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A very rare thing: a bargain in Burford


The pretty Cotswold town of Burford is known for many things. It’s David Cameron’s constituency, for a start, and for a conservative leader that’s richly appropriate. Wealth oozes from the antique shops and art galleries that line the sloping high street, squeezed into crook-timbered medieval buildings and separated from a stream of slow-moving four-wheel-drives by broad, tranquil pavements. Prices seem a decimal point ahead of the reasonable: burnished brass and gleaming woodwork clearly come at a premium in this part of the world. I looked for reassurance in the cards in the post-office window but amongst a flurry of ‘cleaners wanted’ ads there were none of the usual clapped-out bangers for sale. There was only one car, a not-too-ancient Rolls Royce. £20,000 and it could have been mine.

Everything about Burford was news to me. I was there because the best hotel in the town had advertised overnight break, with dinner bed and breakfast, for £150. And that was not your standard home-cooked dinner, but a fully-fledged three-course gourmet blow-out to match the top current standards. Nothing less, I thought, would get me out of my most recent domestic misadventure: if there was grovelling to be done to Rachel, this was the place to do it. And they welcomed dogs, letting them sleep in the room, so I could get away without paying kennel fees.

The inner fireplace of the hotel dates back to 1435 and the rest of the building isn’t much younger, however it has been decently updated, with plenty of period features and floors that slope with the majesty of age. I made my way upstairs and, with a bag on each shoulder, fought through a series of uncompromising fire doors. The room was wood-panelled and – for any sort of British hotel – unreasonably large, with free wifi and a large flat-screen TV but there was no time to lounge. We were there to do the Christmas shopping.

Approaching the High Street clockwise from the hotel made it seem likely that even my mother was going to miss out on presents this year. I quickly gave up asking prices in an antique shop specialising in sports and games as it’s not so easy to get a mortgage these days, especially on an item of furniture. Next up was an art gallery with some pretty decent sculptures amongst a mixed bag of art work, but the prices were set for people beyond conventional income levels. Rachel went into a shoe shop with an interesting selection of boots but there was only about one pair in our price range: asking why we were crisply told ‘it’s because they’re not leather’.

Being so comprehensively outclassed by shops is usually a pretty depressing experience, but something rather strange was making it quite bearable. It was my dog.

There’s nothing exceptional about Doodle. He’s a black Labrador, four legs at each corner, usual interests in food and attention, but he does have one useful attribute. If I’m going into a shop he will wait outside for quite a long time. Probably in case I sneak out and dump him. But it quickly became clear that all these upmarket shops were provided to forgive almost anything – including me being unable to afford even their most modest offerings – for the sake of a dog that appeared to do what it was told. Time and time again they’d insist Doodle came in, feed him biscuits and fuss with his ears. It was very strange and not something I’d found before: the whole town seemed obsessed with dogs.

Crossing the road we stopped at a succession of shops selling bits of carved and polished wood and various bits of pottery who justified jaw-dropping prices with a scatter of signs saying ‘British Made’. Plenty to look at but nothing to buy and even a dog-obsessive would realise that an idly wagging tail is not a good thing amongst low shelves of teapots and ornaments. Doodle stayed outside.

Christmas-present options picked up lower down the town. A cookware shop packed an Aladdin’s cave worth of gadgets, none of them essential, into a small room: exploring that took half an hour and ticked a number of difficult relatives off the list. Crossing the road was a decent deli offering cheese tastings, where we found a range of flavoured balsamic vinegars and oils that, tasted with baguette fragments, could then be expensively decanted into hand-crafted bottles. This was an effective idea that was somewhat spoiled by the labels they stuck on after we’d paid. Instead of crafty little cards attached with artisan string they stuck on pre-printed labels. Our carefully-chosen raspberry-infused balsamic vinegar could hardly be given away with a ‘Product of Germany’ sign on it: either I’d have to soak that off or it would be another present for me. I preferred the second option.

Five o’clock and the shopkeepers were starting to pack up their pavement displays, but there was time to slip into one last shop, a tiny room filled with complete tat. £50 note-napkins, small battery-powered special effect machines that could replicate a range of sounds (from smoker’s coughs to cow farts) provided presents for a few children. After buying quite a lot of their stock we added in a sledge. All our presents were sorted and we’d even provided against an unexpected break in the unrelenting rain.

I thought we’d earned a beer and the Burford Mermaid had a great selection of ales. Once more it was Doodle who stole the show. Were dogs rare around here? Doodle laid down in the middle of the serving area, right in everyone’s way, and the locals seemed delighted. One got down on all fours the better to give him a proper hug. For a moment I got worried.

Time to try the Bull’s famous restaurant. Owner Jean-Marie Lauzier is a hotelier to his fingertips. His CV includes the Troisgros Restaurant in Roanne (3 Michelin stars) and a spell at the Gavroche, where he was head waiter for Albert Roux. Top training showed in every respect of his restaurant, but most obviously in the presentation: large square plates, beautifully-presented food and a menu that I would have happily eaten all of.

Not so Rachel. As a vegetarian with diverse allergies she represents something of a rolling challenge to any restaurant, and in an establishment like this she would be wasted on the easy options of pasta or risotto. I dispatched her to the kitchen to lay down a challenge. The chef was off with an injured arm so the sous-chef was given a proposal. Make an interesting entrée that she could and would eat. Then we settled down to a starter of tarragon breaded goat’s cheese pavé with an orange puree, walnut and black olive salad and wondered what he would come up with.

For the main course I relaxed with comfort food – a pepper steak, saignant – while Rachel was presented with gnocchi with rosemary, set around a bed of red cabbage with chestnut velouté. Not bad, for a sous-chef on the hoof, faced with a seriously picky client and very short notice. By the time the desert arrived – sorbets in a serried rank, with tiny samples of their source fruit – we could only manage tastes of each, but finished our favourites (blackberry and rasberry).

By this stage even making it back to our room was something of a challenge. Back up the stairs across sloping 15th-century floors and through a series of brief arguments with a few fire doors, I struggled through ten minutes of flat-screen before giving way to the inevitable sleep of the seriously well-fed.

Even by breakfast we weren’t remotely hungry. But the menu tempted us back. Home-made bread and freshly-squeezed orange was the ideal prelude to haddock and egg on a bed of salty spinach. Popeye would have been happy and so was I. The waiter, who must have been a Burford boy, petted the dog and showed us pictures, on his phone, of his own. Christmas was sorted, domestic bliss restored and I wouldn’t need to eat for a week. All that for £150.

Money well spent. But to get the best out of Burford, take a dog.

More about the Bull at Burford on their web page at http://www.bullatburford.co.uk/.

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