Monday, 4 August 2014
Little Barwick House, Somerset
As much as the British Tourist Board would have you believe that there's fun to be had in all parts of the country no matter what the weather, and as much as I'd like to believe that myself, in truth most of the joy in a trip out of the capital for a weekend depends rather heavily on the sun shining. Thanks to a fiercely hectic schedule and the fact that most of our activities in Cornwall involved being inside and/or eating, the apocalyptic weather there only occasionally threatened to dampen our spirits. But had the weather in a recent trip to Dorset and Somerset been similarly sodden, I wonder whether we'd have come away with quite so many sparkling memories.
Take, for example, our base for the weekend - the Little Barwick House in Yeovil. This handsome old building and the exquisite gardens that surround it were at their absolute best in the baking heat of midsummer; we lay under the apple tree when the sun was at its highest, softened by the sound of a nearby hidden stream and lazily chasing away baby frogs; we we drank champagne and nibbled on expertly-timed lemon sole goujons in the gravelled forecourt before dinner; and once dinner was over, the candle-lit tables outside were a perfect spot to work our way through a fine board of West Country cheeses. True, if it was thrashing down and freezing cold we could have found other things to do, and eaten cheese indoors, but a garden like this is made for good weather.
So too are the rooms. Large sash windows reach all the way up to impossibly high ceilings, and in the dead of night, with them wide open, there's not a sound to be heard outside other than the occasional hoot of an owl. It's a cliché of the best hotels that you are made to feel like you're staying at an old friend's for a few days rather than being a cog in a wheel of a slick corporate machine. But at Little Barwick House the subterfuge is total - bedroom doors don't lock; the bar and living rooms downstairs are more sumptuous and inviting than any private home; and the kindliness and generosity of the owners can hardly be expressed strongly enough. A brief example amongst countless others - when plans for our hire car fell through, Emma loaned us the use of her own Toyota for the weekend.
It is a man & wife operation of the very highest level. Emma - pleasant, charming, chatty - is front of house with a few equally friendly helpers, and in the kitchen (presumably also with a bit of help, at least I'd like to think so) is her husband Tim. And Tim's food is, in the tradition of countless fine old country piles, traditional French haute-cuisine using the finest local produce.
It's traditional amongst hopeless foodie circles to criticise French fine dining for being stuffy, irrelevant, dull. The fact is, it's the fault of a few stuffy, irrelevant, dull high-profile French restaurants (naming no names) that this myth has been allowed to propagate. I'm as guilty as anyone of spreading this myth, too, after a few Michelin-starred meals I'd rather forget and a typical blogger tendency to favour the new over the tried and tested.
The food at Little Barwick House, then, is solid, unmistakeably, traditional fine dining. Vegetables are "turned" in that way I've only ever seen on old YouTube videos of the Roux brothers from the 1980s. Sauces are those thick, reduced-stock glazes that coat your lips like Vaseline and taste of a thousand toiled man hours (in a good way). But most of all, this is cooking of years of experience at the very highest levels, each element cooked utterly precisely with an imperious attention to detail. There aren't many people still cooking food like this, but a few seconds into my starter, neat little medallions of boned quail and chicken, moist and perfectly seasoned, with wild mushrooms and tarragon mousse, I was left wondering "why the hell not"?
You won't have to try to hard to imagine how good cannelloni of Cornish lobster was; how the meat was fresh and bouncy encased by firm pasta; how the neat ribbons of courgette folded under baked baby tomatoes exploded with texture and flavour; how a frothy bisque added a tang of the sea. There was absolutely no faulting it, a balanced, mature dish in a style that most places seem to have abandoned in favour of foams and foraged weeds.
Ruby Red is a breed of Devonshire cattle that makes the very finest eating beef. I had it from Allen's of Mayfair I think it was, a few years ago, and was surprised enough by the flavour just simply grilled over charcoal. Here, surrounded by more of those dainty turned veg, buttery wild mushrooms and another one of those heavenly reduced sauces, it was even better. And anyone who tells you that pan-fried fillet is a poor choice next to the trendy Porterhouse or a slow-braised short rib has just been eating the wrong fillets. This was bursting with flavour, with a gentle crust and pink flesh that cut like butter.
Cornish sea bass in Chardonnay sauce was similarly faultless. Little nuggets of battered, fried cauliflower florets were cute, the crushed new potatoes spiked with basil were chunky and satisfying, and the light wine sauce bound it all together. But then the most brilliantly cooked bit of fish on top - crisped skin, bright white, flaky, flesh - enough to make you wonder why anyone else finds this kind of thing so difficult to do. The next time you sit down to white fish in a restaurant and the texture is mushy and formless, or dry and chewy, remember that it's not impossible to get it right. You just need to know what you're doing.
Served on its own the raspberry sorbet at Little Barwick House would have been worth the journey from London. A deeply concentrated flavour of a thousand long summers, so unbelivably fruity and rich, it was enough to prompt an involuntary gasp as the first spoonful hit the tongue. But with it, a creamy crème brûlée dotted with vanilla, and a fresh-out-of-the-oven shortbread itself spiked with dried raspberry and more vanilla. Astonishing.
The problem with faultless operations, and this is the most First World of First World Problems (to use that tiresome phrase) is that because I was invited down to Dorset to enjoy it all I feel compelled to highlight one or two moments where the service was less than attentive or the food less than enjoyable just to deflect any accusations I've lost my critical faculties. I'd like to be able to do that, to say the crust on the brûlée was a bit thick (it wasn't) or the cheeses weren't kept very well (they were) but equally there's no point inventing fault where no fault lies. So the greatest service I do for you, and them, is just to say that the rooms, food and service at Little Barwick House are amongst the best I've ever had the pleasure to enjoy. What's even more impressive, in this weekend of culinary indulgence, we were only just getting started. Stay tuned.
I was invited down to Somerset by Little Barwick House. Thanks very much to them, and they've just asked me to add: "We've just installed a new Vin de Verre system here which allows us to offer fine fines by the glass including Krug- quite unique for a small restaurant in rural Somerset!". We travelled to Yeovil Junction with South West Trains. For the best offers go to www.southwesttrains.co.uk. Photos (mainly) by Hannah.