A county for taste: cycling around Rutland, England’s secret foodie heartland

‘You can get a good meal for two out of one grey squirrel,” chef James Goss told me as we sat in his pub after the evening rush. “I prepped 20 today; that’ll be 40 portions.” He might make squirrel sausages. Maybe confit leg. Or squirrel linguine. But somehow, they’d be on the menu – nothing is wasted at the Kings Arms in Wing. “Vermin should be eaten,” he said. “If it gets shot, it gets bloody used.”

That’s how Goss feels about food. When he took over this 17th-century Rutland village pub in 2004 he threw out the microwaves and frozen nuggets and scoured the local area for top-quality producers and good, cheap, unwanted ingredients with which he could get creative; he even built his own smokehouse so as not to waste a glut of Rutland Water trout. I’d just enjoyed some of his delicate smoked trout paté, followed by muntjac chump – another pest species he’d rendered tender and delicious.

“We come from Northumberland just to eat here,” chipped in the couple on the table opposite, who turned out to be members of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust; when they come, they bring down culled greys for Goss’s kitchen – probably the only items sourced from so far away. A map on the pub wall, naming and locating the Kings Arms’ suppliers, showed how low its food miles are. And it indicated just how many interesting producers are packed inside England’s smallest county.

Landlocked Rutland calls itself the County of Good Taste. This rural, wheat-wavy, sheep-grazed wedge of the Midlands didn’t have a McDonald’s until November 2020 – the last county to hold out against the golden arches. Within its snug boundaries lie the 2021 Good Pub Guide Pub of the Year (the Olive Branch, Clipsham), the UK’s longest-retained Michelin star (Hambleton Hall), one of England’s last operational 19th-century windmills (at Whissendine) and a host of entrepreneurs doing appetising things. From 25-31 October, this culinary prowess will be showcased at Discover Rutland Food & Drink Week, a festival of samplings, beer tastings, pumpkin picking and special menus created by the county’s best chefs, culminating in the Rutland Ball.

But I’d come earlier, to combine the 23-mile, almost traffic-free cycle path around Rutland Water with parts of the new Food & Drink Trail – a 25-mile downloadable cycle route via various producers, cafes, brewers, fudge makers and more, in Oakham and countryside villages – to find out if the county was as tasty as it claimed.

The Kings Arms sits a mile south of Rutland Water, the massive reservoir in the county’s centre. But I’d started on the north shore, at the bike hire shop in Whitwell. And with breakfast in mind, I was soon pedalling up a leafy lane to Hambleton Bakery.

“When we opened in 2008, the building was a derelict power station,” said co-owner Julian Carter, as I drooled over his raspberry tarts, crusty sourdoughs and Rutland pippins – a Lincolnshire sausage, apple sauce and stilton pastry created for thITV show Britain’s Best Bakery (which Hambleton won). Carter, a 10th-generation baker, has an eclectic CV that includes stints cooking at Downing Street and Chequers. But his approach here is simple: “We set out to make good bread with no additives, using old-fashioned recipes and local produce.”

Hambleton’s spelt and rye flour come from a young local farmer who’s now using traditional methods to grow lower-yield, higher-quality crops. “As long as he’s got someone guaranteeing to buy it, which we do, he grows it that way. We have to pay more for less. But if you care about what you eat …”

It’s clearly working. Hambleton is expanding into new premises this year, with the original bakery here in sleepy Exton being turned into a cafe. I contented myself with scoffing a light, flaky eccles cake – Carter’s favourite, made to an old family recipe – before continuing my ride.

Back by the Water, I pootled past green banks and honking geese, following the cycle path into Oakham, Rutland’s compact “capital”. Here, the centre felt like a 1940s flashback: bunting strewn, market buzzy and lined with independents, from Otters Fine Foods cafe/deli to Leeson Butchers (purveyor of award-winning pork pies). I rode to the Grainstore, where Rory Gibson gave me a whistlestop tour of one of the UK’s few remaining gravity-fed breweries. “The ingredients are hauled up to the third floor and flow around the building,” he said, leading me through the former British Rail warehouse. “All breweries would have been like this before electricity. Now, most use 16 or so pumps; we have two. It’s a slower process but some say it results in a better taste.” Although it was a little early, I concurred: my honey-tinged Beesting was just the ticket for a warm day.

I was glad I hadn’t sunk too much, though, as I pedalled on via the hilly Hambleton peninsula’s short but steep undulations and the bird-busy lagoons at Egleton’s nature reserve. Eventually I reached the Garden Nursery, where behind the pot plants and lovely cafe an England cricketer has exchanged bat for barbecue tongs.

“I was introduced to braai-ing when I played in South Africa and I just loved that culture,” former fast-medium bowler Matthew Hoggard explained, as he showed me around the many barbecues, smokers and spit-roasters he uses to teach at his cooking school, Hoggy’s Grill. Unsure what to do after retiring, he finally decided to focus on what he loves most – eating and drinking, ideally outside, with flames – and opened Hoggy’s in 2020.

Hoggard is passionate and knowledgable about food and, I suspect, a most congenial teacher; as we sat looking over Rutland Water, we talked everything from charcoal to app-enabled meat probes (“you can bugger off to the pub and check your meat from there”). It turns out there’s a lot of skill to grilling, though the quality of the ingredients is still critical; for his burger-making classes, Hoggard sources “amazing” beef from Simpsons in nearby Stamford, twice winner of Butcher’s Shop of the Year. He admits that starting a business during a pandemic hasn’t been ideal, but he already has big plans: “I want to take people fishing on the Water to catch trout, and then come back here and cook it.”

Perhaps accompanied by a G&T? The Garden Nursery is also the HQ of the county’s first gin, Multum Gin Parvo, launched in late 2019, which uses ingredients such as Rutland acorns, elderflower and lavender to flavour its range. Its name is a play on the county motto: Multum in Parvo – much in little. I finished my ride by raising a little glass of its Migration Gin, which is infused with west African hibiscus, a nod to the ospreys that fly from the region to Rutland Water each summer. A donation from each bottle sold goes to an osprey conservation project. A tasty notion indeed.

The Kings Arms in Wing has doubles from £55 (room only), thekingsarms-wing.co.uk. Bike hire costs from £24.99 a day at rutlandcycling.com. Visit discover-rutland.co.uk.

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