The Maytime Inn, Asthall
Wine tasting and a slap-up dinner? Muddy's Anna Brech is in there like swimwear at this gorgeous Cotswolds village gastropub.
It’s no mean feat turning a remote country pub into a go-to foodie destination – but that’s exactly what owner Dominic Wood did when he arrived at The Maytime Inn in Oxfordshire seven years ago. The inn had not changed hands, or indeed changed at all, in decades. In order to survive, a dramatic makeover was called for.
Wood stepped up to the challenge, flexing his Grand Designs skills in transforming not only the look of the place (deep cleaning, stripping out carpets, restoring period features) but also in almost every other element, from a brand new kitchen team to six beautifully conceived bedrooms upstairs.
This kind of major change is a gamble but happily for The Maytime Inn, it’s one that has paid off. The pub is now thriving and seems to have sidestepped the character erosion that is so often the fallout of an entirely new business model.
This is a place that is polished without being fancy-pants; that delivers great food while resisting even a glimpse of pretension. As such, it lures in a wide, often international, crowd and the management team are constantly upgrading their menu and rooms to keep pace with demand. At the same time, local events – including a quiz and a wine tasting night – ensure the pub stays right at the centre of its community.
The drive to The Maytime on a cold November night feels like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. Clouds of fog loom up across winding country roads and we find ourselves repeatedly asking the sat nav, “erm, are you sure about this?”
The pub itself is based in Asthall: more of a hamlet than a village, with just a handful of homes, a church and an old-school telephone box. Through sheets of rain, a 17th century golden stone inn emerges, trimmed in vines and muted shades of Parisian green-grey paint. Windows cast a merry glow out into the darkness and, even at a fairly early hour, we can hear the soothing babble of conversation and laughter emerge from within.
Once inside, the layout is meandering enough that you can set your own tone within it: whether that’s an intimate glass of bubbly by the bar, a chilled family meal or a bigger, more boozy gathering up on the balcony area.
At the same time, the space is brought together by a warm, well-nourished vibe. The pub is full of nooks, from window seats brimming with cushions to round tables set by a cheery log burner. Features such as exposed brick walling and white wooden beams speak to the heritage of the pub, while also lending a dash of something modern and fresh to the mix. Other design touches, including effusive chalkboard signs and bowlfuls of fresh hydrangeas set atop a stack of wooden packing crates, add to its unstuffy allure.
With some places, you relax immediately – it’s hard to pin down why, but you just know that you’re in good hands. With its friendly and confident poise, The Maytime has exactly that vibe.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Of course a great welcome only goes so far; what you really want is fantastic grub. And this is where The Maytime really steps up to the plate (*gets coat*). The kitchen’s menu ranges from à la carte to pub classics and a Sunday Roast that changes weekly; all underpinned by local, seasonal cuisine.
But we are here for something a little different: the wine tasting evening that happens every season or so in the pub’s private events room. Set off the side of the bar area, the backdrop is inviting, with a long candlelit farm table simply dressed and framed by mismatched chairs. There’s a glass roof overhead – on which we can hear the faint pitter-patter of rain – and the walls are lined by exposed brick and muted green panelling.
This is not a wine tasting in the traditional sense of the word: you do not need to know your oaky from your oxidised in order to attend. Instead, the laid-back session led by Alberto Galesso of Berkmann Wines, an independent merchant, is simply a chance to discover new wine tastes teamed with dishes to match. The choice of wines changes every time, but they’re generally quite unusual: you’d be hard-pushed to find them on a supermarket shelf.
Some may balk at the idea of hanging out with a gaggle of strangers on a Friday night but it’s a surprisingly fun and energising thing to do. As our makeshift squad of around 16 wine-tasters gather for an aperitif of Finca Perdriel Extra Brut – a delicious citrusy bubbly from the Mendoza region of Argentina – bells strike up from the village church, and there’s a ripple of celebration in the air. It feels convivial and decadent; a bit like Christmas come early.
