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Jennie Clark delights in the sumptuous dining deep in the glorious Devonshire countryside…
Set in its own Dartmoor valley, Lewtrenchard Manor house dates from the early 17th century. The extensive grounds are a combination of sunken lawns with ornamental ponds and fountains, and the sprawling wilderness that comes naturally to the area. Beyond the heavy wooden door, rows of walking boots beckon the visitor to explore the valley, and huge stone fireplaces promise homely comfort on your return.
We stayed in the incredibly romantic Merrial suite, a small tower house set slightly away from the main building. Entering through a hand-carved oak door, stairs lead to a room just big enough for a luxurious four-poster, below the high tower ceiling.
Antique sofas and cosy velvet chairs adorn both the lounge and the elegant bar. The collections of furniture, paintings and ornaments tell of the hundreds of years during which the estate has been passed from hand to hand. Gazpacho, olives, crisp balls of molten cheese and anchovy pastry straws were served with cocktails beside an enormous, ancient fireplace decorated with hand-carved figures and animals.
For dinner I chose to start with the hot smoked salmon ‘scotch egg’ with asparagus from the garden – an oozing quail yolk within the soft and salty fish. Small, immaculate squares of blushing salmon sat among summery greens, served beside a cool panna cotta.
My partner had the rabbit ballotine with foie gras parfait, grape jelly, golden raisin and pickled onion – the bold combinations perfectly executed, a hit of earthy truffle binding them all together. For the main course he went for the fillet of South Devon beef, with ‘skirt wellington’, roast shallot and wild mushrooms ~ still delicately presented, but with the heartiest of flavours.
I couldn’t dine in Devon without choosing some of the local seafood, so for the main course I opted for the pan-fried fillet of sea trout, sat on al dente seasonal greens, and accompanied by a generously-packed tortellini of magnificent Brixham crab. Within the light pasta (made that morning), the crab meat was dressed with a punch of lime, and the whole dish doused in a bright, rich roasted crab bisque.
The highlight of the desserts had to be the gooseberry and elderflower crumble tart, with honeycomb and honey ice cream – the wholesome flavours of garden-grown fruit and rough crumble was like a homage to a childhood in the English countryside.
Head Chef John Hooker’s recently taken over the kitchen from the renowned Jason Hornbuckle, who continues at Lewtrenchard as General Manager. In the last year innovation in the kitchen has taken a leap forward, with the development of the walled kitchen garden – now providing up to 80 per cent of produce ~ and the opening of the Purple Carrot chef’s table. Up to eight guests can get a real experience of the kitchen with a tailored tasting menu served by the chefs who created it, access to a special wine cellar and views of the chefs at work from a private area next door.
John – who recently competed to represent the South West in BBC television’s Great British Menu – is brimming with infectious excitement about the direction the food’s heading. He said, “we’ve got a great team here, there’s only five of us but everyone’s young, passionate and full of ideas. I just want to always be pushing, and exceeding people’s expectations”.
“I think people just really want quality ingredients and simplicity – meat that’s been carefully reared, and veg that we’ve run out to the garden to pick earlier that morning. We don’t do molecular gastronomy – there’s no waterbath here – but it’s nice to surprise people with some of those techniques.”
The manor house is full of secrets ~ we loved reading about how the estate’s changed under each owner, and browsing the Baring-Gould family library at breakfast. There’s a really unique mix of historic grandeur and homely warmth that can only come from absolute authenticity and continued loving investment. With a new chef, and the kitchen garden flourishing as much as its wild, Dartmoor surroundings, this is the season to discover Lewtrenchard Manor and watch it grow.