Autumn, more than any other time if year, makes me forget my sworn city girl status and yearn for the countryside. Luckily, that craving for red-golden leaves and the feeling of being miles from anywhere can be satisfied a hop, a skip and a jump from central London - on Hampstead Heath.
A bracing walk calls for a hearty lunch, and the Spaniards Inn has been filling that hole for centuries.
It is an atmospheric old pub, full of nooks, crannies and history. In Dickens's Pickwick Papers, it is the scene of a tea party in the countryside, featuring huge quantities of bread and butter. A few centuries on, the portions are still quite hearty, though the food is luckily more varied.
The husband (for whom I am still thinking of a suitable nickname for this blog) had the 10oz rump steak (£16.25). It was juicy and rare, as ordered, and came with some peppercorn butter. Flavoured butter seems to be the trendy thing for steak at the moment, and in this instance it worked quite well. Lighter than the traditional creamy peppercorn sauce, it let the meat shine through more while still adding a bit of zing.
My attention was caught by the salad with avocado and halloumi, until I realised that it was the exact same dish as the one I had really enjoyed at the Island Queen in Islington a few weeks earlier -- the two pubs must be owned by the same people. So, in the interest of trying more things, I changed my mind at the last minute in favour of the tart with figs, goats cheese, pecans & roasted squash (£11.25). It was a good mix of the sweet and savoury, and went some way towards reversing my broad distrust of figs.
The house red was perfectly drinkable. The half of ale came in a cute half pint tankard, although it could have been better kept. The vegetable accompaniments were also a bit of a letdown - my tart came with an overpowering mound of deep-fried greens (kale?), while the steak was paired with some decidedly anaemic chips.
Overall though it was a nice meal in a lovely setting - not worth the journey in its own right but a great end to a walk on the magnificent heath.
Spaniards Inn, Spaniards Road, Hampstead, NW3 7JJ; Tel: 020 8731 8406 www.thespaniardshampstead.co.uk