The Great Sicilian Escape

I’ve been anticipating this trip for several months. A country that’s as rich in its cultural heritage whether that be Greek, Roman or Phoenician as it is in its food and wine whether that be the searing acidity of those legendary Sicilan lemons or the sweetness of their ricotta filled pastries.Leaving a cold and damp Gatwick behind us on a Friday, our first surprise was an upgrade on our car from the charming Simona at Avis Preferred. Within an hour we arrived at the majestic Belmont Villa Sant’Andrea our base for the next 4 days. Set like a jewel into the rocks with an adorning landscaped garden giving way to breathtaking views of the ocean, its not hard to see why this is the hottest ticket in Taormina!

Receiving the warmest of Sicilian welcomes from La Bella Leah on reception we check into our room to be wowed with this view.


A nice touch was a welcome note from the General Manager with complimentary pastries.

After a quick dip in the chilly waters of the Med we headed round to the cove by the picturesque Isola Bella. There we found a beach restaurant, Ristorante La Pizzichella, with a deck which the incoming tide was lapping.

The perfect location we thought for pre dinner Negronis!


The first 2 were sooo good the words Ancora Negroni! Just tripped off our lips!

Such an idyllic location with the water lapping at our toes, it was hard to be beat so we just caught last orders at 19:45 for the kitchen and ordered the chef special,  swordfish linguini. Rounded off with a sublime bottle of Vignavella Chardonnay. Hints of oak and a dry acidity this was delicious although the Negronis impaired my memory any further.

As we strolled back up the steps from the beach we felt a craving for something sweet to finish off! We found a delightful bar and Gelateria, Ai Paladini Cafe, a few metres down the road and fed our cravings with a selection of chocolate and pistachio pastries accompanied of course by some sweet nectar like Sicilian dessert wines.

As we ordered il conto the waiter brought us a local speciality of pistachio cream liquor which was something you could easily get addicted to!


Less than 24 hours in Sicily and we had already fallen in love with the island!

 

Unspoilt Quiet Beaches, Wine Tasting and a Killer Sunset – Another Day in the Paradise that is Maremma!

After a first full day in the paradise that is the Maremma, we wonder what day two would hold in store for us.

We had already researched that we could join a guided trek in English through the wilderness that is the Maremma National Park at 9am that morning. So we make an early start, leaving behind us Porto Santo Stefano, already bustling with life, its marina awash with daytrippers ready to board the shuttle service to Isola del Giglio.

We arrive in the sleepy village of Alberese just before 9am and make our way to the Tourist Information Centre to book ourselves onto the trek.

To our surprise we find that the English tour was the next day and that the Italian tour that day didn’t start until 10am!

Undeterred by this seemingly large setback we decide to take a flyer on the Italian tour with my limited knowledge of spoken Italian our restricted audio guide!

With an hour to spare before the tour begins we head over to a little cafe bar opposite, where we order two doppios and two large glasses of iced water and settle down in a shady spot to take refuge from the already searing heat with our holiday reading for amusement.

At five to ten the transfer bus rolls up with our guide who to our relief speaks some English and was an Ecologist from the University of Pisa.

Within 15 minutes we are in the thick of the park with wild boars and deer visible from the bus as we drive to the drop off.

The Maremma is one of the last great unspoilt ecosystems in Italy. Its biodiversity and beauty fiercely protected by controlled entry. Access to the park by vehicle is restricted to guided tours and these are limited to just a few a day.

One of the commonest trees indigenous to the park is the Mediterranean Oak which has evolved so that it can survive drought. Unlike our native English Oak it is an evergreen and is characterised by hard small green leaves. When thriving en masse like in the park it gives the hills and mountains an intense green colour that contrasts against the azure blue sky.

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Droughts here can be extreme, exacerbated by the permeability of the limestone rock which causes the winter rains to rapidly drain away.

The only sound we hear is the faint swish of waves lapping the shore below and a few odd cicadas at the end of their season, this is in contrast to late spring and early summer when their chorus of mariachi can be deafening.

