TIMES ONLINE – October 29 2005
Ginny Dougary

Chapel Lane, East Chiltington, East Sussex (01273 890400)

My relationship with the country pub has been one of inconstant and mainly nostalgic affection. My parents, both long dead, had bought a house in the West Country and my first experience of pub grub was on school exeats around Cheltenham – Tewkesbury, Burford, Bisley – my dad in his old Daks shirt and cords, ordering mash and Gloucestershire sausages so improbably large they almost flopped over our plates.

My relationship with the country pub has been one of inconstant and mainly nostalgic affection. My parents, both long dead, had bought a house in the West Country and my first experience of pub grub was on school exeats around Cheltenham – Tewkesbury, Burford, Bisley – my dad in his old Daks shirt and cords, ordering mash and Gloucestershire sausages so improbably large they almost flopped over our plates.

My favourite schoolgirl country pub served scampi and chips in a basket; this did not set my father’s heart – which belonged to Elizabeth David – a-flutter. It was at that particular place, thronging with greengage-uniformed girls and their families, that an incident occurred which may have forever undermined my idea of the country pub being a place of innocence and old-fashioned charm.

The most eccentric classics teacher at our school – whom I shall call Mrs Penny – had arrived with a male companion who was intriguingly scruffy and saturnine. Her normal mode of transport was a very large tricycle – I have never seen a grown person ride one before or since – but this time she must have arrived by more conventional means. Mrs Penny herself was not petite and was given to strange, sometimes hurtful, outbursts. On one occasion, she touched one of my friend’s locks with a ruler and said, flicking each strand with distaste, “Drib… drab… drib… drab.”

I remember quite vividly the sense of hushed expectancy as my fellow pupils and I gawped at Mrs Penny and what we assumed was her boyfriend. Afterwards, we all agreed that it was, probably characteristically, odd of her to choose this particular pub for a Sunday lunchtime date. Our al fresco lunch was disturbed by a small child throwing a stone in Mrs Penny’s direction, which landed somewhere on her generous body; she shrieked, the boyfriend stood up and smacked the infant whose father rushed over and yelled abuse, and everything seemed to freeze. It was all rather shocking and un-English; Mrs Penny, in tears, left her basket of food unfinished and the garden, swiftly followed by her younger swain. I don’t recall her ever being quite so sharp-tongued again.

There was an interlude in my late teens of going to country pubs with various boyfriends: drinking a dizzying selection of horrid-sounding wines which tasted rather nice at the time: plum, elderflower, nettle, on tree stumps in fields; ordering nothing more substantial to eat than a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. Throughout my thirties, when the children were small and life was London-centric, pubs of all kinds seemed to lose whatever allure they may have had. And then, as my blossoming interest in food coincided with that of the nation, came the gastro pub.

The Jolly Sportsman, in East Chiltington, Sussex, is in this mould but has also managed not to alienate its old drinking clientele – although there is a rather perplexing tradition of mass withdrawal by locals every Wednesday night. The manager was unable to explain why. (A friend in Shropshire told me of a legendary pub there where, one night a week, the local men
get very drunk and play shove ha’penny with their whatsits; one can quite see that this might not go down so well in Sussex. Then again…)

The first time I went to The Jolly Sportsman, a few months ago, was reminiscent of a school exeat: I became my father, grumpily chiding the driver for not knowing the way, and various friends started up the childhood chant of “When will we be there?” The restaurant was full, so we sat in the pub and had a lovely lunch, although the service was slow and various dishes arrived at peculiar intervals or not at all.

Despite these minor irritations, there was much to commend the place and I was looking forward to going back. All
went swimmingly at first, and I had that warm, faintly proprietorial glow that goes with introducing friends to somewhere
that you feel has been your own brilliant discovery.

We sat in the pub proper, once again, while we waited for our table in the restaurant. There’s a board by the counter with a list of 70 malts: I have no interest in drinking the stuff but I am partial to lists and was impressed by all the fastidious headings and sub-headings. There are half a dozen different eaux de vie, grappas, calvados, armagnacs, as well as a comprehensive beer and wine list. For our driver: freshly-squeezed orange juice, elderflower cordial and various Fentimans potions. There was a large table of several families with young children who all seemed to be having a good time.

