There has always been something quite other worldly about Amersham, for an urban dwelling Londoner it feels like the end of civilisation with nothing beyond but verdant countryside. Perhaps it’s because, for many years, it was home of one of the finest horror writers that ever walked this Earth, Arthur Machen; and still he sleeps within its breast, buried in the local cemetery at the back of the 13th century church of St. Mary’s. I went to many a convivial Arthur Machen Society dinner at the Kings Arms, where Machen himself once drank just a few doors before The Swan, where his photo hung above his favourite seat in the main bar. One of the most memorable being when I realised I was sat next the Craig Leon, producer of the first Ramones album, one of the finest recordings in history, a fine night indeed.
The long journey up on the Metropolitan Line reminded me of John Betjeman’s Metro-land film where he explores the suburban countryside of Buckinghamshire along the route, except that was in mid-summer. One can go in summer and follow one of the three loop walks that take you up into the Chilterns and back. I travelled up in the bleak December mid-winter, just as dusk was falling and the sun sinking in the grey crepuscule light behind the leafless trees.
Running late, I texted my nights companion to order wine. I made my way from the station down the steep hill towards the Old Town, passing the somewhat anachronistic Tesco and turning into the old High Street, immediately feeling that I’d stepped back a hundred years or more in time. It was dark by the time I saw the cosy welcoming lights of The Swan at the far end of the High Street.
I found my glamorous guest perched happily at the bar had already ordered a bottle of the Antonio Rubini Pino Grigio Venetian Rose, £18.95, a perfect choice, I thought. Light enough to quaff, yet dry enough to be perfect with food. A peek at their wine list filled me with joy: Sancerre, Chablis, Malbec, Rioja Reserva and several more decent wines – a list chosen by a sommelier of some distinction.
It was a Sunday evening but The Swan was still packed with diners. There was a wait for the table but the wine was good and so was ambience and the company, we were more than happy to enjoy some conversation and the old world charm of this delightful Amersham hostelry.
After sinking the first bottle we barely noticed the wait and were cheerily showed to an upstairs table by the charming waitress, Charlie Eales. There were two menus on offer, the main food menu and Sundays@The Swan. From the main menu we decided to share the Seared Fresh Black Pearl Scallops with tomato and olive dressing served with a parmesan crouton, £8.95. Like oysters, I always find scallops better with a Sancerre, but anyway, they were simply delicious, perfectly seared, plump, tender and divine, I could have eaten twenty.
For mains, I picked “The Main Event” a three meat traditional roast featuring roast beef, Honey glazed pork and turkey. My delectable companion chose the roast Pork with crackling, but as it was the end of the busy day and much to her disappointment the crackling had all gone. I think it’s always the sign of superlative service when restaurants are willing to be flexible with their menus and there was no problem switching the slow cooked pork belly from the main menu to add to her roast, £9.95. All my meats were fabulously cooked the beef slightly pink, just as it should be, the turkey perfectly moist, the lovely pork and served with apple sauce. The potatoes were perfectly crunchy, yet fluffy inside and the vegetables crisp and full of flavour.
However, when I tasted my companions’ pork belly the taste buds went stratospheric. The meat so tender it melted in my mouth, the skin slightly crisp and coated with a “sticky Crabbies’s alcoholic ginger beer. Needless to say she jealously guarded her plate for the rest of the meal.
If there was any criticism it was the gravy. In my view a good gravy can make or break a roast and this one was a tad thin and lacking flavour. Surely the kitchen must generate loads of lovely meat juices to produce a more flavoursome offering? Never mind though, the plates were still emptied and we were both so full that a desert was out of the question.
After the meal we had a chat with the young chef, Ben Hall, who told me his story from pot washer to master chef working his way through the company, Mitchell and Butlers, to become the head chef at The Swan. There were plenty of other tempting dishes on offer including slow-braised shoulder of lightly spiced, Welsh lamb £14.95, roasted rreast of duck with dauphinoise potatoes, butternut squash, curly kale with an orange and grand marnier sauce, £15.95 and many, many more. Together with the general manager, Kevin Concannon, they have developed a strong standard menu along with specials as “Cattle and Cork”, “Ladies Nights”, “Wine Club” and “Fin and Fizz” seafood nights and are bursting with ideas for more. They make a great team and Kevin runs a tight ship which is sailing in full steam ahead. I will certainly be going back again the sample more…..
Feeling full, we took a walk back long the High Street searching for a night cap. We stopped first at the Elephant and Castle who not only sold fine ales they also had a simple menu of rustic dishes that I’d certainly like to go back and try. http://www.elephantandcastleamersham.com/
The last stop was back to the Kings Arms, for old time sake. The young crowd was a little boisterous and it was not easy to find a seat. I went to look for the old photo of Arthur Machen by the fire place but sadly it was no longer there. Sign of the times I guess. http://www.kings-arms-hotel.com
Walking back through the cold, slightly damp streets still lurks something of the supernatural about Amersham. Maybe that’s why I’ve been drawn back many times to it over the years and will certainly be back again.
122 High Street, Amersham, Buckinghamshire, HP7 0ED
Tel: 01494 727079