All along the Maremma coast there is a series of defensive towers a relic of the sixteenth century when this area was prone to raids by Saracen pirates

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A rich canvas of olive green hues leads out to the turquoise sea, beyond which the islands of Elba, Montecristo and even the faint outline of Corsica creep along the horizon.

The Maremma is also home to the Maremmana longhorned breed of cattle which can be traced back to the Etruscan period. After a period of population decline it has reasserted itself, thriving in the harsh environment of the Maremma.

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We descend down through the rocky path onto a huge expanse of wild beach, completely unspoilt and with just a handful of people sprinkled across the shoreline. Our guide advises us we have twenty minutes to take a refreshing dip before the short hike back to our bus so we take full advantage of this tranquil paradise.

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We work up quite an appetite during our morning hike  and decide to head to the recommended nearby Osteria La Nuova Dispensa.

The recommendation is insightful! We sit in the shade under a pergola our table covered in a rustic style patterned cloth.

Highlights on the menu are the local charcuterie with cheeses and beef T-bone cooked Florentine style.

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We opt for both! The starter is a mix of spicy wild boar salami, strong flavoured capo collo and a silky prosciutto Umbria with strong umami. A glass of Maremma Sangiovese from the nearby Santa Lucia vineyard  accentuates the flavours even further. A crumbly pecorino cheese is served with wild honey from a local bee keeper.

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The main course arrives with a simple garnish,it’s a full on fest of rare cooked meat on the bone simply flavoured with salt and pepper.

Our bellies full we head off in search of the Santa Lucia vineyard. Located near Grosseto it’s a fairly modern affair with a tasting room located in a large bungalow style building at the heart of the estate.

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We had the opportunity to taste 3 wines:

Brigante: 100% Vermentino.

Betto: A Super Tuscan comprising Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Sour cherries balanced with sweetness of the Merlot to produce a great example.

Santa Lucia: 100% Ansonica. A great expression of the local varietal that is crisp with a steely minerality and aromatic nose.

We arrive back at Cala Piccola in time to catch the last shuttle down to the little cove at the foot of the hotel.

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As the mountains start to shade the falling evening sun we indulge in some open water swimming in the warm clear turquoise waters and for a finale sip on some ice cold tequila sunrises!

Before dinner we are treated to one of the most dramatic sunsets we have ever witnessed.

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As we sip our pre dinner drinks on our balcony the sun finally slips behind the distant Isola di Giglio and a cooling sea breeze blows in as we descend into darkness.

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Dinner is a simpler affair this evening after our meatfest for lunch.

Emilano, the sommelier again delivers a perfect recommendation:  Vini Montauto Enos I, DOC Maremma Toscana. A wine made by one of Tuscany’s new generation of winemakers who are reinvigorating their family owned vineyards with new enthusiasm for producing stunning wines that really express the terroir in which they are grown.

Exhibiting a classic nose of Sauvignon Blanc with gooseberry, fresh grass and Granny Smith, a great balance of acidity and minerality with notes of white fruits, herbs, apple and star fruit rounded with a long finish and perfect with the light summer pasta.

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An appetiser of anchovy and buffalo mozzarella is very light, sourced directly from the farmer and served in a slightly quirky style. Nonetheless the saltiness of the anchovy balances nicely with the rich cream of the mozzarella!

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Our main course is macaroni with a mirepoix of carrot, aubergine and bacon bound in a light pea velouté. The silky yet fresh execution of this dish sings a ballad of summer with every mouthful.

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We are again seduced by the Valrhona chocolate dome with passion fruit ganache and dried fruit crumbs. As spectacular in its delivery as it was the night before!

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Notching up the ante just a little Emilano our sommelier recommends one of my favourite dessert wines the rare Passito Pantelleria from the tiny Italian island that is closer to Africa than Italy!

Its a heady fusion of honey and honeycomb which is a rich golden colour, with a palette of rich marmalade.

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With our second day in paradise drawing to a close we take a stroll around the gardens of the hotel serenaded by cicadas!

 

Northern Powerhouse!

