THE TIMES – April 8, 2006
Ginny Dougary

“It’s hard to have high expectations of a restaurant whose culinary claim to fame is banoffi pie”
 
 
Last week I was pootling around the Cots­wolds, being a professional eater and an amateur antique-hunter, visiting churches and gazing into estate agents’ windows. It was lovely, of course, but did give me intimations of… well, certainly of old age. Which should be fine since old is the new young or will be if the great mass of us baby boomers have anything to do with it when we get really long in the tooth. As a metropolitan middle-youther, however, there is something about villages and the countryside that feels alien – or, at least, makes me feel like one.

Could this be to do with a suspicion that there is something innately conservative – a sort of sepia-tinted, myopic nostalgia – about rural living? Or perhaps it’s because of the people one encounters in the restaurants. In Allium, reviewed last week, it was mildly disconcerting to be sitting adjacent to a young man who so resembled David Cameron, it was tempting to check whether he was wearing Converse trainers. (The diner, it turns out, was a local Conservative councillor.)
 
At the Hungry Monk, closer to home in East Sussex, the conversation booming from a nearby table was distracting in a different way. A florid-faced gentleman, of advancing years, seemed keen to present himself as a sophisticate – with his extensive knowledge of wine and ability to conduct a conversation in French (which he demonstrated, loudly) – but his views on race relations were rather less cosmopolitan: “I don’t think black men should marry white girls.”

There were two women sitting with him: the more sour-faced was one of those pinched Christians who bring to mind Maggie Smith doing an Alan Bennett monologue: “A lovely man – of course, I knew he was a Catholic… I will serve her a slice of the banoffi pie after Mass which she will appreciate, although she really shouldn’t with her waistline… I’ve stopped going to that swimming pool because I got a verruca there [doubtless some dubious proletarian cross-breeder was to blame]” and so on.

There is something satisfying about ful­filling your earthly pleasures by eating a well-prepared meal and walking it off in the contemplation of somewhere quietly uplifting. I’ve always enjoyed a good graveyard, and the one attached to St Lawrence’s Church in Lech­lade is a beauty. It’s famous for promp­ting Shelley’s poem (A Summer Evening Church­­­­yard, Lechlade, Gloucest­er­shire) with the lines: Here could I hope, like some inquiring child/Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight/Sweet secrets… And it was a sweet surprise to hear infant voices from a school bey­ond the graveyard, singing a celestial-sound­ing version of Robbie Williams’ Angels, as I wandered through the crumbling tombstones with the hopeful primroses pushing through.

The Hungry Monk has its own connections to St Andrews up the lane, which has a peaceful atmosphere and a violent Saxon sculp­ture – so primitive it looks like the work of a gifted but troubled child – of Christ, one hand almost defiantly placed on his hip, the other plunging his sword into the mouth of a beast.

The restaurant was originally four monks’ cottages built in the 14th century which were knocked into the one building at some point… I can’t tell you when as the longtime owners, Sue and Nigel Mackenzie, do not go in for history-milking brochures or modern-day marketing malark­ey. (Although they do have a website.) The monks were attached to a monastery which used to stand opposite the church which was built by the Saxons during King Alfred’s reign.

The monastery was founded in the village in 1344 and closed by Henry V111 when he dissolved the monasteries in 1538. The one historic angle the Mackenzies are keen to promote is their mid-Seventies invention of the banoffi pie; there is even a blue plaque commemorating the event. It is just about possible that there are readers who are not familiar with this absurdly popular concoction: pastry base, toffee made from boiling a can of condensed milk for five hours, bananas, a topping of coffee-flavoured whipped cream.

In the early editions of one of the restaurant’s bestselling cookbooks, the recipe for BP appeared without any health warning. Subsequent versions alert the reader to the potential dangers of the recipe: “If they are allowed to boil dry, the cans will explode causing a grave risk to life, limb and kitchen ceilings.” Too right.

My first and only attempt at The Banoffi ended in disaster when Den­n­is Pott­er’s then new TV drama Pennies from Heav­en proved so mesmerising, I forgot all about the bubbling cans. Just as Bob Hoskins was circling the actress’s nipples with lipstick, there was a massive crash from the kitchen; then the sound of molten caramel shooting through the air. For months afterwards, we found traces of hardened goo in the back of drawers and cupboards. But at least I did not suffer the ignominious fate of being blinded by Banoffi.

