Scouted out by my eagle-eyed and discerning brother-in-law – who is always particularly hot on immaculate wine lists – the Beckford Arms in Fonthill Gifford, on the cusp of a rolling estate, started out as a distance compromise, to meet my sister’s family between Marlborough and Dorchester. But it has turned into a joyous long-lunch meeting spot. The mark of co-owner Charlie Luxton, former operations director of Soho Group, is evident in the place – it feels somewhere between a top gastro pub and a rustic and characterful luxury hotel. They are even happy (or tolerant enough) to accommodate the family zoo of kids (four with us), or dogs (a Dalmatian and a couple of Jack Russells) on the next table.
But little could distract us from the treat of head chef Kevin Francis’s evolving seasonal menu – the starters included an admirable use of local flock and fowl, evidenced in a Wiltshire pigeon salad with mushrooms, smoked bacon and hazelnuts (£8.50) and a Beckford smoked duck with blue cheese (£7.50). It was the flavour combination of the delicate scallops with cauliflower purée, chorizo and red watercress (£8.50), however, that stole the early matinée.
For mains, the highlight was a perfectly cooked Venison haunch with root-vegetable mash and kale and a blackberry sauce (£18), which was great with the chilli-fried cavolo nero as a side. But my wife was just as happy with her twist on a classic – herb-crusted Cornish hake, poached egg and mussels in a samphire cream (£17.50) – and the sticky toffee pudding was so smoothly glorious that it could even be appreciated by an otherwise sweet-free tooth.
Sadly, we have yet to go for Sunday lunch – I feel it’s one of the few places that would do a worthwhile roast away from home – and as we retired to the library for a coffee I was jealous of a shooting party coming for late lunch to eat a whole suckling pig (£26 per person) in the private dining room that you can book in advance. Maybe next time.