Samuel Johnson, writer, journalist and critic is credited with the quote

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

I wondered what Dr Johnson, as he was also known would have made of the regeneration and transformation of the great Northern city that is Leeds.

Anecdotaly I’ve heard that discerning global shoppers now shun London and make Leeds their first port of call when visiting the UK. It’s not hard to imagine why. An airport that’s close to the city with ease of transit through it on your return, with terminal departures area to gate in less than 10 minutes!

On every visit there’s something new, this time it’s a John Lewis department store to compliment the plethora of shopping malls. The retail scene catering for all tastes from the budget to high end.

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The Victoria Arcade is one of my favourites which could easily rival even the most exclusive Jermyn or Bond Street offerings, with classy jewellers, bespoke shoes and a Vivienne Westwood boutique to name but a few!

Leeds also has a huge amount to offer the discerning foodie. On a previous visit I posted a review of the Crafthouse restaurant which blew me away.

I’ve blogged before about the renaissance of the independent coffee shop in the face of the colonisation of high streets by Costabucks. Leeds is no exception. A little research led me to Laynes Espresso on New Station Street.

With a cool vibe and range of brew methods to show off their range of coffees plus some awesome breakfast offerings (shame I’d already eaten at T5!) this place rocks.

I go for the single origin El Sunzita from El Salvador by Stockholm based Drop Coffee Roasters. Brewed with the Classic V60, a nice touch is the tasting coffee mats which they hand scribe with tasting facts for the single origin that you are drinking! Indeed their insights are spot on with notes of milk chocolate sweetness, apple acidity and nuts!

Leaving the hipsters at Laynes behind I go in search of the new redeveloped south side of Leeds. Inside the Vue cinema complex called The Light I find La Bottega Milanese.  An authentic Milanese style espresso bar serving Italian pastries and amazing Piadina (Italian Flatbread) toasted sandwiches. Here they not only sell a range of coffee beans but also the kit to brew it with from the stylish Aeropress to the Classic V60.

Before leaving the city there is just time to take in a quick early dinner at Pintura, an authentic  Basque style Pinxto restaurant. The place is fairly quiet as it’s only 5pm so I opt to sit up at the counter and start chatting with Jimmy the chef.

Going with his recommendations I choose three small dishes, his colleague recommends three sherry pairings which set off the three dishes nicely!

Pulpo Salpicion

A delicious pickle of Octopus, Peppers, Onions with Sherry Vinegar. A real sweet and sour surprise with the octopus al dente.

Served with a bone dry Williams and Humbert Manzanilla with the saltiness that compliments this seafood dish.

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Brochette de Queso Y Jamon

Intensely rich and buttery Iberica Ham with a hard tangy Goat’s cheese

Served with a Williams and Humbert Palo Cortado 20 year old.  A great fusion of sweet and savoury to compliment the contrasting flavours in the brochette.

Chistorra

Tiny small but spicy chorizo sausages fried on the plancha grill.

Served with a full treacle like and rich Williams and Humbert Pedro Ximenez (PX) 20 year old that total handles the chilli heat and enhances the sweetness of the chistorra.

 

I just have enough room to squeeze in a…..

Mousse de Chocolate

Divine and sublime Valrhona chocolate in a rich mousse topped with a chocolate crumb

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Served with a Williams and Humbert Sweet Old Oloroso, 15 year old semi sweet so as not to cloy with the chocolate and yet enhancing it at the same time.

I’m transported back from San Sebastian to reality as my taxi driver calls to say he is outside! He whisks me  back at the airport in time for a quick look around the Duty Free before boarding the flight back to London eagerly anticipating my next visit to Yorkshire!

 

 

The Barley Mow – Englefield Green’s Newest Gastro Pub Puts On A Great Show!

There has been much talk locally about the fate of the former shabby pub that occupies arguably one of the most coveted positions on the village green in the North Surrey village of Englefield Green.

In the fifteen or so years that I’ve lived here it’s always been a fairly average pub and never ever managed anything more than a notch above that which can be microwaved or put in a deep fat fryer.

