Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 17, 2017
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Mind your manors

Pack your tweeds for a jaunt around southern England's venerable Relais & Châteaux

It sits on plated greens like an ebony bauble on a swatch of emerald silk. A witty riff on the chocolate truffle, it leaves you wide-eyed. Sink your teeth into it: the incomparable, heady aroma of black truffle gusts through the nostrils. The flavour that follows is foie gras, a rich and slightly boozy terrine. The palate wobbles with pleasure. The chef and innkeeper who created it is Raymond Blanc. He is the proprietor of Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in the English countryside. Decades ago, he arrived from the south of France to teach the English how to eat.

Yes, this is England, which, courtesy of gastronomic freedom fighters such as Blanc and a new generation of homegrown chefs, is undergoing a foodie awakening comparable to what's happened in the US, Australia and Canada.

A hothouse for this revolution was Relais & Châteaux, the Paris-based fellowship of country inns and small hotels, now spanning 50 countries, which has — with its enshrined 5-C credo of calm, courtesy, comfort, character and cuisine — become synonymous with the best in the world. Starting out as a handful of elite hostelries on the highway from Paris to Nice in 1954, it's now in its 51st year.

Britain has 22 Relais & Châteaux. We embarked on a ramble encompassing six of these from Gravetye Manor in West Sussex to Buckland Manor in the Cotswolds. Infused with constant sunshine, it was a journey that opened our eyes to the beauty of southern England — sumptuously pastoral countryside unscarred by golden arches and suburban sprawl. Its villages are old and ordered and its hills come dotted with fluffy white lambs.

A moral victory
When he arrived here in the 1980s, Blanc recalls, "eating well was morally wrong." His response was Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons near the village of Great Milton. On purchasing the manor in 1984, Blanc was compelled to get rid of the ghost of its former owner by hiring an exorcist.

Critics have unkindly compared it to a theme park, but if so, it's a park themed to one man's passions: beauty, art and an abiding love of women, food and wine. The 15th- to 17th-century manor is a turreted
oasis of civilized living. This does not come cheap. The owner's favourite suite, Anais, might cost you about $2000 per night. The art therein is all about the mystery of women from sculptor Juginder Lamba's reclining nude to the tangle of naked ladies over the fireplace. Other suites include the racy Opium Den and the playful Botticelli in which a staircase leads to a folly designed to unhinge English reserve. There isn't a dull room in the house. Eight have working fireplaces.

As at all Relais, dinner is the grand event of the day. The Conservatory restaurant looks out into the gardens under a cloud of Chinese parchment. The room twinkles with candlelight at dusk. It boasts two Michelin stars for its 19th consecutive year and in that time has turned out 18 Michelin-starred chefs.

The amuse-bouche, macaroni, raises eyebrows — until you discover it's rolling in truffle cream. Truffles set the high note for Blanc's oeuvre. You assume it's all downhill after the aforementioned foie gras truffle, but it isn't: seafood "salad," on a signature elongated plate, is a small, sweet lobster tail sliced and napped with caviar, lobster claw, grilled mullet and grilled fennel, each leaving your mouth feeling like a million bucks.

Among mains, Blanc favours the three-way treatment. Veal filet arrives on a palanquin of truffled mashed potato, sided with ravioli of veal and veal sweetbread, the whole thing dusted in grated truffle and morels. A pig's trotter is no mere hoof: the skin is a wrap for a packing of foie gras, and served with smoked bacon and braised cabbage.

Dessert is yet another ménage, the players adroit: chocolate timbale, drizzled with pistachio sauce, breaks open to reveal a molten chocolate volcano. Bittersweet chocolate ice cream pits its unctuous bod against crisp chocolate Florentines. Dark chocolate ganache sidles up to lemon sabayon. Ooh-la-la.

California Dreaming
If the Manoir is the long-established Relais, the upstart is the Vineyard at Stockcross. People still aren't sure what to make of it, a country inn based on Napa Valley winery-hotels. Proprietor Sir Peter Michael owns a California winery. He imports and sells California wines. His wine cellar has 800 wines alone and is one of 10 in England to cop a prestigious Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine.

Stock Cross calls itself "a restaurant with a place to stay." That's too modest. Accommodations — half the hotel's 31 bedrooms are suites — are superb, and our bed here was the most comfortable of the journey. Treatments at the spa incorporate caviar, good grief.

The hotel's real showcase is its Michelin-starred restaurant. When one newspaper attacked the restaurant, its pages were used to wrap fish-and-chips canapés. Glamorous by any standards, two tiers of immaculately set tables face out into British sculptor William Pye's Fire and Water, a pool dappled with burning flames. The choicest table looks over the room from a softly lit alcove.

One of a bold new generation of creative British chefs, John Campbell espouses "molecular gastronomy" — that is, cooking in which food chemistry isn't taken for granted, but pushed to its limits — the point of his fine cookbook, Formulas for Flavour. "Why pay £100 for predictability?" he asks. "We intend to deliver a meal you can't find anywhere else."

Campbell's tasting menu bears him out. Sea bass — the real thing, not the endangered Patagonian toothfish that passes for sea bass on Canadian menus — is so fresh it's practically flapping and comes crispy-skinned, juicy and garnished with deep-fried basil. Campbell caps a jolly hunk of organic salmon with a slab of foie gras and tempers the unctuous onslaught with a swatch of seaweed and fig chutney. His flavours are powerful, the salmon all the richer for the duck liver and the foie, incredibly, reduced to supporting player. The wine is a Matanzas Creek Chardonnay 1996, cellared way longer than usual to bring out massive butter and oak.

