If there’s one thing we can be sure of in these uncertain times, it’s that you can’t beat a great country pub with a roaring fire on a wild and windy night. It’s a place of refuge, of warmth, even sanctuary. It feels just right, the beer’s great – throw in the fact that the food is superb and you’re getting pretty close to heaven.
So let me usher you through the door of The Spotted Dog, sitting atop the village of Penshurst. Mind your head. You could be stepping back in time, 50 years, 100, take your pick – the place is 500 years old. A fair few people have been this way before.
The first thing you notice as you pass through the unusual glazed hallway is an astonishing open fireplace. It’s the best I’ve ever seen in a pub. There is a fine, massive back plate and a variety of ovens and ironwork. Huge logs are piled up. Later, the fire will become quite mesmerising.
There is a warm welcome awaiting you when you reach the bar too. Nigel and Louise, who took over the Dog in 2014, have brought with them a charming family atmosphere, creating a firm foundation to a well-known pub that had been through some fallow years before their arrival. Three daughters are often helping out, and there is a genuinely happy, huggy feel to the place.
On top of all this history, they have been freshening up their menu. Louise, who cooks up a storm in the kitchen herself, says: “It is exciting to have a new input of ideas. We are creating top dishes using fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. We want to offer good, traditional country pub food.”
We settle in cosily near the fire with frothy pints of real ale. I have gone for the Harveys, Sussex best bitter at its finest, a local favourite with its chestnut-coloured bittersweet maltiness. My guest chooses Larkins Traditional, a bitter from just up the road in Chiddingstone. It’s only 3.4 per cent, which has made it an ideal choice for the pumps of many country pubs in the area with a reputation for dining. It’s light and breezy but with a full flavour and a pleasing hoppiness.
To start, I have opted for the salt and pepper battered squid with sweet chilli sauce. The beer has added an edge to my appetite and I can’t wait to dive in. The seasoning is delicately poised and nicely balanced; the coating succeeds in being crispy and squelchy at the same time. The sauce has a soft, smoky burn to start, followed by a burst of flavour. It’s a favourite, and this one is a sensational winter warmer.
My guest has gone for the pigeon breast with pear, which is on the Christmas menu. The slices of meat are pleasantly crunchy around the edge and the fruit complements the bird perfectly. Again there is a neat, smoky tinge. Perhaps the fire is getting to us.
By now the place is filling up with locals and the landlord Nigel is holding forth at the bar. “I must have caught 40 whiting on Southwold Pier,” he proclaimed. “They were big ones, but it’s poor man’s cod. You can throw them on the barbie, but who has a barbie this time of year?”
For the main course I have chosen venison stew with dumplings. I find it hard to resist a dumpling and I’m glad I didn’t. The deer is disarmingly tender and the sauce is deep, dark and rich. This is a seductive dish, and soon I feel rather like a dumpling myself, melting inexorably into the scenery just as the real thing succumbs and turns into crumbly loveliness.
There’s a perky mashed potato with a delightful tang, though I’m not sure what it’s in it, and lashings of little leeks. It’s a dish that has every last part of your mouth reverberating. This is feelgood food at its finest – and of course it goes so well with the real ale. It’s heads down all the way to the end of the plate, and it’s only when you finally put your knife and fork down that you realise how much you’ve eaten.
My guest has gone for the steak and stilton pie, which is something of a speciality. It comes as a chunky slice of a bigger offering rather than in a little bowl of its own. It’s what pies are supposed to be. And it’s a genuinely remarkable one too. An intense combination – that doesn’t do it justice, and there’s a moment when you think it might be too much… then you just keep going – it’s incredibly moreish. My guest is almost fighting me off with his fork. Next time I’ll have that, I think.
For pudding I have the apple and winterberry crumble – blackberries on the day – and it’s probably a dish for two, but I am not defeated. It’s another treat, the exceedlingly crumbly topping is blended with nuts and it cascades decadently into the fruit, which tastes as fresh as if it’s just been brought in from the lanes.
My guest dives into the salted caramel brownie with vanilla ice cream. It has just the right combination of slightly crusty exterior and melting interior.
By this time you can hear gossip from at least three villages wending its way from the bar. The fire is soporific now, the beer has been flowing freely, and the only problem is that, with the rain clattering against the windows, you just want to have a nightcap and then retire to bed. Nigel and Lou are kind and generous hosts, but there are limits.
It should be said that if you go to The Spotted Dog on a bright sunny day, there is an extra bonus awaiting you. This pub is renowned for its view, looking out over the valley and the village. There’s a river running through it, and it’s not called the Eden for nothing. On a summer night, there is no better way to observe the dying of the light.
And this pub has so much more to offer. The family are always devising ways to entice you back: I can testify that Sunday’s roast beef is superb; there are renowned curries on Monday nights; then you’ve got live music, cakes in the afternoon, golf and dining combinations, interesting gin offerings, Test rugby on TV, the list goes on… It’s a place that works so hard to serve its community – and one that succeeds with effortless ease.
It’s everything that a great country pub should be – and the food is stunning. So many folk have been this way before, and there will be many more.