We locals have been waiting in anticipation when local gastro pub chain The White Brasserie Company (sister company of the well established Raymond Blanc franchise Brasserie Blanc) took over the Barley Mow .

Over the last few months they have heavily invested in refurbishing and extending the premises breathing new life into the tired old building.

Last night the second soft opening took place and I was lucky enough to secure a table to sample the fruits of their labours!

Located just 1/2 mile from my house and a brisk 10 mins walk we were looking forward to having a place to eat on our doorstep that didn’t involve a taxi or train ride.

On arrival we met the charismatic Johnny O’Connor, the GM steering the ship, a great host but obviously a man who takes his craft seriously as he skilfully manages his brigade of staff to deliver a fairly impressive service.

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Once inside, the decor is bright yet cosy. There is a small bar with a full range of pre dinner drinks and cocktails available including an outstanding Sauvignon Blanc on tap and a Fleurie!

If you are a lover of all things that is the drink of the moment; GIN, then this is the place for you! An impressive range of Gin’s to suit all tastes from the classic Hendrik’s to the stellar aromatic Gin Mare.

The dining area is split on two levels; the new larger lower level looks into the open kitchen, a signature feature of Brasserie Blanc’s, revealing an openness and transparency of what goes on in the kitchen!

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As its a chilly night outside we opt for the slightly more intimate and cosy upper floor and choose a table adjacent to a roaring log fire, it’s warmth a welcome addition to the ambiance.

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After taking some time to cogitate and deliberate over the extensive menu, I’m seduced by the Hake for mains which I had a year ago on a visit to Brasserie Blanc in Winchester and which wowed me then. My other guests make their choices and I order a delicious Pouilly Fumé at a very modest mark up on retail price.

It’s crisp and fresh and the perfect partner to my choice of starter…

Starter

Rainbow smoked beetroot & goat’s curd salad, balsamic dressing & beetroot crisps.

One of the best iteration’s of this classic that I’ve tasted. The secret… The beets are steamed separately unpeeled to preserve colour, then peeled and cold smoked in their own in-house smokery. Finally, to finish the dark beets are marinated in a red wine marinade and the the lighter colours in a white wine marinade. The result a visual stunner that balances sweet and sour  flavours with the lightness of the goat’s curd.

One course in and I’m already loving this place!

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Main Course

Roast hake fillet with saffron sauce, mussels, clams, kale, new potatoes.

I had already bigged up this dish to my guests and and wasn’t disappointed when it arrived, the wonderful aroma from the saffron sauce tantalising my taste buds. The Hake cooked to perfection, crispy skinned and yet moist so that it’s delicate flavour and texture could express themselves in the luxurious combination with sweet mussels and clams. Al dente kale and new potatoes provided an unfussy but necessary balance to the flavours on the plate.

Wine number two was a budget favourite from Rare Vineyards; one whose modest £23 price tag totally under estimates the sublime combination of Marsanne/Viognier that was the perfect partner to our quartet of fish that were our main courses.

Asking our waiter, Vince for a soup spoon to ensure that not a drop of the saffron liquor was wasted the only debris left on the plate were the discarded mussel shells!

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Cheese Course

Selection of traditional seasonal artisan cheese; Double Gloucester, Keen’s Cheddar, Yorkshire blue

Having already decided unanimously as a table that we were all going for the French classic Tarte Citron we decided to share one cheese course between four.

Beautifully presented with a tangy red onion marmalade and garnished with dried apricots and candied fruit the cheeses went down a storm. In my book Keen’s Cheddar is up there as one of the greatest English cheddars that exists. Made the same way it was a hundred year’s ago from raw unpasteurised milk it’s flavours, strong deep and full of umami!

The Yorkshire Blue creamy and yet with a delicious savoury saltiness! I could see myself popping in for a cheese course after dinner at home without the guilt of having a pound of cheeses tempting me in the fridge at home!

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Dessert

Classic deep-baked lemon tart, crème fraîche

And so to dessert. A deep slice of sunshine with a lovely caramelised surface courtesy of chef’s blow torch! The tart zing of lemon balanced perfectly with the custard creme filling and offset both decoratively and flavour wise with the off sour tang of a thick crème fraîche.

