Christmas – feels like ages ago, huh? Hope you all had a lovely time. And while it feels like months ago already, I can’t NOT tell you about one of the highlights of my slightly quiet and low-key festive period – a special Christmas Eve tasting menu with my mum at somewhere that’s just down the road from me and yet I’d never tried before.
We’re not new to a little Christmas foodie treat. A few years ago we spent Christmas Day at the Old Lion at Harborough Magna, which I think has since changed hands, and last year we took a poorly Mr Manning to the Stag at Offchurch. So for 2016 it was just a case of choosing somewhere new.
I’d heard a few good things about the White Swan in Shawell – a pub with restaurant tucked in a little village between Rugby and Lutterworth. A quick look at their website suggests that they do, indeed, take their food very seriously. Our Christmas Eve tasting menu wasn’t the only offering that goes far beyond your average pub grub.
There’s a whole range of menus, from Sunday lunch to Champagne Breakfasts, restaurant menus and tasting menus. And once we took a look at the Christmas Eve menu we were fairly sure it was the place for us.
After a taxi journey with someone who we’re pretty convinced was actually Santa Claus (big white beard, jolly as hell) we arrived at the White Swan. It was just right for a festive treat – beautifully laid tables, low lighting, a friendly welcome. Oh, and a bucketload of prosecco waiting to be quaffed.
We were actually the first there, having chosen a fairly early dinner time of 7pm so we could get home to the latest addition to the Manning household (the puppy, in case I haven’t mentioned her enough yet) in good time. Yet despite us being alone, there was no sense of awkwardness or loneliness at all. It meant we could chat away, check out the restaurant, and generally be a bit over-excited.
Since the menu was already set, we didn’t have to make many choices on the night – just what to drink really. For main and dessert we had a choice but we did our usual mother-daughter thing of choosing different dishes so we could try everything.
So rather than pore over a menu, we tucked into some Irish soda bread and a sunblush tomato and parmesan swirl with an array of gorgeous butters. Traditional salted butter, a thyme beurre noisette and a beef butter that didn’t blow me away as much as I had hoped, but was good all the same.
To be completely honest, the breads were that good that I could have done without the butter (yeah, I never thought I’d hear myself say that), but it was a nice touch and just one of the many elements that raised the White Swan above ‘just another country pub’.
Amuse Bouche – Duck steamed bun with blood orange hollandaise
Now you definitely don’t usually get an amuse bouche in a pub, especially not of this standard. The steamed bun wasn’t a traditional oriental steamed bun, but a great twist on one. The duck was tender and rich, the bun itself golden and beautiful enough to get your tastebuds tingling just from a quick look.
The blood orange hollandaise completed the picture, not just visually but with its citrus tang to add the duck a l’orange element to the dish. As amuse bouches go, it was a pretty generous portion but hey, when it’s this good who’s complaining?
Starter – Venison Carpaccio with truffle arancini & celeriac remoulade
Feeling rather smug at our epic find, we couldn’t wait to get cracking with the rest of the menu. The venison carpaccio was another beautifully-presented dish. Arranged with an attention to detail and a certain amount of delicacy but not too much of that fiddly silliness that can sometimes be a bit off-putting. The carpaccio itself was gamey and rich, sliced perfectly thin and bringing a deep red hue to the plate.
Now mum visited Sicily in the summer where she had some truly great arancini, so we were eager to see what she’d make of it. I’m happy to say it passed the test! Rich with the truffle, yet light and coated in crispy breadcrumbs. The celeriac provided a refreshing crunch to contrast with the other rich elements of the dish and made for a well-balanced dish.
Fish – Pan-fried Orkney scallop, creamed fennel & shellfish reduction
The fish course was a classic – pan-fried scallops. A pretty plate of delicate shellfish. Not quite as impressive as the truffled scallops at the Mushroom Evening at The Cross in Kenilworth, but definitely up there with them.
The creamed fennel was brilliant and reminded me that I just don’t eat enough of the stuff, while the reduction was a delicious concentrate of shellfish flavour without any nasty fishiness. And again, it was beautifully presented.
In a nice touch that I haven’t seen in many places, especially not country pubs, we could order a half bottle of white wine to share to accompany the fish course and a fish main course that we chose. Neither of us opt for white wine regularly but hey, it was a special occasion so we pushed the boat out and decided it would go nicely with our lighter dishes.
As I say, it’s a great idea to offer half bottles for when a glass isn’t quite enough but you don’t want to motor through a whole bottle.
Main Course – Pheasant Breast, chestnut sausage roll, choucroute & bread sauce
Mum and I are quite similar in some ways (only some) and one of those is that we find it hard to resist ordering things like pheasant or venison when we see them on a menu. As I mentioned, there were two main courses so we ordered one of each.
The pheasant breast was tender in texture, but nice and gamey in flavour. Mum wasn’t keen on the choucroute, which is basically dressed sauerkraut, as it reminded her of being fed sauerkraut as a child by her Czech mum, but I really enjoying it and thought the slightly vinegary tang was a great contrast to the rich meat.
It also cut through the richness of the chestnut sausage roll which was a fabulous wintry taste but pretty rich on top of everything else on the plate.
Our other dish was pan-fried halibut with roasted garlic mash, parsley and a crisp oyster which for some reason I don’t have a picture of, but this almost beat the pheasant for me. The halibut was perfectly cooked, flaking gently on the fork, while the garlic mash was well balanced and I was lucky enough to enjoy the oyster to myself as mum doesn’t like them.
Cheese course – Port-soaked Forme D’ambert
Yes, folks. It is what the title suggests. Blue cheese, soaked in port, then quenelled into the richest, stinkiest, most indulgent mixture of blue cheese and port that you’ve ever seen. Forget the biscuit underneath, or the sweet fruit on top – this is cheese overload like I’ve never had before and I’m not sure I could ever face the challenge again. Well, maybe next Christmas 😉
Dessert – Buche de Noel with Kirsch Cherries
And so to the end. Again we had a dessert each and split it between us. Both of us expected the Buche de Noel to be the winner. Chocolate and cherries – how can you go wrong? And don’t worry, they didn’t. It was everything it should be – the chocolate was the right balance of bitter and rich, the cherries boozy as hell and still sweet, and the sorbet slightly sweet but refreshingly tart. A winner.
Dessert – Apple tarte tatin with brown butter ice cream
However, what we hadn’t counted on was quite how good the White Swan could execute a tarte tatin. For my mum to declare this the best tarte tatin she’s ever had is no small thing, and I’m inclined to agree with her. The apples were perfectly caramelised and tender, the caramel sticky with a bit of crunch round the edge.
For me, it was exactly how a tarte tatin should be yet somehow is often ever so slightly off the mark. If every apple tart you tasted was like this, it would be on menus everywhere because people would demand it.
We were meant to get some petit fours and coffee as the seventh and final course but unfortunately a bit of a wait for our desserts meant Santa had already arrived to take us home so we had to flee without them. It wasn’t a huge loss, though would have been a nice ending to the meal, but hey, these things happen.
Despite the hurried end to the meal we left in high spirits, over the moon that we’ve found yet another great place on our doorstep to enjoy good food in lovely surroundings. Thank you to the White Swan for providing the perfect setting for what Christmas really should be about – making memories with loved ones.
We paid in full for our meal at the White Swan. The tasting menu was £80 per head for seven courses, which I think is pretty fair, given the time of year, amount of food, and quality of food and service.
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