- Friday 1 June 2001
SUSAN KEEVIL, city dweller, is given the awful task of driving around the British Isles to sample three of the country's best hotels
They're still out there. The glimmering gilt-plating might be wearing off the dessert trolley, and the garnish in glacé cherry may have been removed from the duck à l'orange, but the horrors of 1970s British hotel catering are still alive and well. But what if you need to get out fast, feel the wind in your hair, rough earth under your boots (well, grass under your Jimmy Choos), what's a city-dweller to do? Why should you suffer? Kitsch and charming they may be, but steak and kidney pudding, Paris goblets and giant-flock wallpaper we do not want. My mission was to experience the glories of the 'green and pleasant land' without vinous compromise. To find hotels with scenery that live up to an urban dweller's expectations – cellars à la Conran, menu à la Mirabelle, rooms reminiscent of the Ritz, that sort of thing. Like many young things, I went west first: called by the three flights a day to southern Ireland's Cork.
A ninety-minute car journey beyond Cork and you're as far away from Hyde Park as you'd ever need to be. Kenmare is a town on the ragged southwest coast of Ireland – the middle fjord-like inlet, north of Bantry Bay. Getting there, the grass somehow becomes greener (when they say 'emerald', they mean it), the sun brighter, and the daffodils and springtime gorse the most vibrant yellow. A mile outside Kenmare, perched over a set of tumbling rapids, is Sheen Falls Lodge. On reaching the hotel its butter-coloured walls no longer surprise, as for the last hour you've passed purple pubs, baize-green B&Bs, and even raspberry-pink supermarkets. Colour is what Ireland's about, whether natural or man-made, and the gnarled, stumpy hills and shining lochs are a dramatic enough backdrop to hold it all. 'Ask to see the cellar,' I'm told before departing. Or maybe not. On arrival, the wellington boots lined up beyond the baronial front hall, the hooks of waxed- jackets ready to hand for any guest, make fresh air, for once, more compelling than wine. The certainty of a log fire (and cellar tour) when you get back clinches the deal and before you know it, the staff have kitted you out for fly-fishing, clay-shooting, horse riding, fell walking – whatever you choose – with waders, golf clubs, rods or a story-telling gillie all provided.
The lure of the fishing rod is made all the stronger by the promise that chef Chris Farrell will cook any newly caught salmon for supper (that or post it home in an ice-pack to await your return). No salmon for me, though – I was unlucky. The elusive fish would have been better off in the post, as dinner far outweighed any salmon I could have landed, and venison made a better choice to show off the fantastic wines on hand. First sight of the list and all London haunts were forgotten – fine old vintages of favourite classics, New World names and top new regions were all there to distract. (Shame though, that the methuselah of 1961 Lafite-Rothschild stood empty: it had been polished off on millennium night and only remained to taunt we cellar-tourists with its empty presence!) 1988 Chassagne-Montrachet Le Château from Moillard-Grivot was served with a starter of beautifully tender grilled blue-fin tuna and guacamole in a coriander-scented plum tomato water essence. Afterwards, a gently mellow 1986 Malescot-Saint-Exupéry arrived with roast loin of venison, braised red cabbage and smoked aubergine purée in sloe gin and juniper berry jus – all of which the old red tackled with aplomb. Then, pièce de résistance, Gaston Huet's superb Vouvray Moelleux Le Haut Lieu Premier Tri from 1989 was presented with a bitter almond ice-cream and warm blueberry and almond tartlet, making an almost
heavenly match that only a glass of 15-year old Mas Amiel from Maury and a contented sleep could possibly follow.
The bedrooms? They passed the post-kitsch test with comfortable splendour. Secluded balconies overlooking the falls, a spacious, gently lit marble bathroom with piles of fluffy towels, thick fabrics in the main room with solid, elegant furniture to sprawl on, books to read, music to lull and forever the soothing rush of water right
outside the window. One thing to remember about Sheen Falls is that the extensive cellar tour gets second billing on two weekends of every year when chief sommelier, Alain Bras, is given his head and allowed to extol the virtues of his fine wine list to a ballroom-wide audience. Monsieur Bras' wine courses ooze enthusiasm. The seminar I attended was imaginatively titled Irish Connections in the World of Wine, and Bras wove tales, both real and exaggerated, linking Château Vignelaure in Provence (which is owned by a couple of ex-Tipperary horse trainers), Italy's Montecalvi estate (the owner's wife, Bernadette, hails from County Antrim), and the Mahoney Estate in California (Francis Mahoney's
parents were from West Cork), until each property seemed to become inextricably linked to Ireland.
