The mellow fruitfulness of Hampshire inspired English romantic poet John Keats to write his Ode To Autumn after a walk along the River Itchen near Winchester.
Almost two centuries later, the county has become the perfect destination for anyone planning a break based around food and drink, with fantastic local produce harvested from both its coast and countryside, a host of food festivals held throughout the year, and some of the biggest farmers’ markets in Europe.
Just a few miles outside the county town of Winchester sits Stockbridge, a picturesque town in the heart of the Test Valley, which won Google Street View’s inaugural award for the foodiest high street in Britain.
Uber posh, the town straddling the River Test is the stomping ground of the Hunter welly, red cords and Barbour brigade; Range Rovers compete for the free parking spaces which run along the length of the road on both sides, and numerous pubs and cafes put out big metal water bowls for passing black Labradors.
It’s not uncommon to see braces of pheasants swinging outside the windows of John Robinson’s butchers shop; bright plumage ruffling in the breeze, rivalling the emerald feathers of the bossy ducks who jostle fat trout for titbits tossed into the chalk stream flowing beneath the high street.
Stockbridge is a rare find for foodies, its single street boasting two deli bistros – one with its own fishmonger – a chocolate shop, two pubs, a bakery/tea room, an Italian restaurant with woodfire pizza oven, a butcher, wine merchant, greengrocer, an Indian restaurant, and a fine dining pub and hotel.
The shelves of Thyme and Tides bistro and deli are packed with unusual delicacies alongside almost 40 cheeses, charcuterie, local sourdough breads and luscious Isle of Wight tomatoes. The fish counter groans with plump scallops, huge tiger prawns, and fat fillets of monkfish and cod.
It can be tricky to find a table in the popular bistro, but it’s well worth the wait. Tempting deli specials and homemade sweet treats are served either inside or in the sunny, south-facing garden, where dog walkers can call in for a coffee on their way back from a gentle meander along the Test, which carves its way through the wide open spaces of Stockbridge Common Marsh just a few minutes along the street.
If you can’t find a table at Thyme & Tides, head up the road to its sister site, Woodfire, where the menu is inspired by Italian ingredients and – as the name suggests – a woodfire oven produces excellent pizzas and panini. Now open into the evenings on Friday and Saturday, Woodfire is a great place for a family supper, with those authentic Italian pizzas sitting alongside more sophisticated fare like crab linguini, fig, walnut, pear and gorgonzola salad, and sharing boards crammed with all manner of temptations from meltingly soft arancini to tempura squid with lemon aioli.
Upstairs is Coffee Lab, one of a rapidly-growing mini chain spreading out from Winchester through Hampshire and Wiltshire. The quality coffee is the draw here, although you can pick up a small selection of sandwiches and a gooey brownie if you’re feeling peckish.
Across the street, the newly-opened Prego is a stylish little gem of an Italian deli serving fabulous Italian meat and cheese sharing platters, fresh pasta cooked to order, and real hot chocolate.
And if chocolate is your thing, then stroll along to Mokaya Cocoa, where the smell alone is enough to tighten the waistband. The window looks like something Willy Wonka would have dreamed up, with giant colourful lollipops, sugar mice and cellophane-wrapped chocolate treats. Inside, shelves are lined with old-fashioned sweetie jars, and dozens of handmade chocolates are displayed in a glass cabinet; it’s great fun choosing a selection to fill a pretty box tied with a ribbon – perfect for a dinner party gift, or to eat at home alone if you can’t bring yourself to give it away.
For a traditional treat, Lillies of Stockbridge is a pretty tearoom and bakery with an outside courtyard fronting the river. Start the day with a buttery toasted crumpet, or end on a high with a traditional cream tea. There’s also a gluten-free range of goodies, which ensures no one goes away empty-handed.
For food to cook at home, the charming Beccy’s Greengrocer has a wide choice of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables that’s hard to beat. There’s plenty of top-quality local produce on offer, including the lip-smackingly good Jude’s ice cream, made in Hampshire with flavours like Sticky Toffee Pudding, Black Coconut, Flat White Coffee and Hot Toddy.
Just next door is John Robinson, High Class Family Butcher, famous for both its sausages – made on the premises from free-range Hampshire pork and sage from Basingstoke – and its well-publicised defiance of the beef-on-the-bone ban at the end of the 1990s. All the meat in the shop is from naturally-reared animals, and beautifully-marbled beef is hung until dark and mature. It may be pricey, but this proper, traditional butcher is a rare treasure; where else could you call ahead and ask them to leave your order hanging on a nail at the back of the shop for you to collect on your way home from work?
There are a couple of period pubs to wet one’s whistle: The Grosvenor, an impressive Georgian building where diners can enjoy a selection of traditional English classics, and the Three Cups, a 15th century coaching inn where a sun terrace overlooks a stream running through a pretty rose garden.
Hampshire’s greatest country pursuits of shooting and fishing are brought together in splendid fashion at The Greyhound on the Test, where low, beamed ceilings and scrubbed oak tables set the scene for shoot dinners, and superb lunches are served to fly fishermen on the pub’s own private slice of riverbank.
This stylish pub is tempting, too, for serious foodies, who will find much to fall in love with, from the cauliflower and apple veloute, a silky velvet soup surrounding a light-as-air beignet of Isle of Wight blue cheese, to earthy and rich beer-glazed pork belly with roasted loin, crispy pancetta and a carrot pesto with hazelnuts and wild garlic.
Stockbridge’s fine food pedigree is celebrated at its popular Trout ‘n’ About festival, held on the first Sunday of August each year. The historic high street is packed with more than 100 stalls showcasing the best local food, produce and crafts. There’s the chance to try local water buffalo, venison, game, fudge, cheeses, cider and wine from the Test Valley, and money raised is donated to local charities.
It may be just one street, but working your way from one end to the other requires a serious appetite for fabulous food – and very loose trousers!