Gil Keane celebrates the start of the game season by paying a visit to the Vine Inn...
The Vine has been a licensed inn since 1836 when George Haines from Kidderminster and his wife Elizabeth, a local girl, opened officially to the public Its history goes back far beyond that, however, and the building has evolved from what is believed to have been one of the earliest water mills In the Midlands. Water mills, not surprisingly, have always been somewhere the thirsty could get a drink and a natural progression was to hang a vine or two (of hops, not grapes) on the outside of the building to indicate to travellers that ale was available, hence the name of this inn. Although The Vine is famous with the thousands of regular visitors to the magnificent Clent Hills, a stranger coming here for the first time could not fall to be impressed. Clent Hill and Walton Hill form part of a range stretching from south Birmingham right into north Worcestershire and the valley between the two main hills In Clent gives rise to the Clatterbach - which is the stream that used to make the water mill work.
It serves a different purpose now, acting as a beautiful feature of the large terraced gardens that surround The Vine. I can vouch for the fact that sitting out here on a warm day, with a cool drink, is a very pleasant experience indeed. Once inside; the atmosphere is cosy and welcoming the staff are friendly and keen to let visitors know of the choices and to make recommendations. The Interior, with its beamed ceilings, fireplaces and countless mirrors, period pictures and ornaments, mean you could spend hours just looking around and If I hadn't missed lunch that day, I might have spent more time doing that, but I had, so I was happy for Margaret and I to be shown straight to a table in the snug dining room. When offered drinks whilst we were perusing the menus I thought choosing would be easy but there is an amazing range of real ales, English country wines, ciders and perries, as well as all of the usual suspects.
The specials boards (there was a separate one for veggies) had a couple of interesting candidates for the main course, in the form of wild boar and venison. The publican Robert Whitby also farms nearby and the boar are from his land. In fact, he is the only person in the UK to have all of the licenses to rear, slaughter, butcher and bring to the meal table these exotic animals. He diversified during Foot and Mouth and seems to have recovered well. I settled for the boar with Margaret choosing the venison. I elected to start with the homemade carrot and coriander soup, while Margaret's fancy was tickled by the bacon and cheese potato skins.
My soup was indeed homemade, with excellent flavour and texture, and served with chunks of crusty bread and butter. Margaret's potato skins were so tasty she declared she was tempted to change her main course order to more of the same.
While we were waiting for the next course, I had another look at the menus. There was a huge range of choices and it dawned on me that this was because The Vine caters for families, hikers with muddy boots, diners out for a quiet meal and anyone who stops for a snack because it looks far too tempting to drive past. Just as this penny dropped, our main courses turned up.
My boar was served with a red wine sauce, onions, mushrooms and sauté potatoes and did not disappoint. The taste was surprisingly different from pork, with the flavour being less gamey and more subtle than expected and the texture was more like beef. It really did taste like a superior version. It speaks volumes for the benefit of a totally natural diet and a contented life in the beasts that we eat. Likewise, Margaret's venison, which was served with a black cherry sauce, (as befitting its more powerful flavour), was delicious, tender and moist - which venison often is not. It was served with fresh, seasonal and locally produced vegetables and dauphinoise potatoes. This really was grub for the top table.
A little of the irony of our situation struck me at about this time. Boar and venison is considered exotic and special in our modern, factory-animal times, but for hundreds of years, people around here, surrounded by forests, considered them normal, everyday meats and anyone who could hunt, or knew a poacher, could eat them. When your mind starts wandering like this, it's a sure sign you are feeling very relaxed but I resolved to finish the job I came here to do and studied the pudding menu. My eye was taken by the lemon and lime zing but Margaret was too fast for me, so I settled for an old favourite with a new twist - homemade apple crumble but with strawberry wine custard. My crumble was delicious, with the custard making an interesting and very tasty difference to expectations. Margaret's zing turned out to be a work of art, masquerading as food. Lemon and lime layers of ice cream were alternated onto a crunchy, biscuit base and the whole was decorated with lemon sauce and dark chocolate streaks If it hadn't started to melt, It would have been a shame to eat it, but eat it she did, Just allowing me a tiny taste to prove the superiority of her choice.
We had a great evening at The Vine. The meal was good, the atmosphere was homely and the conversation interesting and driving home both Margaret and I arrived at the same thought - anyone who had The Vine as their local was very lucky indeed.