Food & Wine Matching at The Punter, Cambridge

A while ago, I reviewed Cambridge’s first private member’s club, 12a, for my blog (here).

It turns out that the brother of 12a’s front-of-house manager Mark Pope is a chef at local gastropub The Punter, so when I got an invitation from Ben Pope to a food and wine matching evening, I was keen to pop along.

Formerly The Town and Gown, it was previously a somewhat uninspiring place located on the corner of Cambridge’s inner ring road.

However, re-named and made over, it is now a smart, sophisticated and chi-chi place that five years after opening still looks way ahead of its time with its combination of traditional rough-surface oak beams and bare bricks juxtaposed with Victoriana-feel high-back chairs and ornate picture frames.

Arriving unfashionably on time, I was more or less the first there and got to chatting with the presenter for the evening, Jacko from Jascots Wine Merchants about business models, internet retailing, Laithwaites and a run-in he had with another internet-only retailer and one of their producers.

We started with a Prosecco on arrival which Jacko (in the left-hand picture box above) explained is proving much more popular in these harder economic times than Champagne.

There was the opportunity to add a choice of pureed fruits to make a Bellini with berries and cream hors d’oevres and, at the end of a meal, I would have been tempted to try it out, but as an traditionalist, I stuck with it plain as an aperitif. Elegant, light and fresh, it had a slight aroma of pears and some lifted sweetness on the mid-palate.

To me, any Prosecco is never quite as good as good Champagne, but then I can’t imagine ever considering putting fruit puree into a good Champagne as it would be too much of a waste.

As we sat down to eat, Jacko and Punter-owner and Head Chef Paul explained a bit about the evening which had been organised in aid of the East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices.

The format would be first a collection of picnic foods with suggested matching wines followed by a couple of cooked dishes. Paul had devised the menu as a one-off for the evening and sent it to Jacko for wine matches – this is perhaps the hardest way to match a wine, from a simple written description of a non-standard dish where there are so many variables.

Much easier would be to have several possible alternatives and a batch of the food to taste a range of possible options and decide on the most appropriate match. However, clearly that had not been an option and I was intrigued to see how well the matches, done remotely, would work.

Seating had been partially pre-planned, dinner-party-style, and I found myself on a table with Jacko himself plus the editor of one of our local Cambridge magazines, a high-end contract publisher and a young couple, one of whom was an aspiring writer whilst the other was researching a cure for cancer.

With so many creative types around the table, the conversation was lively and wide-ranging as we discussed the merit of back labels with tasting notes on wines (a good thing, in my opinion), natural cork vs screwcap (no strong opinions other than I like the sense of occasion from popping a cork) and writing on the internet vs novels (pick your themes and keep repeating, the internet requires volume and frequency).

The table was laid out picnic-style with rabbit rillettes, parma ham, rabbit liver pate and some very delicious bread whilst Jacko handed out two very different wines to match; a Lugana Trebbiano from Lake Garda and a Maranges from Domaine Bachey-Legros in Burgundy.

The Trebbiano had a minerally nose with aromas of stone fruit, grapefruit and liminess on the palate with some lifted sweetness, good tropical-fruit acidity and a minerally finish. Very good.

However, the red burgundy was a revelation; with a hedonistically textbook Pinot nose of vanilla, mushroom and decaying forest floor, it had lots of juicy sour-cherry fruit acidity and a beautifully soft texture with a toasty, savoury finish.

It was served slightly chilled, a frequent recommendation for lighter reds but something I have never quite had the confidence to do myself – however, in this case it worked very well. I remarked to Jacko how impressed I was with this wine and he explained that 2009 had been a particularly good vintage for this estate.

Next up came a trio of crisp whites – a Chablis Premier Cru from Romaine Bouchard had a smokey, toasty nose, linear stone fruit acidity on the palate, a rounded mouthfilling structure and a long toasty finish. It matched superbly with a dish of potted crab and pickled samphire.

