Let Them Eat Quinoa
A trip into the country for quinoa salad and proper pub grub
The Marquise de Pompadour was a woman of many extraordinary talents, but sex wasn’t one of them. It gave her a pain. Yet as the titular mistress of Louis XV for nearly 20 years, the former Jeanne Poisson very sensibly recognised that spoiled rich men need to be kept busy if they are to be kept, and set about diverting the king with innumerable theatrical, artistic and architectural projects, of which the French rococo is the legacy. Louis’s other needs were serviced by the young ladies of the Parc aux Cerfs, his private brothel in the grounds of Versailles, staffed with recruits hand-picked from the premier filles-de-joie of Paris by the royal valet, Bontemps. Ever practical, Mme de Pompadour encouraged the girls to model for one of her favoured artists, Boucher, on their quieter days; the rosy-bottomed legacy of that may be viewed close to home at the Wallace Collection, as a reminder of how much better the 18th century was at organising its pleasures.
One of the last projects upon which the Marquise collaborated with her royal lover was the Petit Trianon, a stone’s throw from the nasty marble bungalow which Louis XIV erected in the 1680s for his dour, pious morganatic wife, Mme de Maintenon. If one is prepared to run the risk of being run over by a buggy-train of tourists, it’s possible to stand back in the park and see both buildings at once. Each encapsulates the spirit of its age — the exhausted pomposity of the late baroque against the spare, graceful elegance of Gabriel’s little masterpiece. La Pompadour never lived to enjoy the Petit Trianon, and after a brief occupancy by her blowsy replacement, Mme du Barry, the mini-palace was hardly used until it was given to Marie-Antoinette. Petit-Trianon and the nearby model-farm, the hameau, are known today as “La Domaine de Marie-Antoinette” and largely associated in the popular imagination with a silly woman playing at country life. The sophistication of the French 18th century lay in the equilibrium it achieved between gaiety and heartlessness; Marie-Antoinette was not a creature of her time and in this lay her downfall. She was too stupid to be heartless and too sentimental to be gay. Her legacy of silliness, however, lives on at the Soho Farmhouse.
A version of the countryside for those who are afraid of mud, Soho Farmhouse is a mega-hameau in Oxfordshire, on the edge of the absurdly pretty village of Great Tew. Part of the Soho House empire which began as the eponymous members’ club founded by Nick Jones, the Farmhouse continues the bourgeois-bohemian branding which has captivated aspiring metropolitan elitists from Barcelona to Miami. I have visited it three times — twice for professional reasons — and on each occasion have been addressed by the staff as “darling”. Perhaps this is supposed to make me feel a bit naughty and daring, the sort of person who might casually swap a quip with Zoë Ball in the original Soho House premises on Greek Street: the effect was to leave me longing for a pikestaff.
It would be too unsatisfying to start a revolution here — the clientele wouldn’t know an over-and-under from a side-by-side if you shoved it up their nose. Everything about the Farmhouse’s pretensions is ludicrous, from the milk-float delivering breakfast hampers to the cozily minimalist chalets to the Aga wives with £400 blowdries lunching on quinoa salad, which altogether make it much too easy an object for satire. The real legacy of Marie-Antoinette is the paint: a particular greenish-grey, tilleuil or linden shade, which has emigrated via the original boiseries of the Petit Trianon via the Île de Ré to the upwardly mobile middle classes of England. (Trianon gris, the paint shade which the Austrian queen purportedly gave us, was actually the product of a 19th-century restoration; this is the real colour.) The green paint trails in Mr Jones’s wake like Lucifer’s cologne. Wherever you see it, you know you can’t be far from a knowingly rustic sausage sandwich and a plus-sized selection of complimentary Cowshed toiletries.
The paint has arrived in Somerset, at the Talbot Inn, in Mells, another picture-postcard English village, courtesy of its co-owner Charlie Luxton, a former Jones employee. Luckily, the silliness stops there. The Talbot is about as nice a pub as you could wish to find, a proper pub with a cobbled coachyard and a low-beamed bar. On weekdays, they serve actual pub food — excellent fish and chips, ploughman’s or roast-beef sandwiches — as well as a serious restaurant menu. The food is innovative but thoughtful, with a particular emphasis on really interesting vegetables — maple-roasted squash on buckwheat and pumpkin granola with crispy nettles must come as manna to vegetarians weary of stodgy lasagne, whilst Jerusalem artichoke and seaweed accompany Brixham squid or lean, flavourful Norwegian skrei cod. At weekends, the Coach House Grill, an airy, convivial space behind the pub does — well, grills. Weedy townies that we are, we felt intimidated by the meatboard — a huge platter of chicken, lamb, steak and pulled pork, but we rejoiced in a 42-day-aged sirloin with lashings of chips and proper béarnaise sauce. My venison steak with shallot sauce (and more chips) was springy, bloody velvet. It would have set Mme de Pompadour up a treat. The wine list was just right, too, combining some serious French choices with juicier New World bottles, none of them stupidly priced. The staff are friendly and helpful and seem pleased to be here, and nobody called me darling except my date.
But what really makes the Talbot such a brilliant destination is that it feels — dare I say it — authentic. There were families celebrating birthdays, the local rugby team in for a post-match booze-up, several young couples gazing and snogging at the smoking tables outside, even a pair of old codgers with pints and papers (though they may have been on a contract to Soho House). It felt like a pub, except a bit better. There are eight bedrooms if you want to make a weekend of it, a cookery school which organises events, and you can stroll up to the church to visit Siegfried Sassoon’s grave. Trianon paint aside, it is everything that Soho Farmhouse pretends to be but isn’t — a sensible, generous, open-hearted toast to pleasure, and not a porcelain milking churn in sight.