Blog for June 2002

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Tuesday June 18th 2002 : Pub Fodder Hand Job

The following story by Jay Rayner appeared in the Observer magazine on Sunday ....

"This week's column is not meant as an insult to the good and tasteful people of the West Midlands and, in particular, the Black Country. It is, however, meant as a direct and very personal insult to the bad and tasteless ones. Unfortunately, I suspect they are in the majority. My wife's family, whom I place in the first category, live in the area and so I visit about every three months. In theory, therefore, this column should over the years have included a surprisingly large number of reviews from that part of the world. It hasn't. Why? There's nowhere to bloody go. Really. Nowhere at all. Each time we prepare for a weekend away near Stourbridge, where my dear ma-in-law lives, I sit down with the guidebooks and scan furiously, hoping, with each new study, that somehow, something might have changed since the last time I looked. I scan the net. I beg for recommendations. But nothing. OK. Almost nothing. For practical reasons, the kind of place I can review has to be able to cope with three generations of a family on a Sunday lunchtime. Hardly controversial, is it? This does mean that I have never been able to write up formally the French Connection in Stourbridge, a good sturdy French bistro which is closed on Sundays. You see how desperate the situation is? I can name the place I haven't yet reviewed. This time, I decided to go back to basics. Scanning through the AA Pub Guide, which should be ashamed of itself for including it, I came across a listing for the Dry Dock in Netherton. It's part of the Little Pub Company, and I recalled a long time ago visiting another one near Kidderminster. Its thing was enormous Desperate Dan steak pies. OK, I thought. Do that. A good solid pub serving good solid pies. What could be better? I have been to nastier locations but not often. On the plus side, at least there were no burning cars outside. It sits in a wretched little corner of Black Country housing, reached through 100 acres of industrial estate. The pub itself, with a complete and brightly painted canal barge inside as the bar, is actually rather charming, in a rough-and45eady sort of way. Nothing else was. I tried to order an apple juice for my two year-old son, Eddie. They don't hold with apple juice at the Dry Dock; it had to be a glass of lemonade, festering with sugar. I decided to try to get into the local mood by buying a bag of pork scratchings. When in the Black Country, do as... Watching my son, with his lemonade and scratchings before him, I suddenly understood the complexion of the locals. In Netherton, if a local has colour in their cheeks, it's probably because of a tattoo. Onwards to the food. I ordered the Desperate Dan pie. It turned up as a huge pot of steak and kidney which was, oh joy, lukewarm to cold. Beneath the mess of congealing meat, I found what tasted like yesterday's vegetables. The pastry top, with its comedy pastry horns, had been baked in advance and left to chill. It was cardboard. I could have complained, but that would have meant eating it when they brought it back - and I really didn't want to. A plate of roast pork with Paxo stuffing and Bisto gravy was as disgusting as it sounds. As to two plates of scampi, the freezer bag had clearly been opened with great professionalism. I had never before imagined that £17 for four could be bad value, but it was. So Rayner eats in shitty pub and has shitty meal. Not exactly headline stuff, is it? The thing is, I was really trying. I wanted to review somewhere good and I couldn't. And why is it like this? Because the local population doesn't want good food. Simple as that. So the next time someone tells you there's a food revolution apace in Britain, tell them to go to the Black Country. And if they find anywhere worth eating perhaps they could let me know. But believe me, I won't be holding my breath."

The Dry Dock at Bumble Hole in Netherton [2001]

Now, my knee-jerk reaction was uproariously parochial. "How dare they besmirch the reputation of my beloved Black Country.... Bloody cockney wankers coming up the M40 and patronising us....etc." However, having thought about it, he might just be right. Maybe I just go to the wrong sort of pubs and restaurants but every meal I've had for ages when back home [I'm exiled in Bedfordshire] has been pretty poor. Even the half-decent meals I've had have just been "bloke food" - loads of meat and loads of chips for a tenner, surely there must be something better on offer. In the last 6 months I've been to, or been taken to, some pub the other side of Chaddesley Corbett. OK roast for the carnivores but my [vegetarian] wife was served part-boiled veg in tinned Home Pride Cook-in-Sauce, masquerading as 'Vegetable Stroganoff' and they had the nerve to charge seven quid for it. Some restaurant/pub in Stourbridge [twice!] which was fine but didn't do anything more adventurous than Prawn Cocktail, Steak and Black Forest Gateaux. The Bell in Belbroughton - flat pack food in a flat pack pub. The Pedmore House - stuck in 1974 - ooh, corn on the cob. The Why Not at Cradley - decent bloke grub but not really very exciting/interesting/different. I know that the list of venues isn't very awe inspiring [in general, chosen by my parents, who're in their 60's], but I wouldn't have a clue about anywhere better, if they even exist. Even this website's mentions of pub-grub tend to mention only how big it was and whether or not it was under a fiver and as for my mates, well, they're all still in awe of Wetherspoons' 'Meal for 2/6' offers. I don't want to come across as a food snob or as an exile who's gone "darn sarf" and become "lah-di-dah" but there must be better fayre on offer. These sort of blogs or forums are all about finding the gems that are better than the plastic pubs with plastic beer that abound, surely there must be somewhere where you can get good, interesting food within 3/4 of an hour's drive of Halesowen?
Guy Cooper : Halesowen.