Our table of four was having a good time, too: launching greedily into a selection of pre-starters. A plate of sliced cured pork loin, with a drizzle of olive oil; guindillas (incredibly hot, sweet pickled chillis), good, spicy olives with the occasional bracing shock of a whole marinated garlic, three tiny glasses of Hemingwayesque oyster Bloody Mary shooters: slightly wasted, possibly, since none of us was wasted enough. We ordered bread but, as on the last occasion, none arrived.

The restaurant dining room is light and attractive: sage-green walls, undistinguished but inoffensive paintings by local artists, coir matting, slabs of waxed oak for tables, single pink gerberas in pale ceramic vases, a buff-coloured tongue-and-groove ceiling.

We were all, to differing degrees, delighted with our choice of starters. My snail, parsley and pancetta risotto was one of the high scorers: “really interesting, almost tastes like… soil” was meant as a compliment; “nice, firm risotto, lovely colour, really delicate, I would definitely order that” was a more obvious seal of approval. I was also dazzled by the intense dark-green wonder of the dish, which reminded me of a brilliant snail-lurking parsley soup I once had at Le Voltaire in Paris.

The Canadian had a plate of impeccable Irish oysters, large and creamy, served on a bed of seaweed French-style with red wine vinegar and shallots. The American had crab lasagne: “You can definitely taste the crab – and the cheese.” Perhaps I was too much in a temps-perdu state of mind, but it summoned another old memory of a Cheltenham boy’s dish involving layers of crisps, canned tuna and condensed cream of mushroom soup.

Oddly enough, my fellow Brit’s fennel soup reminded her of a bowl of cream of mushroom, with the fennel being so subtle it was almost like an aftertaste. So much so, she thought it should be renamed “soup with a hint of fennel”. None of us could decide how much we liked it but we liked it enough to keep tasting it. My verdict was that it was a bit of a culinary tease: enticing enough but promising more than it delivered.

The mains were, sad to report, a disaster. My American friend’s chargrilled Speyside Angus ribeye was cold and had to be sent back to be reheated. The Puy lentils that came with my stuffed pig’s trotter (from the pub menu; you can order from either menu in the restaurant) were in a liquor that was so dank and sour, it was inedible.

I opted instead for a starter of Stornoway black pudding, apples and port, which was a triumph: sweet and savoury, plain but decadent, the apples almost caramelised in their port-soaked sticky gorgeousness. It was probably my favourite dish of the meal; this seconded by the Canadian, partly perhaps because it reminded him of his late dad, who used to cook black pudding for breakfast.

The Brit who calls herself a demi-vegetarian had picked a tomato and piquillo pepper tart from the pub menu. This resembled a great unappetising wodge of hard omelettey quiche, but tasted softer and creamier. The accompanying vegetables – fennel and courgettes – were burnt. The Canadian’s venison sausages and onion gravy was the only main course that was an all-round hit – but even so, the mash was bland and nasty-textured.

The Sportsman redeemed itself with the puddings. The grappa pannacotta was evidently so good it was demolished before the rest of us had a chance to concur. The Brit had lemon polenta cake, which her husband pronounced “soggy-bottomed”. This, she insisted, was the secret of its success. The Yank went for the rice pudding crème brûlée, combining the best of both desserts. And I attempted the apricot, walnut and ginger toffee pudding – delicious, but daft of me to order after the black pudding.

We walked very slowly back to the car, by the courtyard with mosaic tables and Moroccan lamps, through the large well-stocked garden with swings and lots of space between the tables, past the Jolly nursery with rows of rocket and herbs and salad leaves. On this visit, the food may have been a bit hit and miss – but when it was good, it was very, very good and it most certainly is jolly.

Cost: £183.32 – three courses for four; including drinks, a bottle of Sancerre, half of Brouilly, and coffee.