Now, to be quite honest, it is hard to have high expectations of a restaurant whose culinary claim to fame is the banoffi pie. In the first cookbook in 1971, there is a recipe for salmon, bacon and bananas on rice – and my initial fear was that this unwinning combo might be indicative of the menu today.

The most recent of the eight books, The Temptations of the Hungry Monk (2001), shows that the kitchen is not set in Seventies aspic. But fusion muddles such as “English lamb stuffed with hoummus roasted in prosciutto and served with Moroccan aubergine sauce”, suggests that the monkish chef has confused pick’n’mix electicism for modernity.

Last orders are at 2pm and we arrived 20 minutes late having got lost, but there wasn’t a trace of sniffiness from Corinne, the French front of house, or any of the staff. There are several oak-beamed rooms in which you can sit on comfy sofas by open fires. Fresh flowers which look, appealingly, as though they’ve been picked from someone’s garden. On the downside, one of the rooms smelt faintly of damp. And there is something dated about the decor, by which I mean 1970s not 1370s. It would not have been entirely surprising, for instance, to see a Mucha or Max­field Parrish poster in the loo, although obviously nothing as overt as that other favourite of school dormitories from the Seventies: the lissom tennis player scratching her bum.

Upstairs, there are half-a-dozen private rooms (which you can book for no extra cost) painted in shades of bottle green and puce, not very nice tartan chairs, old-lady wallpaper in the loo and what looks like a wartime swirly carpet on the stairs. It is, in other words, a style-free zone. And you know what? It just may be that this very unreconstructed quality is part of the higgledy-piggledy charm of the place, and I say this as someone who is normally a slave to Conran.

The dining room was still full when the two of us were seated at a large table. Attach­ed to one of the low beams was a sausage-shaped cushion thoughtfully provided to prevent the unvertically challenged from banging their heads when squiffy. We had been recommended various dishes by a foursome of friendly, vaguely arty-looking couples as we had our pre-Sunday lunch drinks. (The accompanying mini-quiches were suitably retro, but crumbly and buttery and delicious.)

The goat’s cheese mousse, which came with my beetroot and ginger salad, was as light as powder snow on the outside and densely rich further in. I liked the colour of the salad and the earthiness of the beetroot with the sugary bite of the cystallised ginger (scattered among the peppery green leaves), but it did make me think it was about time I stopped ordering goat’s cheese in restaurants. The other starter was layers of smoked salmon with artichoke (more pleasing earthiness) and a hollandaise which was rather thinner than expected but light and refreshing.

The mains were an unequivocal hit: straighforward, honest and with none of the tarty tricksiness of that fusion number. I had crisp breast of Norfolk duckling which was a swooning pleasure of melting flesh and crunchiness, with a small serving of cassoulet spiced up with the addition of chorizo. The Sussex lamb was pink and juicy and had an ace sauce; a hint of a Moroccan lift from harissa, good chicken stock, subtly laced with the sweetness of marsala and balsamic vinegar.

Neither of us cared for the canary-yellow wodge of polenta dotted with red peppers; there being a very good reason, in my opinion, why polenta was one of the shorter-lived foodie crazes of the last decade. I wouldn’t normally bother to mention the vegetables, but they were fantastic. A big serving of spinach – “Excellent… excellent… Oh man!” (from my fellow luncher). Perfect roast potatoes. And the celeriac purée was so gorgeous (tasting as though a vat of butter and cream had been added, when it was only the vegetable itself and milk) that we felt compelled to order another portion.

We finished with the lighter end of the desserts: coconut and lime mousse (a bit like polystyrene jelly for me, but “a delight” for the person who ordered it) with guava sorbet; a selection of home-made strawberry and papaya sorbets, vanilla and pistachio ice-cream.

There’s nothing cutting-edge about the Hungry Monk and I wouldn’t drive from London to go there, but the food was good, and it’s old-fashioned in a reassuring (with the exception of the odd Alf Garnett customer masquerading as Terry Thomas) way.

 

The Hungry Monk, Jevington, Polegate, Sussex (01323 482178)