Nick visits a country hotel, once a private school, to find cooking in a class of its own.
There was a period, mostly between the first and second world wars, when the English country house was the finest place to be in the world. All was in order, a microcosm of the country itself with everyone working to keep the entity on its feet and and, in turn, being looked after by it from cradle to grave, from the lowliest farm boy to the Master of the house.
It couldn’t last of course, good things never do, and after WW2 many a country house saw its landholdings shrink, its roof start to leak and the structure as a self-supporting entity collapse. And then when it could survive no more, it often became a private school.
You can see it in the original St Trinians, Alistair Sims setting up his study in what was once a master bedroom, and you can see it in Down Hall, which in the 1960s became Downham Girls School for a short while.
The back stairs, what were clearly once the servants’ stairs, seem to have the same wallpaper as they did back then and the paintwork bears the scars of pupils’ feet and perhaps even hockey stick blows too. There is also, although it may be my imagination, the persistent odour of over-boiled cabbage from the walls, the legacy of a thousand school dinners.
Ah, but the main house is magnificent. You enter the hotel via a reception area on the side of the building, a good decision by the owners as it leaves the grand front entrance untouched allowing you to dump your bags and then go back to the main door and imagine you are entering a private house.
The main reception room is vast, ornate and very much of its period – there has been a house on this site since the 14th Century but the present house dates from the late 1800s. No sense of girls’ school here, more Downton than Downham, the room full of deeply comfortable sofas and dominated by a massive fireplace and what appears to be a giant Jaguar car bonnet ornament in the centre of the room.
We take a mini afternoon tea in what was probably once the breakfast room and watch tomorrow’s wedding party enjoy the brightly-flowered garden. Down Hall does a lot of weddings and it’s easy to see why, it’s a grand setting and the local airport Stansted is only a short drive away for flying off for your honeymoon just about anywhere in Europe.
Our room is spacious, the bathroom large although fiendishly warm as someone has left the electric towel rail on during one of the hottest days of the year so far. It takes me sometime to find the off switch, hidden in the main room. Also hidden is any kind of seat suitable for working at the desk, otherwise impressively furnished with correct height plug sockets and two USB charge points. A call to reception gets me a stool delivered so I can get on with stuff.
So after a very generous shower it’s off to dinner in the The Grill Room after first a pleasant drink outside in the large gardens. I have to say I was a bit dubious about the restaurant at first, the decor is rather dated and the lights far too bright for comfort, but the menu read well so we carried on.
And with starters it was obvious the kitchen was in good hands with Chef Matt Hill. A colour burst of goats cheese mousse, Jerusalem artichoke, macadamia nuts and ( it said on the menu) King Oyster Mushroom for me. Well the cheese came as mousse as well as logs rolled in herbs and spices and the mushroom looked to me to be a large cepe sliced lengthways. The Jerusalem artichoke was pureed, the nuts toasted. I like my nuts toasted. I liked the whole dish in fact, great textures and great flavours.
For P a ham hock terrine with quails’ eggs, curls of pickled vegetables perfectly judged to counter the terrine, some quince puree and a slice of toasted sourdough. Again, beautiful to look at and, she told me, to eat too.
Mains carried on the quality with a hunk of slow-cooked hake topped with a langoustine draped in crisp tempura and sat on, rather too much, samphire with sweet potato puree and tangled fennel. The excess salty samphire aside, it was another assured dish.
As was P’s, who went for pork belly and loved the fall-apart meat and the mash, the whole carrots, the carrot puree, the seared cabbage (not I suspect the cabbage from the staircase) and the crackling served separately. All in balance and all cooked serenely.
Dessert could have been cheese, the menu lists what looks like a superb selection of cheeses both French and English, but we had to see what the kitchen could do on the sweet stuff. A dark chocolate marquise with pistachio mousse and peach ice cream was excellent and a strawberry parfait with melon, a mint sponge and wild strawberry sauce also a colour bomb of flavours.
So we went to bed happy, choosing to use the main formal staircase to the first floor to feel like a Lord and Lady, followed by a quick dive down the back stairs to the room feeling more like naughty servants.
The next day P sampled the Eden Spa, as I don’t do Spas – the male grooming aspect always sounds suspicious – and reported back afterwards with a cheerful glow and a spring in her step having had various treatments which, as a bloke, I didn’t even begin to pretend to understand but she was very, very happy with.
The spa and the food is certainly a strong point at Down Hall; the dining room could well be a top destination restaurant for the area if they worked the decor over a bit, or dimmed the lights a tad or both.
Needing a bit of a refurb in some parts, and a lick of paint in others, Down Hall is nonetheless a classy but unpretentious weekend break only forty-five minutes from London and ideal as somewhere to stay before an early Stansted takeoff. Now where has my butler gone?
Down Hall Country House HotelMatching Road,Hatfield Heath,Essex CM22 7ASTel: +44 (0)1279 731 441