In these modern times, you can buy a pint of beer from ten o’clock in the morning. To help it down you could order a budget meal from a satisfyingly familiar menu. All this just a step away from your house into the embrace of a town centre chain pub, foregoing the pleasure of a rambling drive to a tiny village in deepest Wight.
But what can your country pub do to lure hungry and thirsty punters to cross the Island to its threshold? It can have a spectacular view, it can stock an interesting selection of ales, entertain with live music or a children’s play area. Or be the only pub in the village. All of these are proven to bring in the punters, sure as eggs is eggs.
We’ve been known to drive a considerable distance on the promise of a decent meal and sometimes on just the hope of one. And so it was we went to Whitwell, home to fewer than six hundred people who may or may not know that they have the Island’s oldest pub on their doorstep.
We like a traditional community pub and certainly the White Horse falls into that category. If you are unencumbered with dogs or children – as we were that night – you will qualify to sit in the main bar of the pub; probably the oldest part of the building and the room with the fireplace. As we perused the menu regulars gossiped at the bar and there there was a pub quiz taking place in the family room.
We’ll put it out there now, we’ve never had a bad meal at the White Horse. We’ve enjoyed some fabulous steaks, a sizzling plate of fajitas and some exceptional chicken supreme. However, that was all so many chefs ago. Like any restaurant, staff come and go – and this country pub is no exception.
The menu is pretty comprehensive; pages of pub grub specials; plenty of grilled meat and burgers, seafood, lighter meals and even a selection of curries. Matt, of course, chose from the specials board – his eyes lit up at the home-made partridge pie. Pigeon and pheasant are not untypical wild birds that you might find on your plate, but partridge is next level game.
The pie was spectacular-looking. Someone with generous eye had cut Matt a huge slice of pie and he wasn’t going to complain. The pie was a proper pie, none of those casserole-with-a-puff-pastry hat affairs that are thankfully disappearing from chefs’ repertoires. No, this was oodles of partridge meat encased in a short-crust jacket, all covered in a rich homemade sauce that was just too good to be called a gravy. Alongside came chips, and a generous bowl of five different veg that made the whole dish ridiculously good value at only £10.95.
Although things are improving, pubs (and restaurants) can sometimes still offer an indifferent choice as a concession to our meat-free friends. Unexpectedly there was an interesting selection of vegetarian dishes on the menu at the White Horse, including tomato and basil gnocchi with Parmesan shavings, and garlic mushroom and Stilton puff tart.
Tempting as these options sounded, Cat was even more tempted by the prospect of a light bite dinner. Regular readers will know that she likes to kid herself that she has a small appetite but the true reason is that a smaller main means room for pudding! Light bite fish and chips it was then.
The dish was as requested, beer-battered cod in miniature. The chunky chips were the regular size, if not the full price portion and this all suited Cat very well. Cat’s not a big fan of batter; too many experiences of flaccid slimey interiors or overly crispy coatings that have had a negative impact on the delicate fish within. At the White Horse, to use Goldilocks’ well-worn saying, the fish and batter were just right. Crispy without being desiccated, soft enough inside but not sludgy. The chips were exceptionally good examples of the pub chip genre and the peas were as good as peas can be.
And, as predicted we had room for pudding. The selection of homemade desserts was on a board up by the bar. Studying this gave us the opportunity to eavesdrop on the locals’ discussion about ferry prices. Even this far from the terminals of Red Funnel and Wightlink, their pricing structure was a point of great interest and debate. There are a few local subjects guaranteed to provoke a lively discussion. Another is what is the greatest number of staff you have seen in the lighting section of Hurst’s, Newport and what is the earliest date you have spotted red trousers in Cowes. We once had dinner with some random strangers, where we were seated together banquet-style. One of our fellow diners started chuntering on about a fixed link before we’d even finished our starters. At the beginning of the meal? Locals bridled, overners looked on in bemusement. That provocative topic should surely be left until enough booze has flowed to resolve the matter via a fist fight in the car park.
Partridge pie £10.95
Light bites fish and chips £7.45
Puddings 2 @ £5.25
Anyway, pudding. Matt took on the White Horse’s equivalent of the Pointer Inn’s legendary ‘atomic’ pavlova. In Whitwell this classic dessert was served with pie filling-style cherries and a mighty dollop of chantilly cream, topped with a towering meringue thatch. It was a pretty good effort; the meringue was big and fresh and with the requisite soft, slightly gooey interior. Would have again.
Oh my! Thank heavens Cat had had the lighter bite main; her cherry brownie cheesecake was a wedge of substantial pud. The usual biscuit base had been substituted with a thick layer of chocolate brownie, topped with a creamy mixture that had more than a hint of raspberry about it despite its cherry label. It was rather superb. The firmish cheesecake and softish brownie were good complimentary textures and the whole thing was ridiculously indulgent.
So, as we had hoped, the White Horse was worth us travelling across the Island to visit. It wasn’t just the food that had us eulogising; the staff were friendly and welcoming. The venue was your classic country pub, with a pretty decent menu and some quite breathtaking puddings.
This is the full-length version of a review that was printed in the Isle of Wight County Press.