Inn With Freddie — The Anchor
The Anchor, Shapwick, Blandford DT11 9LB, 01258 857269
Published in August ’08
Why should there be a pub with a nautical name like the Anchor in an inland village like Shapwick? No-one really knows the answer, but it might have something to do with the fact that just across the fields from the village is what used to be the highest navigable point on the River Stour. It was also a major crossing-point in Roman times.
It is especially ironic because the best-known story about the place pokes gentle fun at the villagers. It has it that a large crab fell off a fishmonger’s cart in Shapwick and its grotesque appearance and six legs convinced the villagers that it was a ‘land monster’. They watched in fear and astonishment from the safety of their cottages as the fishmonger returned, picked up the crab and trundled off.
I have pondered before about when a pub becomes a restaurant, but the owner of the Anchor, Mark Thornton, insists that it is a pub first. Certainly the décor fits that description: the three interconnecting rooms have red-tiled floors, scrubbed pine tables and an eclectic variety of pictures on the walls. These range from modern art through a photograph of the village football team of 1954-55 to an account of a fire which damaged or destroyed a large part of the village; it is undated, but I would guess at the late 19th century. We sat under a very agreeable watercolour of the pub by Tony Stimpson. Mrs Freddie appreciated especially the large vase of lilies at either end of the main room in which we sat, and the way they scented the air.
Mark has been at the Anchor since March last year. About six months before, he and his wife visited the Anchor for lunch, fell in love with it and so found the course of their lives changed. Mark had been a City dealer but made the switch effortlessly, not least because he had the sense to recognise his limitations and to hire first-rate staff to help him run the business. The situation is unusual because a previous owner was about to close the pub and sell it for development, so 22 residents of the village clubbed together and bought it, then leased it back as a pub. If there are stresses and strains to having 22 landlords, Mark does not show them!
He may insist that it is a pub, but the menu would grace many a restaurant: ‘What an amazing menu’ was Mrs Freddie’s reaction when she saw it. It may not be very extensive – six each of starters, mains and puddings – but every dish on it is interesting and enticing. It changes daily and great emphasis is laid on the use of produce from Dorset ‘and its shores’, as the Anchor’s publicity rather charmingly puts it.
I actually started with the least interesting thing on the menu, a leek and potato soup; it could perhaps have benefited from a slightly heavier hand with the herbs, but the accompanying farmhouse bread was first-rate. Mrs Freddie was more ambitious with her seared pigeon breast, accompanied by caramelised chicory, warm bacon and a balsamic vinaigrette. She said that it was almost like a sweet and sour dish, given the contrast between the chicory and the balsamic on the one hand and the bacon and flavourful pigeon on the other.
She was also complimentary about her main course of pan fried black bream, crushed potato and spring onion, with a saffron and anise velouté. I had to ask her what a velouté was, but it turned out to be a smooth sauce – so smooth, in fact, that we wondered whether there could be any connection with the word ‘velvet’. (Later research with the French dictionary showed that it does indeed mean ‘velvety’.) She enjoyed both the subtle flavour of the bream and the crispy edges where it had presumably been resting against the sides of the pan.
Perhaps it was a dim memory of the story of the crab that led me to choose the crab salad with a tomato, chilli and lime salsa. The salsa was the making of this dish, with the chilli and lime combining admirably. I am not sure that the crab got much of a look in, flavour-wise, but the overall effect was still most acceptable.
We find that we can’t manage three courses at lunchtime now, so we resisted the tempting pudding menu. We had seen enough to know that the food at the Anchor is excellent in conception, cooking and presentation. As you might expect, the prices are commensurate with a restaurant rather than a pub, with a three-course meal averaging out at over £20 a head without drinks (although ciabattas are on offer at lunchtime and brunch on Saturdays.). Despite this, there was barely a seat empty on the Monday we were there and a combination of the pretty setting and the fine cooking are making it into a popular destination from a large surrounding area – excellence always wins through.