A different set of colours welcomes guests to one of the finest wine hideaways in England. Purple and white. Lavender and hairbells, box-hedges and clematis – a fragrant and very English pathway leads up to the (again) very English Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. It's the perfect setting to indulge in the pleasures of green and pleasant
countryside – the Cotswolds, distant Oxford spires, walks in the woods, country houses to explore. And at Le Manoir, there's tea under the fruit trees to be sipped, croquet on the lawn, kitchen gardens to browse, elegant ponds to relax by. As far as Raymond Blanc is concerned, that's the key: relaxation. For someone who doesn't believe in 'fusion', Raymond Blanc has managed to fuse the best influences of four seasons and four cultures remarkably seemlessly. The menu is distinctively French in its simplicity and skill, while the service is all American in its attentiveness (never do you feel watched or crowded), and the rooms have a thoroughly modern, oriental crispness. The overall feel is not one of intercontinental, mass-produced comfort, but of peaceful English tranquillity. And the wine? With very nearly 1,000 to choose from, an early trip down to dinner is essential to allow proper perusal of the wine list. (Or perhaps do that earlier while taking tea on the lawn?) There are breathtaking classics from the finest vintages – Margaux 1990, Haut-Brion 1961; unusual surprises (a still Coteaux Champenois Saran from Moët & Chandon, wines from the Jura); all you could wish for from France (under M Blanc's
tutelage there's no surprise there) and, just to keep things truly diverse, wines such as Ornellaia, Penfold's Grange and Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon. And how better to test that diversity than by sampling the 'Menu Gourmand', which offers small portions of seven impeccable courses? I had Emilio Lustau's manzanilla pasada de Sanlucar to show off the tartare of marinated wild salmon with cucumber salad: the sherry's vibrant almondness worked with the delicate salmon to a T. Next, I doubt there could be a more perfect showcase of the kitchen-garden than the Albert Salad of courgette flowers and spring vegetables (the freshest peas) in a herb jus that followed. Sommelier Rachel Pacquelet's choice to match it, an aromatic Verdejo from José Pariente in Rueda, was seamless. Pan-fried red mullet fillet with fricassé of squid and saffron sauce then made for delicious integration with the rich melonyness of Château Simone 1996, and Auxey-Duresses 1997 from Coche-Dury, perfectly at room temperature, matched the tricky braised shoulder of rabbit in a Pinot Noir red wine sauce and roasted loin with tarragon and mustard jus, without a hitch.
I doubt, too, that the perennially insipid Moscato d'Asti could ever be more triumphant than the 1996 Aradica was. It matched
brilliantly with a wild strawberry gelée and rhubarb soup in mint and Sauternes granité – that's three wine-killing ingredients kicked into touch, so not bad going! Not only did I finish all this abuzz with complementary flavours and aromas, the stunning colours and textures carefully chosen for each dish gave a feast for the eyes as well. After a complete workout for the senses, my nose, palate, eyes and heart all felt indulged. Then to bed. Every English manor house has a Chinese Room, but in this case mine was an Opium Den. What more fitting end could there be to a thoroughly hedonistic day? Each room at Le Manoir has a different theme but in none of them is there a trace of flock wallpaper.
Heading back to the wilds again, my route to Perthshire held ample proof that the gastronomy of the British Isles still hankers for the 1970s – and not in a good way. Scotland's haven, as far as I am concerned, is Kinnaird Estate. Drive two hours north of Edinburgh, dive off on a B-road and you're there – above the River Tay, surrounded by banks of towering fir trees and lush farmland – at an elegant grey-stone country seat. Kinnaird is a 17th-century family home steeped in Scottish history – the Ward family has lived here since 1927, and before them doctors, Edinburgh hatters and Atholl lords. From Kinnaird, it's a short drive to Loch Tay, with its moors, myriad of hiking trails and beautiful loch views to absorb. Really fresh air is available to the truly energetic (and properly attired) at the top of Ben Lawers (1,214 metres), where you get the best views of the lot – and earn your supper with a stiff walk. But beware, mobile phone reception is excellent. Walk or amble, in fair weather or poor, the other must-see visits in the area are Scone, Glamis and Blair castles for a glimpse back in time, and more than a few whisky distilleries on the way. Kinnaird is blissfully quiet. Only the soft scrunch of gravel as Mrs Ward's Bentley pulls in or a new guest arrives will disturb. And the staff, resolutely Scottish and always willing to chat if enticed, are the most polite I've ever known. High ceilings, richly textured curtains and carpets, log fires in each room, roomy bathrooms, clean and white but with plenty of heating, Kinnaird is just like a large warm home, radiating traditional quality – Edwardian, but without being old fashioned. (The CD player, video and television are all hidden in cupboards for rainy-day distraction.)
For all its many attractions, if you came to Kinnaird just for the food and the wine cellar, you'd leave happy. Local produce is emphasised on the menu, which is laden with such temptations as roasted west coast scallops, fillet of wild salmon with spinach, asparagus and herb hollandaise, loin of local venison with savoy cabbage, rôsti potato and port sauce, terrine of Kinnaird smoked salmon, and best end of Perthshire lamb with tapenade and sage beignets. Not overly complex dishes, but well presented to
effectively show the freshness and flavour of the meat or fish. And as far as somewhere quiet to renew acquaintance with favourite old wines, Kinnaird can't be beaten. 1985 Cos d'Estournel, 1986 Margaux, 1980 Puligny-Montrachet Combettes from Robert Ampeau, more besides these and a fine range of New World classics too. There's a wealth of well-priced choice.
Retire to the billiard room for coffee and you'll find something else you rarely see in London: a full-sized snooker table surrounded by enough space for you to admire the Ward family's collection of stuffed and mounted salmon, without being jostled out of the way by a cue. The biggest, caught by Miss Lottie Ward at Aldarns on 12th October 1928, was 51 3/4 inches long, 27 1/2 inches at the girth, and 50 pounds in weight. Lottie was right, posting it home was the only sensible solution.
l Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare, Co Kerry, Ireland; Tel: +353 6441600; Fax: +353 6441386; from £285 (standard double) to £440 (suite) per night during high season (May to end September).
l Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Great Milton, Oxon, England; Tel: +44 1844 278881; Fax: +44 1844 278847; from £245 per night Sunday to Thursday, or from £260 Friday and Saturday.