IN VINO VERITAS

It was Plato who first suggested ‘In Vino Veritas’ which literally translates to ‘In wine is truth’. Although probably not referring to pubs when he coined the phrase, I believe a huge amount can be said about a pub simply from the wine it serves.

Unfortunately, you do not have to travel far to come across a pub in Britain that is selling very average wine that is grossly overpriced or, worse still, pubs that sell stale wine that would be better used in the cooking than serving to customers looking to enjoy an evening out.

Despite this, it does appear that the bad old days of boxed wine on the counter or even the slightly warm Liebfraumilch served in the pub’s only, and rarely used, wine glass are behind us.  Please don’t mistake me for a wine snob, as I’m equally put off by wine bars that are masquerading as pubs but there is clearly an opportunity for a middle ground of quality, well-kept and affordable wine in pubs.

This is evidenced in a survey from YouGov shows that when it comes to restaurants, wine came out as the most popular drink amongst customers and yet in pubs only 12% choose to drink red or white wine, well-behind figures for beer, lager, cider and even gin.  Equally, a third of people drink wine at home and yet choose something else when out in the pub.

This could be about to change.  On a recent visit to the Swan with some friends I was a little surprised when a male member of the group broke with tradition and ordered a glass of the ‘House White’.  What was equally surprising was that his wine was poured directly from a specially installed tap at the bar.  The wine did however arrive looking deliciously tempting, carefully chilled and in a carafe – all managed without the pretence of label reading or swilling around the mouth before selection.

It may be bold to suggest that this could be a whole new world of wine drinking in pubs but on chatting to Landlord David it appears the wine is carefully selected in Bordeaux, exclusively transported back to Marbury and kept in the perfect conditions ready to be served on such occasions.

The approach seems simple enough and not too dissimilar to the way they manage their beer in that it is well sourced, carefully looked after and served at the right temperature and in the right glass.

It’s not rocket science, but in my view if you’re drinking bad and poorly kept wine in a pub, it’s probably a good indicator for the pub as a whole.  It may not be a popular opinion, but I believe that ‘in pub wine there is the truth’.

SOME QUITE BRILLIANT BAR SNACKS

There’s nothing new about enjoying a pint and a couple of snacks at the bar while chatting to friends. For some time now I’ve been using it as a discreet way to add a couple of calories to my diet while some more healthy food is being lovingly prepared for me at home.

While tucking into some delicious, and rather fancy, pork crackling and apple sauce at the bar the other day, it did get me wondering how the bar snacks have evolved over the years I have spent drinking in pubs.Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the last few remaining people who enjoys a pickled egg in the pub (if you can still find one) and I have also been known to consume my body weight in crisps and nuts, but I must admit to being relieved to have seen the recent improvements in the category.

Before we look at what are today’s most brilliant bar snacks, let’s first remind ourselves of the background to this institution and how they came about.

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor records one of the earliest examples of people who made their living selling snacks on the street and in public houses as far back as the 1850s.  Pub-goers were lucky enough to be offered pickled whelks (‘not to fill themselves, but for a relish’), boiled green peas, fried fish, pies and sheep trotters. In short, anything that didn’t require cutlery was probably being eaten in pubs.

At the turn of the century the pub snack took a turn for the better when Frank Smith of Cricklewood, North London, started selling his packeted crisps with a sachet of salt included, making them the perfect, convenient, thirst-inducing pub snack.

By 1949 an article from the Economist summarised pub food as ‘a packet of crisps or a flaccid sardine on leathery toast’ and, in the same year, Smith’s Potato Crisps annual company statement proudly boasted of supplying nearly every public house in the country.

Seafood hawkers selling shrimps, prawns and crab sticks as well as cockles and whelks served with a good dose of salt, vinegar and pepper were an established staple in seaside towns and ports, however the tradition has sadly died out, possibly due to a mixture of landlords missing out on the potential income stream or today’s stricter hygiene requirements demanded from punters and publicans alike.

There’s nothing to record when pork scratchings made the leap from the butcher’s shop to pub but the great surge seems to have been post-WWII, and part of the general trend toward anything (a) salty and (b) that could be put into a cellophane packet. Certainly, by the 1970s, pork scratchings had become a pub cliché along with thirst-inducing twiglets, scampi fries and roasted peanuts as influences from the US grew.

The theme for bar snacks continued along the same vein until the emergence of the gastro pub, when the quality of food in pubs took a turn for the better.  Rather than simply providing food with the sole purpose to induce thirst, new creative ideas came to the fore as Brits welcomed new and exotic tastes from around the world.

New arrivals included beef jerky or biltong from South Africa, chilli rice crackers from Asia and Wasabi peas from Japan.  All met the brief of being easy to eat, thirst creating and tasty.

I’m pleased to say that today’s pubs have continued to evolve and have now gone that one step further with regard to quality and taste.  They’ve also proudly gone back to their British roots and I was delighted to have recently tried some deep fried duck hearts, black pudding fritters and deliciously warm scotch eggs with runny centres.  What’s not to love with these quite brilliant bar snacks?

A pub for all seasons..

What a fantastic summer we’ve had with record temperatures and many Brits opting to take a ‘staycation’ at home and enjoy Britain at its best.  When the weather’s good there is genuinely no-where I would rather be in the early evening than in the beer garden of a beautiful country pub.

But to quote Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changing” and I’ve begun to notice a little nip in the air in the evening and a heavier dew in the morning.  This can only mean one thing, that autumn is well and truly on its way.

