3 MAY 2008, Page 62

Oasis in a foodie desert

Alexander Chancellor

South Northamptonshire, where I live, has been for as long as I can remember an area of the deepest gastronomic gloom. There isn’t a decent restaurant anywhere, and the pub food is unfailingly disgusting. It’s not that the people here don’t eat themselves silly, for many of them make John Prescott look thin. It is a ghoulish experience in the summer, for example, to sit outside the Boat Inn in Stoke Bruerne beside the Grand Union Canal and watch the passing parade of enormous bottoms.

But it is as if all the health scares and culinary tips that the media tirelessly pour forth have made no impression at all on the people in this part of the world. If there is a renaissance in British food and cookery, it seems to have missed them out. They gorge on chips and burgers smothered in melted cheese and ketchup, and they speed hurriedly past the supermarket shelves of organic produce in their hunt for anything that is guaranteed to be filling, fattening and artery-clogging. The concept of the gastro-pub has yet to take root here; and while there are one or two restaurants with fancy menus and oil-drizzling habits, they are of the dispiriting kind that concentrate on genteel service and dainty presentation rather than cooking of any quality or imagination.

But something has nevertheless begun to happen. If eating out is still a wretched experience, it is a different story with eating in. My local town of Towcester is probably best known for its racecourse, which Jeffrey Bernard of this magazine used to describe as the prettiest in England. It sits astride Watling Street, the old Roman road, which is now the A5 and permanently clogged with traffic. Towcester is a poor town with hardly a decent shop to its name apart from a good high street butcher by the name of Elliotts. It used to have a passable greengrocer as well, but this went out of business a few years ago, as greengrocers tend to do. Why is it that butchers survive the competition of supermarkets while most greengrocers do not?

When our greengrocer vanished, all that was left, except for Elliotts, was an uninspiring bakery and three supermarkets — Tesco, Somerfield and Safeway. The discriminating went to Northampton or Milton Keynes to do their shopping until one day, to everyone’s surprise, Safeway was replaced by Waitrose, and the Range Rovers started to swoop in from the surrounding countryside. Suddenly Towcester was thronged with hunting women in headscarves buying scallops, artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes.

But that was just the beginning. The butchers, sensing a new opportunity, opened a delicatessen and called it Elliotts Kitchen. The late Christian, Lady Hesketh, for decades the chatelaine of Easton Neston, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s great country house which has the racecourse in its park, used to complain regularly that there was nowhere in Towcester to buy cheese. Now there are 43 kinds of cheese on sale in Elliotts Kitchen, most of them British or Irish.

It is only a tiny shop adjoining the butchers up a little alley, but it’s amazing what you can cram into a small space if you try. As well as cheese, it sells pies and puddings galore (all cooked on the premises), 20 kinds of cooked meat, salads, homemade pâtés, smoked fish and all the other things you might expect to find in a good country grocers — jams, chutneys, pickles, oils, vinegars, olives, crisps, nuts and so on, wherever possible locally sourced. It is homely, comforting fare — cottage pies, chicken crumbles, treacle tarts, sticky toffee puddings: that sort of thing — but all of a consistently high standard. Its smoked fish pies are especially good, as are its prize-winning pork pies. There is rather more fruit in its casseroles than I would like — apricots with lamb, large chunks of apple with pork — but that’s the limit of my complaint.

Reflecting the new mood, even the defunct greengrocer has come back to life with an open-air stall just behind Elliotts Kitchen for the last three days of the week. Towcester also now has a farmers’ market once a month in a car park beside Waitrose, but it’s not much cheaper than the supermarket and, it has to be said, not always quite as good. The idea of a farmers’ market is sometimes more appealing than the reality. Still, things have perked up enormously, and you can even get a good cappuccino in a café in the high street. But as far as eating out is concerned, the scene remains dismal. There is a decent Indian restaurant in Towcester and a rather charming fish-andchip shop run by Hong Kong Chinese, but that’s about it. Perhaps somebody soon will take the plunge and open at least a decent gastro-pub.