What a wanker. I believe that there are sufficient numbers on this and other sites to counter the crap written in the Observer and possibly to help Guy find somewhere a little better - perhaps the Plough and Harrow in Norton just plucking one out of nowhere.
John Midwood, Stourbridge CAMRA Chairman.

Actually, Jay Rayner isn't far off the mark - the Black Country is very poor for good pub food. I know I have mentioned 'how big it was' but only to give the nosh some coverage. I rarely eat in such places. There isn't much to excite us around the Black Country and being veggies it's even harder to find a pub serving anything remotely interesting. John Midwood mentions The Plough and Harrow and that place is possibly the best in the Stourbridge area though we didn't like our last bit of nosh that much. However, at least the chef shows a little imagination. The Waterloo in Wollaston has everything that has ever moved on the menu including Shark and Kangaroo but I was a little disappointed with the veggie stuff. Mind you, he does pick his own wild mushrooms from a secret location near Kinver so earns points for some originality. By far the best pub in the region is The Nailers' Arms in Bournheath - we enjoyed one of the most delicious meals ever in there. Good beer too! The Dog in Worfield is getting good reviews but a little far away. It would seem that the best pub meals we've tasted have been a little further afield. The Bull at Wilson [sensational Lebanese cuisine], The Victoria at Beeston [with a mighty choice of beer] to name a couple. A few readers here might be better informed - we are boozers at heart. Oh, must mention The Old Crown in West Bromwich - it's unbeatable for value and the curry dishes are excellent. I've yet to find another place that serves such wonderfully fluffy rice. Four people can have three courses in there and the bill won't even be £20. I nearly forgot The Fountain in Clent - the food in there is pretty good and they've just won a Best Cellar award. I could mention some other pubs but they are mainly pub fodder places - good pub fodder but not really exciting stuff.

I agree with him, it's not everyone's choice to go to a pub for a Desperate Dan Pie, or what you call a bloke's meal, perhaps a 32oz steak and a load of chips. To me these type of meals are just gimmicks and are fine if you are out with your mates and just want a good blow out. It's a great pity you didn't refer him to the "Great Country Inns Guide" which covers every county around Birmingham. My wife and I set up this guide two and a half years ago to give people some idea of where to wine and dine around the Midlands. We set up the guide because we thought the Midlands region needed better coverage, particularly on the Country Inns who, in a majority of cases, are serving good food to a very high standard. Most of these inns in our guide are free houses and for them to get into our guide they have to be, quote: "exciting/interesting good," they should also have a good atmosphere, but above all, serve good food.
Mick Coleman

The Waterloo has just changed hands so it's anybody's guess what's going on there now, but, the only sign I see is for "Sunday Lunches" at a pathetic price, so that's probably gone now! What's happening at the Forester's Arms now that Jean has gone because that was coming back online. By the way Mick, I think if you check the article that Guy referred to nobody was recommending anywhere but it's probably worth your while getting hold of the Observer to push your site. Another couple of points here - is the Dry Dock still in existence? I thought it was closed. When did Colm sell off "The Little Pub Company" because it went to Usher's and the name went? I reckon the pillock who wrote the article wrote it at least 10 years ago - it doesn't add up.
John Midwood, Stourbridge CAMRA Chairman.

I am not sure how many years ago Colm O'Rourke sold the Little Pub Company. The rumour was he got around £9m and signed a deal whereby he wouldn't open another pub for another three years. The French Hen at Clent opened just after this deadline so there's a bit of a benchmark for you. Usher's did buy the pubs but were later acquired themselves. Whatever, the whole thing went pear-shaped. Every single pub went downhill under their ownership. The only pub to enjoy a renaissance was The Pie Factory which was bought back by a former marketing manager for Colm O'Rourke. He sorted out the things Usher's ruined and I believe it was back on track. The tenant of the Dry Dock either went bust or handed in the keys in disgust. She complained that the lack of investment in the fabric was getting ridiculous. There was no heating upstairs and the roof leaked into her bedroom. It re-opened with a new management team not so long back but when we visited on a Netherton Walk we found they had no cask ale. We all left and went into The Wheatsheaf across the road. This had a really rare sight - Hanson's Mild on draught. It wasn't bad either. Bit of a barmy gaffer from Edinburgh though. He was looking after the place for his son. He had previously run the legendary Phoenix on Lion Farm Estate. That must be worthy of a campaign medal.

