles and heaves, so I reckon it can afford to slim down the menu, add a little calm to the mix, and set the bird off on a more graceful glide.