Review: The Red Lion
A fun-filled foray into the world of fizz
Like many good things, it began with a glass of Prosecco. Simon, our charismatic expert for the night, described an appley flavour with light pear drops. It was our turn to taste… Yes, I got the pear drops! Simon circled the room which buzzed as everyone sipped and pondered the contents of the glass.
We were in Stevington at The Red Lion’s Fizz & Chips event, one of the many fun occasions hosted by the popular country inn since their reopening last year. Simon Franklin, their resident wine buff, was on a mission to demonstrate that nice bubbles are for drinking at any time, not just on special occasions, and I for one was happy to be persuaded.
His opening gambit was a glass of La Gioiosa Prosecco DOCG Valdobbiadene. Sales in Prosecco have boomed in the UK so I welcomed Simon’s tip to look out for DOCG on the label to find a good bottle in a saturated market. The production region of DOCG is a hilly area in north-east Italy, where Prosecco is produced in smaller quantities and is considered superior. This doesn’t suit the mass market, explained Simon, but you get a better wine as the grapes are left to mature longer.
So, one delicious glass consumed and one interesting snippet learned. This was going very well.
Simon introduced his next choice, a Codorníu Selección Raventós NV Cava, produced by the Champagne method where the wine, sugar and yeast are fermented in bottles, giving a more concentrated flavour with toasty undertones from the yeast. This tasted like a perfect party drink to me but, Simon is right, at a third of the price of Champagne there really is no need to save it for a special occasion.
Simon is full of fascinating facts and his down-to-earth style made him easy to listen to. Easy, that is, when the room is paying attention. After our second glass we were all having fun and the noise level had increased a notch. I had a feeling that this stylish gastro pub had been the perfect setting for many good times during its first year.
Next up was a South African fizz, Graham Beck Brut. Simon talked of complex biscuity, brioche and smoky flavours and we were all keen to sip and search for these in the glass.
At this point, perhaps aware of just how much we were enjoying the wine, Simon offered a receptacle to tip away any unwanted drinks. One guest was horrified. “Who does that?” she exclaimed as laughter filled the room. It was the middle of November but in Stevington the festivities had already begun.
Simon won back our attention with fizz number four: a glass of Selborne Classic Cuvée Brut from Hampshire. English sparkling wines have soared in popularity and Simon explained that the best are produced on the south coast which shares the rich seam of chalky soil as the Champagne region of France.
I’m not sure I got the baked apple he described but the wine was delicious. I didn’t want to offend the South Africans we’d been chatting to on the next table but I liked this one more. So far my favourites were the Cava and English fizz at £9 and £20-25 respectively. I asked Simon why English wines are so pricey: “Grapes aren’t subsidised like other crops are here, the land is more expensive, wages are higher than in Europe and we can’t yet produce a guaranteed level of stock.”
Simon announced that we had reached hallowed ground as he popped the cork of a Gallimard Pere et Fils Les Riceys Blanc De Noirs, our first Champagne. There was an air of eager anticipation in the room and he managed to quieten a lively table to explain how Champagne grapes are always hand harvested to avoid damage.
The excitement and noise levels rose again as Simon uttered the word Bollinger. His jovial style took on a serious note as we were given two flutes and told that we must keep them apart. Simon was aware that we were all getting a little squiffy and had to persist above the chattering, “Is everyone understanding what I’m saying?” he checked. Yes, of course we were… hic!
I had a glass of Bollinger Special Cuvée in my left hand and a glass of Bollinger La Grande Année in my right and wondered if I was in heaven. We sipped each in turn and compared notes. They were both delicious but inevitably the pricey Bollinger, at £90 a bottle, was everyone’s favourite.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, the food arrived. I’d been enjoying the fizz so much that I’d forgotten all about the chips! I was expecting classic battered fish and deep fried potatoes but we got so much more. We greedily devoured big, fat chips, beer battered cod, lobster mac and cheese, curried haddock fishcakes, Rockefeller mussels, tuna sashimi and crab rarebit, dipping them all in a homemade tartare sauce. Gosh, the kitchen at The Red Lion really knows how to create good food. And at £45 for all of the fizz, delicious food and Simon’s expert knowledge, the event was more than a bargain. The evening had massively exceeded my expectations and we still had more to come.
“We’re on the home straight” Simon declared. Our eighth (yes eighth!) glass was a sparkling rosé from Italy, Cleto Chiarli Brut de Noir. Simon explained the difference in the production of rosé… something about keeping the skins on for half a day pre-fermentation but his words were lost in the buzz of guests having a great time.
We had one wine to go - a Villa Cialdini Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro - and Simon warned us that it was a real curveball. My glass was filled… with dark red bubbles. Now that was a surprise. The room erupted again with discussion while Simon explained that this Lambrusco is dry and crisp with fruits of the forest flavours. It was a far cry from the versions I remember in the 80s.
There is no doubt that the team at The Red Lion know how to put on a fantastic, fun-filled event. We chatted to a couple from Olney who confessed, “We come here a lot. Probably too often. We just can’t fault it and the food is amazing.” The Red Lion has plenty more events to look forward to in 2020. I suggest booking early so you don’t miss out on the fun!
The Red Lion Stevington
1 Park Road, MK43 7QD
This review was written by Jacqui Hagen and first appeared in the FebMar20 edition of OVL Magazine. Photography by Ant Hagen.