Most pub food is bland, repetitive and the product of a chain. Just like beer can be. And yes, we should be able to recommend better. Most us can, in the same way that we can all give our favourite pubs. The Falcon on the Warwick Road on the other side of Knowle for example, although anyone who gets there from Stourbridge in 45 minutes is doing well to the point of danger. What you have to remember, and what foodies from 'dahn Sahf' don't recognise, is that this isn't a wealthy area. Value is the most important part of a meal out for many, more even than it is for drinking, which is why the Wetherspoon/Harvester/Beefeater chains thrive to the detriment of better, more expensive establishments. The point about 'bloke food' is interesting as well. Again, it's a regional thing. This is the food of this area in the same way as regional food the world over. It's a bit like an Italian complaining that his local restaurants sell too much pasta. No offence, but we can sometimes be a bit snobbish about these things. Says the man who had Sausage and Mash in a chain pub this lunchtime [The Vine in Wombourne, if anyone's interested]. And perfectly adequate it was, too. And the Little Pubs were sold in 1998. I remember mentioning it to someone I was working for at the time, and that particular job ended during the World Cup.
Dave Woodhall : Acock's Green

The Little Pub chain was taken over by Usher's who were taken over by the same group of asset strippers who had their eyes on the Rover Group. They sold off the brewery and beer is now supplied by a well-known contract brewer based in Dorchester. Funnily enough, one of the best pub meals I have ever had was in an Usher's pub, the Anchor in Burton Bradstock [Dorset]. As I was down in Cornwall recently I must mention the Trengilly Wartha near Gweek for good food and beer. Last Thursday I had the great misfortune to be invited to a meal in a Toby Carvery, slow service, dried-up food and all real ale removed from the bar because of wastage! Did Six Continents get its name because there is no escape from this excruciatingly crappy company?
Dave Guest : Birmingham

Kieron - your comments come as no surprise which proves the point really - that Colm was a total nutcase but full of great ideas that worked but when given to somebody else they just floundered. I remember talking to Colm in the 'Pie Factory' one week before he opened. It was chaos. Nothing was ready and he had the magistrates coming in the following morning. Problem was he'd taken a wall down which he shouldn't have and had an overhead conveyor with meat hooks on it at face level - hmmm! Anyway, it did open on time and apart from the crap pies was actually interesting for a while. I hadn't realised that he was behind the 'French Hen' - is it any good? I must pop in and have a look!
John Midwood, Stourbridge CAMRA Chairman.

I was impressed by the response to my message. I'd half expected a ruck of abuse for siding with the bloke who wrote the article but I should have known better. I found the replies reassuring [in so much as people largely agreed with what was said] and helpful. I have made a list of the suggested venues and the next time I'm back home, I'll pick one and let you know my thoughts. The article wasn't without merit though, I loved the line about "...the only colour you're likely to see in the locals' faces is a tattoo." A bit harsh, even for Netherton.
Guy Cooper : Halesowen.

I just wanted to thank you for what seemed like a reasonable discussion of what I wrote. What escaped most of my critics - and by god there were hundreds of them - was the length of time I had spent in the area. This was not the thrown off jottings of some London hack who thinks the world ends at Watford Gap. The Black Country has a lot of things going for it. It just happens that food isn't one of them. Incidentally I went to the Bell and Cross at Belbroughton recently. I didn't write a review because my three year old decided to scream throughout the trip making it a nightmare. The food was about ten times better than almost anything else I have eaten in the area - and even so, I'm afraid it still only hit the adequate mark.
Jay Rayner : London.

One can only really assume that unless one is willing to pay OTT London prices for "nouveau cuisine" there will be no satisfying this chap. WHAT does he consider as "more than adequate" I wonder? I don't believe that there were ever any comparisons made in the earlier correspondence so it becomes difficult to understand what is "bad, adequate or good" in his eyes. I would certainly like to know the answer as I'm sure the many excellent food-serving establishments in the area would as well. Try sending this stuff to Stef at The Peacock in Forhill or the Coach and Horses down Weatheroak Hill and see how they respond!
John Midwood, Stourbridge CAMRA Chairman.

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A Halted Mail Coach by Henry Thomas Alken [The British Postal Museum and Archive]

"At each Inn on the road I a welcome could find; At the Fleece I'd my skin full of ale; The Two Jolly Brewers were just to my mind; At the Dolphin I drink like a wheale. Tom Tun at the Hogshead sold pretty good stuff; They'd capital flip at the Boar; And when at the Angel I'd tippled enough, I went to the Devil for more."
Mail Coach Guard

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