Long before fresh ingredients and a 'back to basics' approach to cooking became trendy in the UK, the fertile Cotswolds – a picturesque stretch of hilly land that is split between Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire in England’s west, crisscrossed with winding country lanes and dotted with thatch-roofed, picture-perfect villages – was already renowned for its diverse produce and the use of locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients.
However, the Cotswolds are eagerly embracing this current food revolution – championed by British chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein – and its many celebrated dining establishments are pushing Modern British cuisine to new levels of creativity. The Cotswolds’ draw for foodies also includes a great variety of local cheeses, meats, fruit, vegetables, honey, fish, ales, beer and more, found either at their respective sources or at the many farmers’ markets and food festivals held in the region throughout the year.
So what should you be on the lookout for? The Cotswolds are responsible for more than a hundred different varieties of cheese, including the fantastic goats’ cheeses from the Windrush Valley dairy; creamy organic Cotswold Brie made by Simon Weaver of Lower Slaughter; mild and crumbly Single Gloucester made of Gloucestershire cattle milk from Godsells Cheese; and St Eadburgha – reminiscent of Camembert – from Gorsehill Abbey. The production of Double Gloucester, a stronger-tasting, more savoury, less crumbly version of Single Gloucester, is not restricted to the Cotswolds, unlike that of Single Gloucester, but it is the only cheese in England to participate in the highly dangerous annual sport of cheese-rolling, held at Cooper’s Hill near Brockworth in the Cotswolds.
Meat-wise, keep an eye out for the organic burgers – winners of the Food Product of the Year at the Cotswold Life Food and Drink Awards in 2011 – and meatballs, courtesy of LoveMyCow from Tagmoor Farm near Bourton-on-the-Water in the central Cotswolds, as well as ethically-farmed boar products from the Real Boar Company and a locally-reared breed of pig – Gloucestershire’s Old Spot – on menus throughout the region. More exotic fare, such as smoked venison, trout and salmon, can be found at Upton Smokery near Burford in the east of the region.
A sweet tooth can be sated with ice cream courtesy of Winstones and the Cotswolds Ice Cream Company, as well as the locally-made classic British sticky toffee pudding or Banbury cakes – currant-filled pastries, baked in their namesake village in the northeast Cotswolds for a good 500 years.
Artisan brews abound. Ones to sample include the seasonal, quintessentially British The Dog’s Bollocks, a fruity pale golden ale, and Bah Humbug, a spiced dark golden ale by Wychwood. Also not to miss are ales – ranging from golden bitter Hooky and fruity Old Hooky to the dark, malty Double Stout – by Hook Norton, Bulldog golden ale and Nelson, a classic bitter, by The Patriot Brewery, and Codger, a dry, crisp beer with a hoppy finish, Stunner, a malty, fruity pale ale, and Rascal, a fruity, citrusy wheat beer, by the Cotswold Spring Brewing Co. Non-alcoholic tipples that you will find in village shops throughout the region include fruit cordials by Five Valleys and Benson’s apple juice.
Although it is a real joy to drive or ramble around the Cotswolds to find these delectable morsels and tipples at their source, if time is at a premium you can kill a plethora of birds with one stone by timing your visit to coincide with a major farmers’ market or one of the many local food festivals.
Due to its former importance as the centre of the cloth industry, the Cotswolds have a market tradition that goes back several hundred years, though for some villages, the switch to produce has been a fairly recent one. Case in point is Stroud – not the most picturesque of the west Cotswolds villages, yet its award-winning weekly Saturday market, launched in 1999, is the largest in the United Kingdom and attracts nationwide attention beyond its 60 or so stallholders – it was featured in the television programmes The Hairy Bikers’ Food Tour of Britain and Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, and was also the recipient of Best Food Market accolade at the BBC Food and Farming Awards in 2010. In the northern Cotswolds, Chipping Norton – a market town since the 12th century – holds its farmers’ market on the third Saturday of every month and features produce as diverse as Fosse Way honey, organic cheese, ales and even local wine, while the intimate market in Stow-on-the-Wold, held on the second Thursday of the month, is the place for baked goods and locally-caught trout.
When it comes to food fiestas, the Cotswold calendar is not complete without a visit to the Stroud Food Festival, part of a two-week food extravaganza in the first half of September – which celebrates the best of local produce without resorting to importing gimmicky celebrity chefs for the event. More niche is the British Asparagus Festival, attracting asparagus-lovers to the Vale of Eversham in the northwest Cotswolds between April and June each year with every imaginable asparagus recipe, auctions of the best 'gras' (as it is locally known) and other festivities. A new, small-scale festival that shows great promise is the North Cotswolds Food and Farming Festival, which combines fresh produce with teaching attendees about rare livestock breeds and farming. It took place for the first time at Cotswold Farm Park near Stow-on-the-Wold in October 2011 and is now planned to become an annual event.
Last but not least are the area’s many dining establishments, lauded for carrying on the tradition of Modern British cuisine – a backlash against the austerity of the World War II years, consisting of reinventing classic British dishes with Mediterranean touches – using the best of local seasonal produce and plenty of imagination and flair.
In the region’s northeast, Wild Thyme in Chipping Norton uses such seasonal ingredients to great effect, creating the likes of braised pork belly with Cotswold crayfish and pairing English cherries with a peach and pistachio salad. In the southwest, the succinct menu at Nailsworth’s Wild Garlic is a happy melange of international influences and has a changing monthly menu, dictated by market availability; the results – roasted bone marrow salad with capers, salt cod and shellfish Catalan stew – speak for themselves.
The French-influenced Old Butchers, in the highly-visited central Cotswold village of Stow-on-the-Wold, is not afraid to use offal, such as calves’ brains, alongside more traditional fare that includes slow-cooked mutton with pearl barley. In tiny Bourton-on-the-Hill, also in the central Cotswolds, the menu at the award-winning Horse and Groom is unashamedly British and deceptively simple; the quality of its beer-battered hake, slow-roasted pork belly and apple and rhubarb crumble, together with its home brew – Goff’s Jouster – sets it apart from its peers. The contribution of another miniature village – Upper Slaughter – to the rich culinary world of the Cotswolds has not gone unnoticed either; its ambitious pairings of Cornish crab with mango and veal sweetbreads with cep cannelloni, as well as more traditional poached chicken and braised beef, have earned the Lords of the Manor its Michelin star.
This article was first published in July 2012 and was refreshed in August 2012.