There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Harrow at Little Bedwyn

Leaving the White Horse and Uffington Castle we drove to our B&B, Mayfield at West Grafton, a fifteen minute taxi ride from the main object of our day. I don't usually write much, or indeed anything, about the various B&Bs we stay in, but the Mayfield was a little bit different. Every village in North Wiltshire has a selection of thatched houses of the sort that once adorned chocolate boxes, and Mayfield is a fine example. The rambling old house – different parts look to have been built at different times - stands in extensive and beautifully maintained grounds. Angela and Chris Orssich are well-suited to the business, chatting easily with their guests and making everyone feel welcome – would that were true of everyone running a B&B. For the quality of the breakfast, skip to the very last paragraph.

Lynne outside Mayfield, West Grafton
The Harrow at Little Bedwyn may once have been a country pub, and the tiny village is certainly buried deep in the north Wiltshire countryside, but it became a serious restaurant in 1988 when it was bought by Roger and Sue Jones. A Michelin star followed in 2007 and now the world beats a path to its door. Two of the four couples staying at Mayfield had come mainly (or entirely) to make the pilgrimage to Little Bedwyn, and that is not unusual. 'That place has brought a lot of trade to the area,' our taxi driver told us as he piloted us through the narrow lanes.

Mayfield, West Grafton
The service was as slick and professional as you would expect at this level and although it was easy to see how the layout had once been that of a country pub, it has now evolved so far there is no longer bar space for a pre-dinner drink, which is offered at the table. The sound of ice in a cocktail shaker heralded a good dry martini (though I am still looking to match the perfection of the Hong Kong Sheraton), but Lynne's G&T was drowned; Tanqueray becomes indistinguishable from a supermarket’s own brand at this level of dilution.

As we pondered this shaky start we also pondered the menu. The seven course 'gastronomic menu' is too much food, I am no longer young and I can't eat the way I used to. I chose the four course tasting menu – which has five courses if you include the cheese option. Lynne picked three courses from the à la carte, and decided to share my cheese. Having taken the orders we were asked what time we had booked our return taxi so they could time the proceedings appropriately. It was a nice touch.

The award-winning wine list is huge – Dickens wrote shorter novels - but the menu suggests a wine to partner each course, mostly at a reasonable £6-£9 for a 125ml glass. Not wishing to reinvent the wheel, we went with their suggestions.

The amuse-bouche, self-deprecatingly described as 'Langoustine Soup', had so much rich Langoustine flavour, so intensely concentrated, that it brought a look of wonder to Lynne’s face. It was only four sips, but each caressed the palate and lingered lushly. Faced with a whole bowl it would have been overwhelming, but as an amuse-bouche in a tiny quantity it was perfect.

Lynne started with seared scallops, chorizo and pea purée with tiny peas. In Lynne's slightly idiosyncratic view a fresh scallop cooked with masterful restraint is perfect on its own and nothing can be gained by the addition of other flavours, so she ate this as two very small separate dishes and pronounced both excellent. I tasted them together and thought the accompaniment brought an extra dimension to the scallop. Each to his own.

My first course was described as ‘seared tuna - pickled watermelon, vine tomatoes and quails egg’ (yes, that should be quail's). The seared tuna was like the tuna that comes round the track at Yo Sushi, good enough but not memorable. The tiny egg was cool, but I cut into it and, miraculously, the yolk ran. I smeared it over the tuna and that was good. The selection of tomato halves looked like the cherry tomatoes you can buy anywhere, but there the resemblance ended. The sheer tomato-y intensity of the first was hard to believe, but there were more of them, each a different variety of tomato with its own individual flavor and all as wonderful as the first. There was also a sundried tomato. For a moment I considered sending it to the chef of our hotel in Dublin last month with the message, 'this is a sun dried tomato, my friend, not the slimy thing in your vegetarian pasta.' I thought about that but decided to eat it, instead. That leaves the cube of pickled watermelon. In a hot climate there is little pleasanter or more thirst quenching than fresh watermelon, but what does pickling add to it? And why was it on this plate? Beats me.

Both starters were accompanied by Jordan's Outlier, Sauvignon Blanc from Stellenbosch. The nose was fabulous, herbal and grassy like Sancerre rather than the tropical fruit of New Zealand. It was not quite so outstanding on the palate, being just a little short of acidity.

