Once the hub of the community, the great British pub is becoming something of an endangered species. In 2014 CAMRA reported that British pubs were closing at a dizzying rate of 29 per week. According to the Lost Pubs Project (that such a website exists is troubling in itself), 837 pubs have closed in Cambridgeshire and 846 in Essex.
It’s a sorry state of affairs but, happily, it’s not the story everywhere.
The Plough in Great Chesterford, owned by David and Juliana Shipley, is everything that’s right about village pubs. Situated on the Cambridge/Essex border, in a neighbourhood lined with wonky thatched cottages, the pub has charm and character to match. Originally built as a row of cottages in the mid 18th century, there has been a pub on the site for the last 150 years.
Its glowing fire and rustic beams were a welcome refuge on the chilly spring night of our visit, and we were quick to admire the cosy, tasteful décor. The Plough is Cask Marque accredited, to my dining partner’s great pleasure: he ordered a guest ale while I enjoyed an excellent Rioja.
The menu demonstrated great variety, including modern pub favourites like Three Prior’s Hall sausages and mash and a range of ‘from the grill’ options. Diners can also choose from a small selection of Bulgarian dishes, inspired by Juliana’s home country.
I decided on the 28-day aged steak with sweet potato chips, mixed vegetables and a peppercorn sauce, and wasn’t disappointed. The steak (medium) was just right: tender and juicy with a gentle chargrilled flavour. I loved the sweet potato chips – surely healthier than regular fries – and rather than a dish of plain boiled veg, ordered separately as a side, my included accompaniment was a colourful arrangement of lightly stir-fried cabbage, carrot and seasonal greens. All this, with a large flat mushroom and on-the-vine cherry tomatoes came to £16.95 (just an extra £2.50 for the sauce) – not bad at all.
For the similarly meat-inclined yet indecisive diner, like my partner, there’s the mixed grill option: a huge platter of beef, lamb and pork steak, lamb kidneys, egg, flat mushroom and tomato with chips. Another generous portion, and another winner.
Desserts at The Plough continue the traditional, home-cooked vibe, with choices of date and walnut sticky toffee pudding, cheesecakes and ‘real’ ice cream. As dessert is only dessert if there’s chocolate involved, I went for the chilled salted caramel and chocolate torte, served with vanilla ice cream.
After so much meat, we decided one pud between us was wise, and were both pleased with the smooth texture and taste of the chocolate (and delicious crumbly biscuit base), given extra zing by the sharp salted caramel.
A quip from a fellow diner, seeing me call the shots over pudding, got us talking and it became clear that this is a well-loved pub, with regulars coming from some distance. Our neighbour had been here for Christmas dinner, and owner David chatted with other guests making for a very cordial ambience. This, teemed with excellent food and service, is just what a village local should be.
Other pubs, take note.
The Plough, High Street, Great Chesterford, Saffron Walden CB10 1PL. Tel: 01799 531651