Christopher Gray discovers a cheerful village local where the chef says he owes much to his mum

‘I hope he’ll tell you that I taught him everything he knows,” says Mandy Barker as she ushers chef Tom into our presence in the cosy dining room of The White Hart at Minster Lovell.

And Tom Curtis is indeed quite happy to acknowledge Mandy’s influence upon him. This is actually to be expected, in fact, since when he speaks of Mandy he is speaking of his mum.

How well the 25-year-old has absorbed his lessons was evident in the super dinner Rosemarie and I enjoyed two Saturdays ago with our pals Paul and Drew. Dishes were at once imaginatively conceived and — as might be judged from the photographs on this page — most attractively presented.

Tastes were fresh, where required, and in some cases suitably robust as befits food being eaten as the chill winds of autumn begin.

This was one such breezy night, and we were glad to see a cheery blaze in the wood-burning stove as we strode into the bar of the 16th- century former coaching inn after our taxi ride from Witney.

The original plan had been to travel all the way on a Stagecoach S2 bus. But we were informed just in time that the Minster Lovell stop has moved from outside the pub to the turning just off the A40. This means a 25-minute walk and, as will perhaps be understood, I don’t do 25-minute walks.

The revised plan involved the S1 via Eynsham to Witney, with a pit stop at the Company of Weavers, the excellent JD Wetherspoon pub in the centre of town.

This meant I could further acquaint myself with the company’s recently expanded range of gins. These include Broker’s, Portobello Road and Sipsmith’s which, since I know its expert distiller Jared Brown, was the one I went for.

My taste for mother’s ruin continued at the White Hart. I enjoyed a Bombay Sapphire and tonic in front of the fire (others had beer) as I learned Mandy’s news.

She and husband Brian returned to the pub in June, and to their many welcoming customers, after seven years away.

As holders of the lease, they decided to resume responsibility again and, with Tom’s assistance, run it as a true family business. For Brian, who was brought up in Minster Lovell, the White Hart has long been part of the family, for his uncle, Jim Cross was landlord in the 1940s and 50s.

This was long before I knew the pub, though my memories do go back quite a long way. Writing about the place in 1992, I remarked that it had once been known as The Pike because of its proximity to the turnpike road.

Long before the National Health Service, customers ran a sick benefit club, with a subscription that was divided between doctors’ fees and the provision of a bumper annual feast.

At the time of my visit, I noted the unusual arrangement for access to the cellar, down illuminated steps beginning beneath a table. These days there is a yet more novel arrangement with the steps disguised beneath a large beer barrel which opens to reveal them.

Gin and beers completed, we were shown into the candle-lit dining room by the evening’s hired-in waiter Tom. He had been a colleague of Mandy’s at the restaurant at Witney Lakes Resort — her boss, in fact — but he is now in the cafe at Burford Wildlife Park. His service proved as expert as the other Tom’s cooking.

So, let’s bring on the food . . . First up for us all was an amuse bouche of Tom’s devising featuring pork and black pudding in a jacket of oats with chunks of beetroot and apple. This proved an elegant introduction to what was to follow, in my case a slice of ham hock, chicken and tarragon terrine with pear and apricot jam.

Rosemarie had one of the two special starters, seared scallops with devilled cauliflower puree and a shallot bhaji. Drew had the other which, being mussels in bloody mary with aioli and beer bread, was likewise revealing of the intelligent taste combinations here.

Witney Gazette:
Starter: Seared scallops

Paul, a significant trencherman, began with Oxford sausage meat and apple sauce (plus maris piper potato mash, black pudding crumb and pickles) before graduating to the night’s special 16oz T-bone steak which came, as does much of the meat, from Baker’s butchers in Witney.

My main course was a special, too, an 8oz blade of beef, slow-cooked for eight hours to a juicy, sticky tenderness with a Guinness and mushroom sauce, Swiss chard (too fibrous for me), roast purple carrots and baby roast potatoes.

This had originally been Rosemarie’s choice but a sudden reduction in appetite led her to swap for the saffron, king prawn, mussel and monkfish stew, with fennel and butterbeans, that I had ordered.

From the main menu, Drew was very happy with confit duck leg and orange, with beetroot and potato gratin, shallots, runner beans and spinach.

To finish I had the British cheeses (Stilton, brie and Wookey Hole cheddar) while the others quickly disposed of a slice of white chocolate and Milky Way cheesecake with toffee popcorn and drunken sultanas, and Hollygog Pudding, a suet-free suet pudding (if you catch my drift) with plum compote and ice cream.

We drank The Old Man’s Blend (but of course!), from South Africa’s Groote Park winery, largely composed of herby sauvignon blanc with semillon and chenin blanc in the background. With the beef, I went for the house merlot.

The White Hart
Burford Road, Minster Lovell, OX29 0RA
01993 778629,

Opening times: Open daily noon to 11pm. Food served Tues-Sat noon-2.30pm, 6-9pm; Sun noon-3pm. No food Monday.
Parking: Large car park holds 30+ cars.
Key personnel: Owners Brian and Mandy Barker, chef Thomas Curtis.
Make sure you try the... ham hock, chicken and tarragon terrine (£6), Oxford sausage and apple sauce (£6), saffron, king prawn, mussel and monkfish stew (£13.50), confit duck leg and orange (£13), eight-hour braised blade of beef (£15), Brian’s cheese plate (£7), white chocolate and Milky Way cheesecake (£5.50)
In ten words: Top-class food in a cheery and characterful village local