Similarly, a Steele Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara sings with saddle of rabbit in a mysterious toffee sauce. Campbell's notion of beef is a six-ounce tenderloin roasted for 55 minutes — never reaching more than 140°F — and yet it emerges from the oven rare and tender, its red wine jus classically lip-sticking paired with a startling onion ice cream.

 

Dessert? Bitter chocolate tart served with parsnip ice cream — traditionally, parsnip was used as a sweetener and is surprisingly compatible with chocolate — and garnished with parsnip crisps dusted with ground cumin. The new kid on the Relais block can cook with the best of 'em.

One for the troops
At Gravetye Manor in West Sussex, another passion lingers in the air: prior to its current incarnation, the 1598 manse was the home of William Robinson, the Irish horticulturalist who pioneered the English country garden. In WWII, it served as headquarters for Canadian troops in England awaiting D-Day. The bullet hole in the wall by the central fireplace is the legacy of a Canadian soldier after a rowdy party.

Heather, bluebells, magnolias, camellias and hundreds of other flowers and plants underscore the restoration of Robinson's gardens by owner Peter Herbert, who spent five decades bringing the manse back to life as a luxury hotel. "It was cold and grubby, unloved and unwelcoming," he says of its beginning. Today the manor would be a fine set for an Elizabethan epic.

Flickering candles, glowing sconces, fresh flowers and hushed conversation soften the baronial restaurant. You half-expect guests to be downing flagons of bad wine and flinging joints of lamb at one another, but Relais standards are stoutheartedly upheld. The tip-off is a gossamer beignet of Stilton cheese in a potato crust, the best single amuse of our journey.

Foie gras is neither the slab of boozy terrine nor the tiny sautéed slice so familiar to addicts. It's a puck of duck liver, perfectly seared, pink and juicy, set on brioche with spinach. Nor is the scallop a slouch, the fat mollusk sprinkled with truffle oil and paired with a trio of perfect langoustines on blinis. Either is enough to exorcize nightmares of dining in English country houses.

Carnivores jump at leg of lamb and beef tenderloin. The lamb, young and milk-fed, has the consistency of butter. Well-aged beef tenderloin swoons in a pool of truffle and pistachio jus. These flavours roar, and by the time double-baked Grand Marnier soufflé arrives, you're ready to risk life and limb to get more.

If Gravetye used to be unloved — a peculiarly English word for a house — that certainly wasn't the case with Stock Hill House in Dorset, the smallest of Britain's Relais & Châteaux. The restoration of the 1830 country house was a seven-year labour of love for innkeepers Nita and Peter Hauser.

Antiques, mostly English oak, reflect the Victorian passion for travel and collecting. A headboard in one bedroom is the ornately carved surviving half of a burned door from an Irish church. One of the beds belonged to a 17th-century Spanish princess.

Nita manages. Peter cooks in the country style, rustic rather than elegant, but never short of honest flavour. Much comes from the organic garden, including lovage, a pungent herb with a flowery aftertaste and a zinger in soups. Wild mushroom ravioli stands firm under a butter and parsley sauce. Scallops paired with black pudding are one of the chef's experiments, and they work as a very British surf-and-turf. The chef dresses lamb shank with rosemary and juniper and sauces it with Beaujolais, a lovely match. And for dessert, there's no beating a plate of those marvellous English cheeses, the Derbyshire the ghastly hue of moldy shamrocks.

Merry Olde Days
Hampshire's Chewton Glen has been mopping up the awards and accolades: Gallivanter's Guide named it "best small hotel under 60 rooms in the world." A few years ago, Gourmet magazine called it the "best country house hotel in the world." The setting is England's New Forest, a half-hour drive from Stonehenge, Winchester Cathedral and the home of author Jane Austen.

Hoteliers Martin and Brigitte Skan purchased the building in 1967 and have never ceased expanding and upgrading. Sunlight streams in through floor-to-ceiling windows, and there is a cosy bar, Michelin-starred restaurant, all-weather and indoor tennis courts, golf course, croquet lawn, 17-metre-long swimming pool and an award-winning spa with sky-lit pavilion dedicated to hydrotherapy. The regular spa menu includes 50 treatments, from Indian head massage to mud wraps. But more importantly, the Skans recognize the gift of touch for what it is — our common need for affectionate hands.

Surrounded by 50 hectares of lawns, parkland and forest, Chewton Glen sits on the edge of the New Forest, which is neither new nor necessarily a forest. It was new in the heyday of William the Conqueror, and every monarch but Elizabeth II has hunted in it. Today it's a varying terrain encompassing forest, seaside villages, thatched roofs, golf courses and rumors of witchcraft. Tourist emporia flog witch kitsch. In the churchyard of All Saints Minstead, the inscription "Steel True, Blade Straight" marks the resting place of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "Knight, Patriot, Physician and Man of Letters." Yes, that Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Popular among North American tourists is Buckland Manor in Gloucestershire, not far from the Cotswolds tourist town of Broadway. Its past goes back to the 13th century, a manse of honeyed stone, bedrooms with four-posters, beamed public rooms with crackling fireplaces, and not least, rambling grounds and excellent walking trails. Tourists wanting to step into ye olde postcard are rarely disappointed.

At breakfast, a silver-haired gentleman in a kilt turned out to be an American. The great, unhealthy British breakfast seems all that's survived of traditional English fare. Here were eggs and thick slices of peameal bacon, fat spiced sausages and black pudding, grilled tomatoes and fried mushrooms, croissants and coffee. Guests protested as it arrived. "Impossible, impossible!" ringing through the room. Then, with a guilty smacking of lips, everything was eaten down to the last dribble of grease. And after that, there was much trudging on footpaths in a land where the English, bless them, still know how to walk.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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