Next was a rather disappointing Riesling from West Cape Howe in Western Australia which felt very tart. Australia seems to be having a bit of a mid-life crisis at the moment with its whites and reminds me a little of an overweight and out-of-date rock start trying to squeeze into a ridiculously skin-tight outfit for a come-back.

The reason we loved Australian whites in the first place was because of their big, ripe, fruit-driven appeal that had all the up-front appeal of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. But rather like 70s glam rock, more recent Aussie whites have become bloated parodies of this with the result that there is something of a punk backlash going on, with producers opting for a much more stripped-down, raw and bracing cool-climate feel.

Jacko declared himself seriously unimpressed with this wine, even when resampled and hour or so later.

Much, much later in the evening I resampled one last time and it did finally seem to have rounded out and become something much more pleasant and interesting, but by that stage I was perhaps the only person in the room prepared to give it one final chance.

The last of the trio of whites was a much more instantly appealing Sancerre from Domaine Laporte to match with smoked mackerel. Another classic-style wine, it had a good, typically herbaceous and aromatic nose and rounded, linear, mouthfilling acidity with some toasty smokiness and a very dry, mineral finish which needs food to match.

We then moved on to the cooked part of the meal with a joint of muntjac (a local, very small deer species introduced several hundred years ago and now something of a minor pest) with potatoes, runner and broad beans and mint. With its gamey flavours, the deer was a textbook match for the Pinot we had tried earlier in the evening, but perhaps did not need quite so much barbecue seasoning which threatened to overwhelm the subtle flavours of both the meat and the wine.

As the evening wore on, it became more like a lively, and slightly rowdy, dinner party and ever less like a serious wine-tasting. Jacko proved himself to be opinionated, forthright, outspoken and wickedly funny, worth the price of admission alone and leaning over to me at one point to whisper a schoolboy comment completely unrepeatable yet utterly hilarious.

He also grabbed my tasting notes and took exception to some of my drafted comments as I had written “sour” to refer to the lovely, food-friendly sour-cherry acidity on the red Burgundy which he intepreted literally and took as a criticism.

The final dish was a chorizo and lamb kebab which was matched with a Cal Pla Crianza from Celler Joan Sangentis. The wine itself was full of ripe up-front bramble fruit, vanilla and toasty finish was declared a favourite by many around the table. After the classy and sophisticated Old World style wines from earlier in the evening, I found it rather up-front and primary, but it was a superb match for the lamb which, for some reason, always matches well with this style of Big Red, brambly, fruit-driven wine.

As desserts had already been served at the start of the meal, there was nothing left to do but remember not to scratch my nose or make any other gestures conceivably resembling a bid during the charity auction, enjoy the banter and chat and quietly re-sample the wines to make final notes.

I also popped into the kitchen to say my hellos and thank yous to chef Ben Pope, though I suspect he remembers more of the conversation than I do.

And finally, after chatting with owner Paul about the evening and his plans to hold the event every quarter with a seasonal theme, it really was time to admit defeat and head home.

There were a few leftovers and I took a quarter bottle of the most impressive wine, the red Burgundy, with me, but by the following day, the truffley, mushroomy nose had faded even if the lovely acidity, texture and long toasty finish were still showing well.

Recommended wine

All the wines here were good – even the Australian Riesling with enough air, eventually.

However, to find a good Pinot Noir around £15 is no mean feat – to find a delicious and classy one from Burgundy is quite something, so my recommended wine is the Maranges Vieilles Vignes Pinot Noir 2009, Domaine Bachey-Legros, £16.35 from Jascots



The Punter –

Jascots –


Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

The Willow Tree Bourn Revisited

Earlier this year, I wrote about The Willow Tree, Bourn - a gorgeous gastropub in the picturesque village of Bourn with great food and drink served by friendly staff and led by an awesome couple – head chef Craig and general manager Shaina. A few days ago, on a warm summer’s day, some friends and I decided to head to The Willow Tree, Bourn for a lovely lunch enjoyed while we soaked up the sun on the terrace of this destination gastropub.

