The Old Fire Engine House, Ely
The Old Fire Engine House
25 St Mary's Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4ER
01353 662582 www.theoldfirenenginehouse.co.uk
A la carte
Starters £7.70 - £8.70 | Mains £21.50
Desserts £8.80 - £9.50
Cooking 6/10 | Service 5/5
Flavour 4/5 | Value 5/5
Do spirits move you? In our increasingly secular society, is there still a place for miracles and wonder? Hold these thoughts as you explore the pretty little cathedral town of Ely. There is history by the bucket load. Consider the cathedral alone - the oldest part of which dates back to Norman times - and ponder what it has witnessed over the centuries.
For a modern day food wonder, do as we did and stroll a few hundred yards along to the site of tonight’s dinner. I use the pre metric measurement advisedly. That's what was in use when Ann Jarman founded this place in 1968. I can see the bored expression on your faces from here. So, you're muttering, he's trying to imply there's something mysterious about a restaurant which is 54 years old?
Not exactly, dear readers, though not it's not that common. But wait for this. The SAME Mrs Jarman still runs it today. I have an aversion to exclamation marks, but I think one could have been justified here. And no, it's not fast food; it's not bacon rolls; it's, er, English food. Not exactly a unique selling point in 1968 or in the couple of decades thereafter, till Gary Rhodes made it fashionable again. Ann herself says that many told her it wouldn't last.
The menu boasts of local produce. We try to use the meat, game, fish and vegetables that are produced in the Fens. I believe that's been the case from day one. Again, commonplace now, less so half a century ago.
At 7.15 on a Friday, the place is hotching. We are among the few diners who aren’t immediately greeted by our first names. There are three little dining rooms, furnished with elderly (but comfortable) chairs, and tables which wouldn't have been new in 1968. The smells wafting from the kitchen are wonderful. There are 8 starters and 8 mains. No Japanese condiments to boast of, nor ingredient lists to leave you in suspense. Just a mouth watering bill of fare that tells you clearly what to expect.
With one exception. What is Mitoon of pork? we asked of Teresa, our smiley waitress. It turns out to be a coarse pork terrine, flavoured, I guessed, with mace. I have found a reference to it in Elizabeth Ayrton's The Food of England and was glad to see my guess confirmed; however, Ayrton herself could cast no light on its origin or name. But very fine it was, served with just a few well dressed leaves and some nondescript red onion relish. Not for the first time I tried and failed to resist a starter of crab mayonnaise, the more alluring since it came from just a few miles along the road. Stunning, but served with plain, undressed leaves which seemed a shame.
Let me talk you through my main. A large breast of chicken split lengthways and cooked to perfection, napped with a light cream sauce with ham, leek and tarragon. On the side on the plate a couple of huge roast potatoes. So that's the side veg? Nay. A large oval plate for two arrives, laden with leeks, cauliflower and roasted veg. Sounds what you might have thrown at you in a so called English restaurant, does it not? Well nay again. Perfectly steamed cauliflower with a hint of a delicate cheese sauce; leeks so fresh they needed little more than butter and salt; and little cubes of parsnip and carrot. When you roast veg in such small chunks they can easily dry out. Not here. Teresa tells me they steam the veg to order. I could have happily scoffed that whole veg platter by itself.
L’s pork didn't look appealing on arrival, but was equally lovely. Simply roasted and served with excellent gravy. The stuffing was intriguing. We think there was cauliflower, and there was certainly fresh mint. Her two potatoes were roasty perfection, crispy and fluffy, the two halves collectively the size of a cricket ball. The next miracle. Each of these plates of food, including the side veg, is yours for an unbelievable £21.50! Washed down with a good, venerable Pinot noir, this was just Friday night perfection.
Who's in the kitchen? I asked Teresa. Cook of the day, came the reply. Eh? There are four in total. (Restaurant owners of the UK, with your chronic chef shortages, I share your pain.) Ann and her late husband Michael used to do a day each. Ann now looks after the gallery upstairs. Plates of puds passing by looked huge, traditional and delicious. Not a single leftover was spied going back to the kitchen.
We're used to young cheery waitresses. In Teresa's case one adjective would have been out of place. I ask how long she's been working here. 44 years, she smiles, just trying to work out if I like it. She made the same crack a couple of years ago in Ann's earshot. Pah, Teresa, came the reply. You're still on probation. So, perfect staff here for decades, and four cooks who sign in to the ethos of the place and who can cook up a storm. Truly, a place of miracles.
I've heard much about folk from the Fens, not all of it positive. I can attest that each and every one we've met has been lovely. I'd heard nothing about the food of the Fens. Based on this I can tell you that it's even lovelier.
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