The great British gastropub and Pizza Express

I have always loved going to stay with Claire, the perfect hostess and my bestest buddy from our Durham University days. On the basis of a questionnaire about interests and habits they put us together in a shared room in college for our first year. The hilarious thing was that we’d both put that we didn’t smoke in fear of ending up with someone who would chain and stink the place out. Within five minutes of meeting we’d admitted that we did in fact smoke, if only socially, and were sitting on the wooden steps outside our room sharing the first of many fags. And so began a treasured friendship that endures to this day, almost 20 years on.

Well, neither of us smokes any more but we do love good food and a glass (or should that say bottle?) of wine or two. A delicious lunch last Tuesday of toast and paté, salami, marinated artichoke hearts and olives leads into school pick-up, play time, dinner and bath for her two gorgeous, golden-haired littlies. This in turn takes us nicely up to 6pm and wine and nibbles time – a crisp Pinot Grigio with salt and vinegar crisps and smoked salmon taramasalata. Once the children are settled in bed Claire takes me out for dinner in their impossibly pretty Oxfordshire village at a lovely country pub cum restaurant called The Sweet Olive. There’s rustic bread and olives on the table to eat while we’re looking at the menu and listening, several times, to the list of specials from one of the French owners.

Olives and bread

Olives and bread, The Sweet Olive

We both go for one of the specials – I for the panache of fish and Claire for the scallops with a sun-dried tomato and saffron risotto. My fish – a piece each of sea-bass, pollock and hake – is pan-fried so it’s crispy on the outside and perfectly cooked through. It comes in a beautiful creamy champagne and saffron sauce with fragrant lemon rice.

Panache of fish with champagne saffron sauce and lemon rice

Panache of fish with champagne saffron sauce and lemon rice, The Sweet Olive

Claire’s scallops are the winner of the day, sweet and melt-in-the-mouth, and the accompanying risotto is rich and flavoursome.

Scallops with sun dried tomato and saffron risotto

Scallops with sun-dried tomato and saffron risotto, The Sweet Olive

My photography antics get lots of curious attention from our fellow diners (not to mention the owners) and one man Claire knows comes over and invites me to take a picture of his lobster. After struggling somewhat with the focus I explain that I can’t possibly include it in my blog unless I can have a taste. He’s willing to let me but I’m not that mean and I leave him and his friends in peace to enjoy their meal.

The next day while the children are at school and pre-school we go to a nearby town for lunch. The suggestions are a café or Pizza Express and having loved Pizza Express in my London days I fancy that option. We have some dough balls with garlic butter to start (yum!) and Claire chooses a salad (garlic mushrooms, baby mozzarella, avocado, roasted tomatoes, spinach, rocket, balsamic syrup, honey and mustard dressing) and I, for old time’s sake, go for what I always used to have – a Fiorentina pizza (spinach, egg, black olives, parmesan) with a runny egg. It doesn’t disappoint after all these years. The base is thin but with a pleasantly chewy consistency, the egg is indeed nice and runny and I spread its yolk all over the surface of the pizza, the spinach is plentiful in its well dispersed little mounds as is the finely grated parmesan, and the olives add a bit of bite.

Fiorentina

Fiorentina, Pizza Express

After lunch it’s time to collect the children and take me to the station to catch a train back to London and on to the next visit on my whirlwind UK tour of friends and family. It’s a hard life but somebody’s got to do it!

The Sweet Olive
Baker Street, Aston Tirrold, Oxfordshire
Visited 26 June 2012

Pizza Express
12 Saint Mary’s Street, Wallingford, Oxfordshire
Visited 27 June 2012

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