Jordan Outlier Sauvignon Blanc
My ‘extra’ course was, ‘grilled turbot, curried lobster’. The turbot, a small rectangle of fish, was, I thought, a tad overcooked and, like the tuna, all right but nothing more. The curried lobster underneath was a revelation, the sauce having an intense coconut flavour which lingered and deepened until the chilli kicked in. I have not encountered such concentrated coconut since the 'finger chutney' at Palakkad, but this was much more elegant and subtle. The lobster was reduced to being a vehicle for the sauce, but then I have always thought that lobster is overrated. Apart from its good looks and size, what does it have that a pawn hasn’t?

The accompanying 'Hen and Chickens' Chardonnay from Pemberton in Western Australia was, I am sorry to say, a little nondescript.

Lynne's main course was beef, a small slab of filet cooked rare as requested and in every way wonderful, surmounted by ring of pink foie gras. This morally dodgy delight was as delightful - and morally dodgy – as ever. Below the filet was a piece of slow cooked beef cheek. Very much the ‘odd meat of the moment’, it is apparently compulsory to include it somewhere on a Michelin star menu. Both of us will be happy when the fashion changes. To me it comes from the wrong end of the animal; ox tail, while similar, has better texture and a more delicate flavour.

Accompanying the beef was the most expensive wine of the evening. At £16 a glass the 2001 Glenmore, Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon had to be good and it was, being deep, dark and with a hint of liquorice. 

After my extra courses, my lamb was more a meat course than a main. The nicely pink Welsh lamb made up in flavour for what it lacked in quantity. It was served with minted couscous (how do you get so much mintiness into a simple couscous?) and a couple of sprigs of sea asparagus - or samphire as I would normally call it.

The unfiltered South African merlot is top of the Fleur du Cap range and offered as much fruit as you could want, elegant tannin and a good weight in the mouth, it almost edged out the more the expensive cabernet.

Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Merlot

We shared the cheese course; five small slices allegedly arranged from mildest to strongest, but the goat cheese in the 'mildest' position packed a solid goaty punch. We could have quibbled about the order of the others, but why bother? One resembled a top quality brie, another had a washed rind, there was an excellent soft sheep's cheese and finally Royal Bassett Blue, surmounted by a slice of quince cheese. Remarkably, all these pungently mature, well-made cheeses are produced relatively locally. Such a line up would have been impossible only a few years ago. A nice glass of tawny port matched them perfectly.

Royal Basset Blue, made in Wiltshire
A pre-dessert called 'cherry trifle' and served in a sherry glass was a nice idea and looked good. I had watched others go by and was looking forward to it, but it was disappointingly dry, as though it had been sitting too long waiting for us.

My dessert was just described as 'chocolate' and Lynne chose the equivalent from the à la carte. It had many of the same elements, but had a fruit sorbet where mine had the tiniest blob of ice cream. I like chocolate (who doesn't?), but I know people who claim to love it and this may have suited them, but for both of us this was chocolate overkill. Some of the elements were exquisite, particularly the lozenge of tempered chocolate round a rich chocolate cream, but the white chocolate did not do much for me and the large cube of chocolate truffle was just too dense.

Lehman Botrytis Semillon was the wine selected to accompany this. With a honeyed nose and intense sweetness it may not be the subtlest of wines, but it stands up to the chocolate as few wines could.

And so our meal ended. We had seen ten different dishes, all exquisitely presented and all – the cherry trifle excepted – were sublime, or had elements that were sublime. Portions were small, but I ate four and a half courses, amuse-bouche and pre-dessert and that was certainly enough, maybe a little too much, which is just as it should be on these occasions.

We had also drunk enough, but that did not stop us crowning the evening with an espresso and a digestif. Lynne wisely selected an old favourite, a cognac from Ragnaud-Sabourin, while I went for Alchemy 15 yr old Somerset Brandy. I enjoy a good Calvados but had yet to try the British equivalent. It was £8 for 25ml and £10 for a double, so I thought 'Oh goodie, a bargain.' I should have thought  'why they were trying to get rid of it?'. Somerset brandy does not, I am sorry to say, have much apple flavour and it was rather like a bottom of the range Armagnac, which is not a bad thing, but nor is it great.
Lynne leaves the Harrow at Little Bedwyn

The timing had been perfect and we were all finished at exactly the time the taxi came to fetch us.

And now back to Mayfield B&B. Having praised them at the start I shall finish by mentioning their breakfast. As at the Harrow, the menu tells you the source of everything and the food-miles are minimal 'the bacon and sausages come from two fields away'. I had smoked salmon (the salmon could not be local, but the smokehouse is) and scrambled eggs. The eggs were light and creamy, the fish gently smoked. Angela makes her own bread (from flour grown and ground locally) and all her own jams and marmalade. As a B&B it is a touch more expensive than most (though not by much) but - and the same is true of the Harrow - you have to pay for a bit of quality.

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