As much as we all love the summer sunshine, the autumnal and even winter weather can also be beautiful here in Shropshire.  The countryside comes to life with the blackberries, damsons and other hedgerow goodies and as the nights draw in there’s the option for a lovely fire at home as well as the delicious comfort foods that accompany it.

Like the countryside, a pub should also reflect what’s going on around it whether open doors and patio dining in the summer or warm fires, comfort food and tasty beers in the winter. Pubs are for all seasons and a proper local should reflect that.

One of my special favourites however is when the fires get lit in your favourite country pub.  The warm welcome, amazing light and general good ambience that it creates is a sign of autumn and a welcome one at that. This will be the first autumn / winter for the newly refurbished Swan and I can’t wait as it has all the ingredients to be a brilliant winter pub with its real fires, cosy nooks and natural features.  Let’s not also forget the range of beers, wines and delicious foods from bar snacks to home cooked favourites that change with the seasons.

When the fires are lit and it’s getting dark outside who doesn’t enjoy a pint, a couple of warming nibbles and the opportunity to sit quietly and read a paper or a chat with friends and acquaintances?

The question is however, when’s the right time to light the fires and batten down the hatches?  I’m led to believe that we’re in for an Indian summer of extended sunshine, however as the evenings draw in and the temperature drops I’m keen to get into the pub early to bag the comfy spot by the fire and to enjoy a pint or two.

Long live the local

I spend enough time drinking in pubs to notice trends and new quirks that landlords offer whether in the form of fabulous craft gins through to special vegetarian doggie treats for our four-legged friends.  One thing that I’ve noticed that is increasingly emerging across the ‘pubasphere’ is a call from locals and landlords alike to see a reduction in the amount of tax we pay on beer.

Don’t get me wrong, although I’m generally all in favour of lower taxes and more affordable beer, to me this issue runs a little deeper than simply looking for a cheaper pint.

For me it’s more about saving some of the country’s most historic pubs, where as many as 18 pubs a month call closing time for the last time.  Pubs are an important part of our heritage and are typically small businesses that support other local enterprises, including growers, producers or craft industries as well as being a provider of jobs.

The very name says it all. A pub is a ‘Public House’ that’s open to all and where communities come together to tell stories, spend time together and rub along regardless of wealth, social status or age.   The report suggests that over half of the 2000 interviewed said they visited the pub to simply enjoy a chat with the staff and other locals and that two thirds agreed that pubs are social centres that bring the community together.

The financial case is pretty simple too, already 54p from every pint goes directly to the taxman and that’s before landlords have had to shell out for rent, rates and VAT.  However, figures suggest that collectively pubs add £23 billion to the economy and contribute £13 billion in taxation every year. If they are threatened, so too would be this potential revenue stream.

Despite these dire warnings, the pub industry is still buoyant and good pubs do make money and provide communities with an excellent resource.  Currently the future is bright with nine out of ten people claiming to be pub goers and as many as a third of people visit their local at least once a week, but we’re at a tipping point where people are increasingly starting to choose cut price supermarket beer instead.

There’s lots in the media right now about bringing back our sovereignty and protecting our culture and independence, perhaps we should just start by protecting our pubs before there’s a negative impact on communities and the cultural life of this country?

So if you’re in love with your local, now’s the lend your support to the British Beer Alliance’s campaign to reduce the tax on beer.  Long live the local and all who drink in her!

How do you rate a pub?

You may not be surprised to hear that I love a good pub and there’s little that gives me as much pleasure as seeing an old and tired pub like The Swan in Marbury being returned to its former glory.

However, having drunk in pubs for more than 30 years, one thing I have learned is that peoples’ idea of what makes a good pub are quite varied and ever changing, which makes it hard work for a landlord to please all of the punters, all of the time.

In addition, let’s not forget that a pub should reflect and cater for the community in which it trades and, like the lives of its customers, should evolve to reflect the latest trends or features, while keeping true to its core principles.

I don’t miss the good old ‘spit and sawdust’ pubs of the past where wine was served warm from a box and whether you drank on the lounge and bar side depended on your social class or whether you were planning to take the Mrs out or not. Who can also forget the popularity of carveries or how prawn cocktail was a must have menu item?  All this was replaced by the gastro pub with their fricassee of salad leaves and ‘jus’ served in a pretty jug on the side, before evolving to the more honest, high quality and balanced offer of today.

The reality is that each of these historical pubs would have had their own charm and loyal following, but equally would not last long in today’s market as people expect good, honest, locally sourced food and drink, in a warm and welcoming atmosphere.  This is the pub that I believe has now been created at The Swan in Marbury and I believe it will successfully attract local custom as well as visitors from further afield.

But as a newly refurbished pub, how do they convey that message? Well that’s the tricky bit as in today’s world we’re surrounded by social media, websites and instant communications where people research before they spend and visit rating websites before they buy.Although there’s nothing wrong with that it does miss perhaps the most important gauge of all -simply how do you feel when you walk in?  What’s the atmosphere like, how does the food look and taste, are customers happy and what’s the welcome like from those behind the bar?

It’s not rocket science but does take a little bit of tinkering to get right.  As a local pub goes, I’m excited by the physical refurbishments and how they have helped create the right look and feel but appreciate that it may take a little while to tap into the emotional side of things.  When they get that right (and I don’t believe we’re a million miles off), this will be a belter of a pub and one that not only reflects the local community but one that will be highly rated far and wide.

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