The Cotswolds is all your chocolate-box fantasies rolled into one – honey-hued cottages, gardens brimming with hollyhocks huddled around duck-paddled ponds. The names are as pretty as the scenery: Moreton-in-Marsh, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold. Even the local rare breeds (Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs) have a bonny ring. This is Cider with Rosie country: a bucolic idyll packaged for tourists who traipse here to mooch around antique shops and take afternoon tea.
It’s quintessentially quaint. It’s also unexpectedly vast. Count the Cotswolds’ counties: Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, plus corners of Wiltshire, Somerset, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. From north to south it’s a 100-mile schlep. Off-the-beaten-track is a concept the Cotswolds lost long ago, but its central belt – a lopsided oblong with Burford, Cheltenham, Stroud and Lechlade at the corners – does fly slightly below the radar.
Kneading up a storm in Painswick, near arty Stroud, is Israeli baker Ori Hellerstein, whose Nelson loaves have a cult following (theartisanbaker.co.uk). Named after Nelson Mandela, they’re packed full of pumpkin, poppy, nigella, sunflower, sesame and linseed, plus yogurt and golden syrup. The result is heavy but healthy with a sweetness that goes perfectly with cheese or smoked salmon. I made a beeline for his stall at the award-winning Stroud Farmers’ Market where you can find him every Saturday from 9am-2pm (fresh-n-local.co.uk).
Also at the market is Hobbs House Bakery, of Fabulous Baker Brothers fame (hobbshousebakery.co.uk), though their lardy cakes, the local sweet and sticky spiced fruit bun, weren’t quite as moreish as those at Huffkins (huffkins.com) in Burford. My bag bulging with red wine and fennel salami from the Cotswold Curer (thecotswoldcurer.co.uk), yogurt from Jess’s Ladies Organic Farm Milk (theladiesorganicmilk.co.uk) and a bunch of multi-coloured carrots I toyed with having lunch at the much-acclaimed Dinner at Six (dinneratsix.co.uk) but hit the road again.
At Frampton Mansell, on the road between Stroud and Cirencester, the Jolly Nice café and farm shop is a gourmet pit-stop set up by Harriet Wilson and her daughter Rebecca in a disused filling station (harrietsjollynice.co.uk). There’s a deli, a butchers selling meat from the family farm’s rare breed Shorthorn cattle, a meadow for summer picnics and a wood-burner-warmed yurt to retreat to in winter with one of the kitchen’s Jolly Nice burgers: a brioche bun piled high with salad, cheddar, smoked bacon, caramelised onions, rapeseed mayo and ketchup, the burger’s key ingredient – Shorthorn beef – still shines.
Definitely leave space for Harriet’s ice cream, though. It all started with an ice-cream maker picked up at a car boot sale on her 15th birthday. The journey to the filling station was a meandering one that involved a mobile ice- cream parlour and years of experimentation. Today, flavours range from brown bread, rhubarb and custard to chocolate and crystallised bergamot. My choice? Pistachio and orange blossom.
I was staying in the oblong’s northern corner at No 131 in Cheltenham (no131.com). An elegant Grade-II Georgian hotel with a restaurant and handful of quirky rooms (mine had a free-standing tin bath and a knitted cosy on the teapot), it’s part of the Cotswolds-based Lucky Onion group, a clutch of restaurants, hotels, pubs and b&bs set up by husband and wife team Sam and Georgie Pearman.
Much of the restaurant’s produce is sourced from local farmers and producers (order eggs for breakfast and they’ll have come from Cackleberry Farm in Burford). My lunch of Wiltshire lamb fillet with merguez sausage, caponata and tzatziki, fregola primavera (a vibrant spring green) and beets was a riot of colour and flavour.
The group also hosts regular food events and suppers with visiting chefs. At sister business, The Wheatsheaf – a gastropub with rooms in Northleach where I’d had meltingly rare beef from Cirencester butcher Jesse Smith the day before – recent events have included a series of Japanese suppers with local MasterChef finalist, Andrew Kojima (cotswoldswheatsheaf.com).
Asian flavours are also on the menu at Made by Bob in Cirencester (foodmadebybob.com). Ciren is a real foodie hub with a cluster of gourmet hangouts that includes Jesse’s Bistro (jessebistro.co.uk) – the meat sourced from the adjacent butcher’s shop at the front – and Jack’s Coffee Shop (@jacks_shop). But the town’s hottest table is arguably Bob Parkinson’s fuss-free restaurant and deli a couple of streets away, which is currently being refurbished in order to open in time for Christmas.
Cotswolds born and bred but returned from a stint in London, Parkinson is passionate about Asian cooking. His restaurant in the town’s old Corn Hall has a huge open kitchen and is a great place to grab lunch. On the daily changing menu you’ll often find geng jeut, a fragrant and clear Asian broth bobbing with chicken, shiitake mushrooms, coconut and deep fried garlic; and a real winter warmer – geng paneang, a rich red beef curry sprinkled with peanuts and Thai basil. There’s also a strong Italian influence – think grilled bruschetta with marinated peppers, artichoke, mozzarella, capers and basil oil – with Sardinian ingredients sourced from London-based Stefano Chessa.
Another Italian connection can be found just down the road at luxury hotel Barnsley House (barnsleyhouse.com). Once the home of renowned garden designer Rosemary Verey, the gardens remain a highlight. Produce picked by the chefs take pride of place in dishes such as tangy Barnsley House pickled beetroot, creamy goat’s cheese curd and candied hazelnuts.
Amid such ultra-local provenance it’s easy to be caught off-guard when you discover that head chef, Francesco Volgo, is Italian and that the house speciality is vincisgrassi, a rich mushroom and truffle oil lasagne. Wandering up to bed after dinner there were two surprises in store: a packet of Little Gem lettuce seeds on the pillow instead of chocolate and, in the fridge, a handful of fresh mint for tea – reminders that outside the window was a fruitful English country garden.