Every time I see Tom Kerridge doing his jolly ‘mine host’ act, I want to throw something at the TV. This is the man who proclaims he produces proper pub food. But if you go and look on the website for his pub, there’s not a single vegetarian main course on it. Oh, apparently a (note the singular) vegetarian option is available on request. And he’s been challenged on it before and claims he works with the customer if they contact the pub in advance. Sod that for a game of soldiers – I want to arrive somewhere for lunch without having to turn it into a military operation.
Vegetarians of a certain age will remember the wars of attrition with pubs, where you either got cheese and tomato pizza and liked it, or the snooty ‘Oh, we’re far too busy to cater for vegetarians.” I’ve flounced out of more pubs in a strop than you’ve had hot dinners!
I’m not a great pub person, as I don’t drink much, and I hate noisy places where I can’t hear what people are saying. But of late I’ve been taking far more notice of what pubs offer veggies.
This not very scientific survey started at the Hunter’s Lodge in deepest Somerset. This is truly the pub that time forgot. It’s a cavers’ pub and it doesn’t look like the décor has been touched since about 1952. But the food does what it says on the tin. The tasty cauliflower cheese comes with hunks of bread the size of doorsteps. The cheese and onion roll has exactly that – about an inch of each. The menu’s not long, but it’s good, hearty rib-sticking food – and perfect if you’ve been grovelling around in caves under the Mendips.
I spent a couple of days in London last week. On the second night, Anth and I met at the pub right opposite the museum, the Museum Tavern, where the clientele always seems to be a mix of tourists and museum folk. I think Anth was wondering why I was so keen to eat there. It was because I wanted their vegetarian fish and chips, which I’d had on a previous visit when my eating companion then had gone for the fish and chips – and I got unreasonably excited at trying the veggie version. The ‘fish’ is battered halloumi marinated in lemon and coriander. And very nice it was too, with a light batter, decent fat chips and peas (mushy or garden).
One of the things I can never understand about pubs is how some of them make such heavy weather of vegetarian food. The Railway Inn in Cheltenham – known to me and my mates as the sausage and mash pub – is an example of how to make everyone happy with the minimum of effort. And yes, the menu is mainly sausages and mash. There’s a choice of getting on for 20 sausages, of which three or four are vegetarian. You then choose from four or five different types of mash. Then there’s either meat or veggie gravy. And you can add baked beans or peas for an extra quid. The food comes garnished with parsnip crisps, and you get a selection of mustards brought to the table. It’s one of my favourite places to go.
With Sunday lunches, I want something tasty as my main, served with roast potatoes and plenty of vegetables. I got taken to the Bell Inn in Shurdington on the edge of Cheltenham by my dad and stepmother for a birthday treat. My eyes lit up when I saw that the veggie option on the roast menu was spinach, feta and pine nut Wellington, with a spicy tomato sauce. And yes, yes, proper roast potatoes and a bowl of decent mixed veg (broccoli, cauliflower, mange tout, carrot and swede).
Sometimes you don’t want sun-dried tomatoes, fannied around with squash, or goat’s cheese. You want whatever your meat-eating mates are having.
The Hunter’s Lodge Inn
The Museum Tavern
49 Great Russell Street, London
The Railway Inn
New Street, Cheltenham
The Bell Inn
Shurdington Road, Cheltenham