Before each course, Alberto does a quick run-down of the history of the wine its paired with. Up first is a beautifully light serving of smoked trout from nearby Bibury, offset by the slight tang and creaminess of celeriac slaw. It comes with a serving of white Rioja, with a peachy flavour that’s fresh and not too sweet.
The Maytime prides itself on local sourcing, including a game supplier who has the right to shoot in surrounding fields (and who sometimes surprises guests when he turns up, bounty in hand, during breakfast service). We have him to thank for the main of pan-fried venison loin, pink in the middle with a lovely soft texture. It’s served two ways: in cuts atop a bed of velvety mash, and enmeshed within square, deep-fried croquettes.
Again, it’s the flavours that wow here: the sweetness of the butternut squash puree and jus are the perfect answering call to the earthy, darker tones of the game. The shallot rings are a fun extra touch, too. The dish is finished with a dusky Australian pinot noir with hints of plum and berry that bring out the rich smoothness of the venison.
For the final flourish come an apple tarte tatin. In grand old tradition of the French dessert classic, it arrives with golden buttery fruit and a deep, caramel-y crunch. A dollop of vanilla ice-cream and delicate twirls of spun sugar complete the effect. Ribena would have tasted good in such company as this but instead we have a Chilean harvest wine with a distinct honey aroma.
The presentation is brilliant too, with a lot of thought has gone into the colour and composition of each plate. Service is also friendly and super-efficient, and – pleasingly for a wine evening – the staff don’t scrimp on tastings, which are generously topped up at every turn.
If gin’s more your thing, however, this is also the place to be: The Maytime serves over 150 different kinds, alongside a roster of tasting events.
OUT & ABOUT
Nearby Asthall Manor is a sprawling Jacobean estate that was home to the Mitford sisters in the roaring 1920s. It’s become a beacon for international visitors thanks to On Form, its biennial sculpture exhibition next held in June 2020. A series of pop-up events are also held throughout the year in the manor’s statement ballroom, offering a glimmer of the Mitford sisters’ eccentric joie de vivre.
The Maytime itself is beautifully situated in the heart of the Windrush Valley, and a five-mile round walk from its doorstep will take you through an evocative landscape of shimmering willows and river wildlife for which this corner of the world is loved. There are plenty of lovely local market towns to amble around, too, from Whitney to Charlbury and Northleach. Expect plenty of honey-coloured stone, alongside a helping of independent boutiques, bookshops and tucked away delis/tea shops. If you’re planning on a trip to Burford, don’t miss Burford Garden Centre with its fantastic (if pricey) collection of upmarket homeware, stationery and luxury beauty products.
For children, pop the National Trust’s Sherborne Estate (above) a 20-minute drive from The Maytime, on your radar. The surrounding woodland is great for a family walk, and you may well spot farmland birds, raptors and even otters en-route. Finally, die-hard foodies should head to Upton Smokery, mere moments away, with a seriously good selection of locally smoked meats and fish. We hear the weekly BBQ buffet nights here are unmissable, and they’re year-round too: just check ahead for opening times.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: An indulgent weekend break that doesn’t break the bank. Also a stop-off for anyone in need of some rest and TLC. If you’re craving some time out and a reminder of the good things in life – countryside, great food, strong hospitality – this place is soup for the soul.
Not for: A wild night on the tiles. You can absolutely let your hair down at The Maytime, but if you’re looking for somewhere to boogie til dawn you may well be disappointed. Also this isn’t the best option if you’re travelling minus a car. Charlbury is a 20-minute taxi ride away, with direct routes to London, but you’ll be limited for options beyond the pub itself.
The damage: Cocktails, sandwiches and a la carte starters and will set you back around £8 a piece, with mains hitting the £15-£20 mark. The wine tasting comes in at a very reasonable £40 per person, including three courses and a flight of wines. Gin tastings are £25 per person, including shared boards such as garlic and rosemary baked camembert with fruit chutney and crusty bread. Rooms start from £90, with breakfast included.
The Maytime Inn, Asthall, Burford, Oxfordshire, OX18 4HW; 01993 822 068
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Words: Anna Brech