Arriving at the Wheatsheaf at 3pm on a Sunday it is hard not to conclude that it’s patronised solely by people who can’t move their top lip. So dogged and unmoving are the clientele’s upper lips that the chatter from the bar sounds like the Bullingdon Club’s point-to-point. The haircuts, too, are very Cressida and Hugo. The problem is, when you are pretty, you attract so much attention: some of it of the welcome, take-me-now variety, and some, well, less agreeable. The Wheatsheaf, with its gleaming Cotswold stone walls, brushed wood floors and liberal use of Farrow and Ball, is drop-dead.
There is something awry about those honking accents. It took me a while to figure what that was, and then … ah yes! they sound more west Kensington than West country. Only as the day slides by and the Black Range Rovers retreat, do I realise why: it is because they all are from West Ken. We are in prime second-home territory and by evening Cress and Hu are back on the M4 to their first home. Such is life in this unfeasibly pleasant bit of Gloucestershire.
By dinner time, the two oblong dining rooms off the bar are filled with a softer burr. The staff, so good looking it’s like being hit by a tsunami from the top the gene pool, offer a choice of tables along with the menus. A carpaccio of fennel, avocado and pine nuts comes first and is overwhelmed by tart slices of blood orange. The twice-cooked cheddar soufflé makes up for it, though – the soufflé holding its own against the slick of molten cheddar and mustard.
Next mains. The grill section is reassuringly olde worlde, including chateaubriand and both chuck eye and flat iron steaks. Those latter two cuts have been pensioned off by many other restaurants and deserve a lot more love. I have a tranche of calves’ liver, which is underwhelming in size but cooked with care. The middle has a kiss of pink to it, while the tomato, anchovy and caper sauce beautify it with Mediterranean care: it’s a sort of Cotswoldian saltimbocca. The braised ham and leek pie with split peas gets the thumbs up from the Frenchman eating with me: “zee pastry is perfect and it iz a proper pie, not just a pastry top on a Le Creuset, as you English often do”.
After all that you’d be foolish to order dessert, and foolish we indeed were. Marathon pudding – much vaunted online and taking the form of a Snickers in cake form – is too stodgy, and the nuts too modest a presence. So modest in fact, I only find three. While the blood orange and almond suet pudding could sink a Dreadnought. The selection of English cheese, however, is marvellous.
The Wheatsheaf does not reach for the outer edges of culinary experimentation, but then you don’t want to do that while wearing gum boats and stroking an Irish Setter. What it does is draw on it bucolic, rough-hewn surroundings, to produce food with heart, and soul too. It is a place to wallow in. Just wait for Hu and Cress to clear off first.
Around £28 a head, before drinks and service
The Wheatsheaf Inn, West End, Northleach, GL54 3EZ. 01451 860244