Bacon and maple syrup. Chilli and chocolate. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. Just a few collaborations that shouldn’t work, but somehow do.
The same could be said for the partnership of pizza and cider. Did the people who invented pizza drink cider with their margheritas? They probably would have if they invented it in Dorset.
Ahh, Dorset – the home of the Dorset Knob, a giant chalk knob, Shaftesbury’s “Hovis Hill” and two Thomas Hardys – Hardy the author and Hardy the sailor who is only known for granting Lord Nelson’s dying wish at the Battle of Trafalgar (“kiss me hardy” and all that).
Dorset is also home to The Stable – a restaurant that specialises in the ingenious combination of pizza and cider (oh, and pies too). The first Stable opened in Bridport in 2009. Since then, the concept has taken the west country by storm – it has restaurants in Weymouth, Poole, Falmouth, Plymouth, Newquay, Bristol and Bath. The Stable is now expanding beyond the south west with a restaurant in Winchester and ones planned in Southampton and Birmingham.
I was lucky enough to get an invite to the Winchester restaurant’s opening night. So I jumped on the train with Smudger and took the short trip up to Wessex’s ancient capital to see if the combination of pizza and cider is as delicious as it sounds.
It was a stunning and incredibly humid afternoon as we made our way down from the station and through the archway from the High Street into the L-shaped street that makes up “The Square”. The restaurant is located roughly halfway between two pubs – The Eclipse Inn and the The William Walker – a pizza toss away from the cathedral.
As we approached, I could see that a few people were already enjoying some alfresco cider on the seating area on the street in front of the restaurant. We received a warm and friendly welcome from the staff at the door and then took some time to get our bearings as we sipped our complimentary glass of Prosecco.
The set up is informal in a nice way. Once you’ve taken your seat at one of the wooden benches, you place your order at the bar, which is situated on the ground floor. Menus are on clipboards on the tables, as well as on large chalkboards on the walls. The immaculately stacked highchairs signalled that children are welcome here.
I’d imagine that downstairs will feel comfortingly cosy in the winter. This evening however, with the floor-to-ceiling doors opened out onto the bright road outside, it was the complete opposite as the relaxed buzz of the city centre permeated the room.
If downstairs is cosy, upstairs is anything but. Here you can really stretch your legs out as you watch the chefs prepare and cook the pizzas and pies. Chandeliers, which complement the modern decor, hang from the high ceilings.
Let me stop you there – I think the cider deserves a mention first. The Stable stocks more than 60 – that’s 6-0 – ciders at any one time, with most of them on tap or out of the bag. Far more than you’d get at a half-decent beer and cider festival. And we’re not talking about your run-of the mill Strongbow or Magners, or any of this fruit “cider” malarkey (which as you know isn’t actually cider at all). We’re talking real cider – most of it from small west-country producers. That means that it tastes of – get this – apples.
Despite being born in Dorset and then living in Somerset for 17 years, I’ve only relatively recently taken an interest in cider. So I didn’t have a clue which ones to try. Luckily the restaurant’s “stablehands” know their Cornish Orchards from their Orchard Pig, and were able to provide recommendations. We started off with a New Forest still cider (sweet – 7%), which helped us quench our thirsts after a brisk walk from the top of town. Next, we tried the Copse House Landshire (medium – 6%). It turns out that this is produced in north Dorset only a few miles from where I grew up.
In the meantime, we also got to try some of the restaurant’s pizzas. First up was the margherita (£8.50) – tomato sauce, fresh basil and mozzarella. I don’t usually go for the simple option when it comes to food, but this really highlighted the delicious taste of the crispy sourdough base, which the restaurant uses for all its pizzas. However, it was the toppings that stole the show on the other pizzas we sampled, because the base – delicious as it was – became a vehicle for ferrying the amazing mix of ingredients to our mouths.
Take the “Wooly Wintonian” (£11.50) for instance – tomato sauce and mozzarella with marinated lamb, mint, goat’s cheese, thyme, and roasted sweet potato and onions. Or how about the “Barkham Blues” (£10.50) – herb-roasted potato, blue cheese, spinach and roasted onion, again with mozzarella and the restaurant’s fresh tomato sauce. We also tried the “Four Cheese Special” (£10.50), the “Blazing Saddle” (£13), which came with sour cream and slices of jalapeno, and the “Fresh Hawaiian” (£11.00) with optional chilli and fresh avocado – all delicious.
If the theme at The Stable is pizza and cider the philosophy is based around keeping things local where possible. Not only is some of cider sourced from Hampshire producers, but the ingredients for the pizzas haven’t travelled far either. For instance, the blue cheese on the “Barkham Blues” pizza is from the Two Hoots cheese company, which is based in Barkham (naturally) on the Hampshire/Berkshire border, while the pork on the “Hampshire Hog” is from A Pinch of Salt Curing down in New Milton on the edge of the New Forest. Ingredients from Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Devon and Cornwall also feature heavily on the menu – The Stable has clearly built good relationships with top-notch suppliers.
As it happened, foodstuff was also central to the additional ciders we tried. We sampled the Ashridge “Devon Bloom” (medium/dry – 4%), which was an incredibly refreshing cider with added elderflower, as well as Mr Whitehead’s Beetroot Cider (4%) with – you’ve guessed it – added beetroot juice. We finished off with the Orchard Pig “Maverick” (4.4%). Made with chilli and ginger and other spices, this tasted like apple strudel – amazing stuff!
A lot of eateries have opened up in Winchester recently, but many of these seem to be either national chains or backed by a celebrity chef. And while The Stable is not truly independent – it’s part-owned by Fuller’s – those who like to keep things local will appreciate its commitment to using Hampshire producers where possible.
However, it’s that combination of pizza and cider that will tempt me back. Actually, scrap that – I’m happy with just the cider. I’m sure I won’t be able to resist a pizza or a pie after a couple of pints though. Maybe that’s the plan?
Info: The Stable is at 31b The Square, Winchester. It’s open every day from 12-11pm (food until 10pm). Phone 01962 878333.
Disclaimer: The food and some of the alcohol was free at this event.