On arrival, we were warmly greeted by Shaina and shown to our table outside – a beautiful organic creation shaped from a single piece of wood taken lengthways from a tree. It even still had a nobbly knot coming out of the wood that begged to be touched. I love quirky and vintage furniture and The Willow Tree is an eclectic mix of shabby chic, rococco inspired gilt mirrors, vintage leather sofas, a variety of dining chairs and my favourite piece – a designer wooden white stag’s head displayed proudly inside a gilt frame.

Out on the terrace, the chic touches continue with silver butterflies placed in the topiary, crystals threaded on twigs that dangle from a traditional willow screen and antique clock faces hung randomly along one side of the beautiful willow screen.

The summer menu tastes as good as it looks and the specials on offer are inspired – I particularly liked the Ravioli with Beetroot Pannacotta – an inspired fushia creation that tasted creamy yet still managed to be light and fluffy. Hats off to Craig for coming up with a perfect summer alternative to a cream sauce. Another favourite of mine was the Lime & Vodka Cured Salmon served with Samphire – the combination of sharp citrus, salty salmon and velvety vodka worked brilliantly.

My friends tucked into a generous serving of whitebait as their starter which they followed with The Willow Tree’s famous Bourn Burger which were served with hand cut chips which looked like mini railway sleepers! If you love your chips then these thick tasty chips will definitely satisfy your carb cravings.

As it was a hot summer’s day, the choice for dessert had to be ice cream and sorbet. The Willow Tree have an excellent selection of Mövenpick ice creams and have recently introduced the delectable flavours of Beckleberry’s ice creams and sorbets. These confections are hand made in the North East of England and are truly exceptional. I went for a combination of Raspberry ice cream and Blackcurrant & Kirsch sorbet – all I can say is WOW! The flavours of the Beckleberry offerings stand up admirably to the Mövenpick flavours we have grown to love so much that Craig and Shaina have served to us in the past.

Our waitress, Catherine, was the epitome of customer service excellence. She was attentive without being over-conspicuous and served us in the warm friendly manner we have come to expect from this gem of a gastropub nestled in the Cambridgeshire countryside. I always judge a pub or restaurant not only on the food but also on the attitude of the staff. The Willow Tree gets 10 out of 10 on both counts. Craig is doing an excellent job overseeing what comes out of the kitchen and Shaina has obviously trained her waiting staff very well indeed.

If you would like to experience the incredible hospitality of The Willow Tree, Bourn for yourself then Sunday 14th August is a perfect time to stop by for some tropical chillaxing. Shaina & Craig will be hosting a Caribbean BBQ & Garden Party on 14th August from 2-8pm. On the menu includes the traditional tropical flavours of jerk chicken, curried goat, fiery prawn skewers, rice & peas, corn on the cob, baked plantain, hot & spicy sweet potato and avocado salad.

These will all be washed down with tropical cocktails like Rum Punch and Pina Coladas together with the usual excellent drinks menu served at The Willow Tree, Bourn. In addition, a live steel band will be playing for part of the afternoon and a fantastic local DJ will be spinning some reggae tunes throughout the day to get us all in an island mood.

Places are filling up fast so I highly recommend you book your table by calling 01954 719 775. Alternatively there may be room for you to bring a pinic blanket or rug to lazy away on the grass under the namesake Willow Tree opposite the outdoor terrace. Don’t bring a picnic too though as that’s a bit cheeky and anyway there will be plenty of delicious Caribbean food to savour thanks to Craig’s BBQ.

So, what are you waiting for? Pick up that phone and dial 01954 719 775 and ask to speak to Shaina or one of her team to book your place at the Caribbean Summer Garden Party that anyone who is anyone will be attending!

The Willow Tree
29 High Street, Bourn, Cambridge, CB23 2SQ
Tel: 01954 719775
Like The Willow Tree on Facebook

Images reproduced from,, and