Restaurant review: I should be so lucky...
PUBLISHED: 14:52 24 September 2013 | UPDATED: 14:59 17 October 2013
...lucky, lucky lucky. Kylie, sorry, Katie, sings the praises of the superb Ellenborough Park
There were two great cooks in our family. One was my Great Aunt Dolly, who lived in stately homes, banged a gong for dinner, and whose ultimate insult was a disparaging, ‘Brummies!’ Her signature dishes were rich stews, smoky bacon for breakfast, buttery shortbread, and melt-in-the-mouth fudge which we’d eat from the bay window overlooking the estuary where boats bobbed and seagulls yawed.
Her husband, my great uncle who fought in the Somme (though would never speak about it), was sparing where she was lavish. Once, when they had a posh friend to supper, my aunt plated him the best of salad ingredients, while my uncle insisted on having the brown, wilted leaves, squishy tomatoes, and no egg on his plate. My aunt was mortified, half-way through the meal, to notice my uncle had given their friend the wrong plate.
Then there was her sister, my grandmother, who played endless shops with us as children, letting us sell the contents of her fridge and cupboard back to her (with pretend money): thick Channel Islands’ milk, Camp coffee, Bird’s custard, beef suet, and tins of Ambrosia tapioca, like frogspawn, that we devoured - eyes tightly shut - with extra cream.
My gran made rich pastry (once, when she caught sight of 70s’ ‘T. Rex’ graffiti in a car park, she pondered, ‘Why would anyone write their shopping list on a wall?’), which she’d turn into cheese pies, and apple pies with cloves, sprinkled with caster sugar. There were jars of bright yellow lemon curd, which she’d spoon onto Victoria sponges. Gran’s cakes were never round but baked in long, thin tins, which I have to this day, and mixed in a huge ceramic bowl with a wooden spoon. Above all, there were the junkets, which I failed to connect with cows’ stomachs (that was the dishcloth-tripe my mum ate with vinegar). My favourite were pink (though, in my heart of hearts, I knew they tasted the same as their white cousins).
My grandpa, her husband, was a cellist, who played for the silent movies. When the Talkies came in, he despaired at finding work again. (Which he did, of course, with the BBC Northern, among others.) For a while, their biggest fear was the workhouse. But my gran was never miserable. (She loved sherry and her party piece was The Laughing Policeman.) When she died, aged nearly 100, she left £10,000 each to my brother and me, with the stipulation that it had to be frittered. No loans paid off; no mortgages (unless we really wanted to). Just fun. That’s what she wanted for us.
If this sounds like self-indulgent reminiscence, then maybe it is. But I often think of that inheritance – and of the different lives we led – when I go to places such as the gorgeous Ellenborough Park, just outside Cheltenham. (Or Chelt-En-Ham, as my grandmother called it.)
How lucky am I – seriously, when I look back on careworn ancestors – to be able to swan up to a gorgeous Cotswoldy building, such as this - fairytale-ish, especially when it’s lit up like a castle at night.
Despite its grandeur, you can still consider it VFM. It’s not cheap-as-chips (£105 for two, with trimmings); but you have to factor in that you can easily pay this amount at a good few pubs that lack Ellenborough’s stunning country-house flair. Viz: the views are fab; the rooms are beautiful; reception staff come out to meet you and point you in the right direction as you negotiate the vast panoply of stonework. But – and this is the clincher – it’s not the slightest bit stuffy. People are going into the brasserie wearing shorts (it’s a nice day, and I’m not saying this is right or proper; I’m just saying that it happened and that no one rushed out and pooh-poohed it).
Talking of shorts, we go on the day that Andy Murray is playing Jerzy Janowicz in the Wimbledon semi-final (as I’ve mentioned before, we have long lead times; my 2001 reviews, heavily biased towards mammoth, were written in the Stone Age), and – rather than miss the match – Ian manages to piggy-back the hotel wifi and get the TV coverage up on his phone, which we surreptitiously watch at the table. But again – and I love this about Ellenborough Park – far from confiscating it, the waitress notices and feeds us scores as relayed on the big screen that’s showing the match live in the bar.
And the food? Exactly my kind of stuff. Unpretentious – to continue a theme – but filling and beautifully chosen. You can have the posh – pan-fried fillet of sea bass with marjoram crushed new potatoes, baby leeks and a tomato caviar dressing – or the pub - Cotswold sausage and baked potato mash with confit onion jus; the gourmet - Nocellara Del Belice olive, pine nut, feta cheese, roast artichoke and basil salad – and the straight forward - Ellenborough Park fillet beef burger with smoked applewood cheese, red onion relish and hand-cut chips. We have a fantastic courgette soup, and a vegetable spring roll; a superb breaded hake and a rib-eye steak, followed by panna cotta and an ice cream sundae. Nothing to hang in the Tate or set the Thames on fire, perhaps; but top notch and exactly what it says on the tin. Loved it.
This is the kind of hotel that does the Cotswolds proud: seasonal food, local produce, friendly, respectful service, warm ambience, and a setting with a vernacular magnificence of its own. My great aunt would have loved its lavishness. My gran would have had a sherry and treated us to The Laughing Policeman.
Value for money: 8
For more information, visit: www.ellenboroughpark.com
or call: 01242 807936