Gazing out of the window at Thyme, the luxury hotel that sprawls over 150 acres of impossibly beautiful Cotswolds countryside, I half expected to spy Marie Antoinette with a gilded lead in her hand, taking a lamb for a walk. Thyme’s haute rustique style of hospitality is bewitching: more hamlet than hotel, its various buildings include several cottages, a spa, a cookery school, a newish restaurant, Ox Barn, and a splendid village pub, The Swan. You might happily work up an appetite for dinner with a walk around the estate, saying hello to Wallace, the prize ram, who – in direct contravention of this year’s “no lambing” policy – managed to open his gate one night and do what comes naturally to a prize ram, resulting in more than a few unexpected arrivals. Then stop for a drink at the Swan, with its huge fireplace and local draught ales: Sunday lunch is a speciality here, but you should book well in advance.
As you should for Ox Barn, which opened late last year and is the fiefdom of Charlie Hibbert, son of the estate’s owners and an alumnus of the kitchens at both Ballymaloe House (Darina Allen) and Quo Vadis (Jeremy Lee), which is a more than decent pedigree. The Ox Barn is aptly named: it is a vast space that could easily accommodate a few tractors as well as a herd of oxen. Happily for diners, however, it is now a laidback lounge with well-spaced tables and a long open kitchen; what emerged from its gleaming depths was, without exception, absolutely delicious.
Wafer-thin crostini were loaded with shaved raw asparagus, sweetly crumbly ricotta and the salty kick of anchovy; more asparagus was served à la polonaise with sautéed crumbs and chopped egg, copiously flecked with parsley. Then came crubeens, the famous Irish dish of pigs’ trotters, boned and rolled in breadcrumbs, then deep-fried: these were stellar, their molten innards contrasting perfectly with the crunch of the coating, the tarragon-heavy intensity of a dollop of sauce gribiche, and a peppery sheaf of jade-green watercress. This was followed by thinly sliced loin of pork, roasted à point with its skin intact to capture the flavour of crackling in each slice; and slow-cooked beef rib in a thin but profoundly flavoursome jus, vinegary green walnuts cutting effortlessly through the fattiness. Chips were superb, lavishly bronzed, and halfway to roast potatoes: I ended up dipping them transgressively into a silky bowl of buttery mash, with the result that I had no room for rhubarb with lemon curd and meringue (pictured) or walnut tart with coffee ice cream.
I did, however, manage a few freshly baked madeleines with my postprandial cognac: madeleines were, apparently, all the rage at the court of Versailles in the late 1750s, and the charming waiters at Ox Barn were more than happy to let me eat cake.