Bringing this triumphant finale to a close, to accompany the dessert we had a classic Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, one of my favourite sweet wines…

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But we were not done and in a defiant act to prolong our enjoyment of the evening further we ordered post dinner cocktails!

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Legér whose job it is to keep the wine and cocktails flowing took to making several new off piste cocktails to keep us happy in addition to her signature Espresso Martini!

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Espresso Martini using Stoli! A Barley Mow twist on the Brandy Alexander and of course the quintessential Bondesque classic Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred!

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Johnny, Tim and Vince by the log fire in the upper restaurant.

All in all a fantastic night! If they can maintain this quality of service and food this is going to be a real local asset and transform the restaurant scene in the village.

If you need any more of a recommendation I’ve just booked for Christmas Eve, but don’t delay as they are already filling up..

The Barley Mow, Englefield Green, Surrey, TW20 0NX, 01784 480210

Official Opening 28th November 2016

 

 

 

 

Tremezzo to Tuscany – A Food Lovers Autoroute 

It would be really remiss of me not to wax just a little lyrical about how wonderful it was to return to Hotel La Perla in Tremezzo. The twin sisters Clelia and Mara who run this place with their husbands, Sergio and Luca are justifiably proud of their many awards and accolades from Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence to other commendations.

They work tirelessly and with great humour to make your stay so special and comfortable whilst maintaining really high standards of cleanliness and comfort. The rooms are really well appointed and since our last stay 4 years ago have all been refurbished, another good sign of a hotel run not just for profit but for the benefit of its guests!

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We enjoyed a last morning coffee and spectacular view from our balcony (always worth paying a little extra for the view!) before grabbing a quick swim in the pool before breakfast.

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The pool was always a great place to cool off at the end of the day with plenty of sun loungers and a plentiful supply of towels!

The Hotel La Perla has the added advantage of being located about 2o mins walk from the lake so that it is also incredibly quiet unlike the many period hotels that adorn the lakeside but have to constantly compete with the hustle and bustle of the traffic!

After enjoying the spectacular view from the terrace over breakfast one last time……

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we loaded up the car and settled our bill before having a group photo with the our hosts!

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L-R ( Sergio, Clelia, Tim, Mara, Luca)

Whilst Gillian was taking this photo Luca remarked that we’d back in time for the Olympics in 4 years! ( the 2012 London Olympics were taking place when we last stayed there and the Rio Olympics were in full glow this time!).

As we bade farewell to the Lago di Como we joined the autostrada to Milan. I was somewhat slightly troubled by the AdBlue warning light flashing on the dashboard and so we stopped off at a large service area just west of Milan to seek assistance.

With my very limited Italian I managed to converse with the kiosk attendant and get a 5 litre carton of the fuel additive along with a watering can and a large funnel! With the car refuelled and the AdBlue sorted we were back on the road and heading to Parma our next stop. My attention turned to blogging and as I fired up the iPad and we tore along the autostrada words started flowing out of me like extra virgin olive oil from a press!

This was always going to be one of our longest drives of the tour at 350 miles and so we decided to schedule in several stops. As we headed along the E35 towards Parma we crossed the iconic Po river its vast banks flanked by fields of the legendary Arborio rice! It really got me thinking about risotto! However, we decided that our first shop should be a picnic lunch in Parma, arguably one of the must visit food stops in Emilia-Romagna. 

In our minds we were already salivating over crumbly and intense parmesan cheese, gossamer thin slices of prosciutto di parma and light and doughy focaccia!

After extracting ourselves from a near miss courtesy of driving the wrong way down a one way street we parked in a multistory just fifteen minutes walk from the old town.

As we strolled down the Via Garibaldi we were struck by the sheer number and choice of delicatessen. We opted for La Verdi. What a  a place!

imageParmesan wheels stacked up on wooden shelves, a legion of hams of every kind of age hanging to tantalise the purchaser!

We opted for just a standard aged parmesan and a 12 month aged prosciutto di parma. A little further down the Via Garibaldi we came across a bakery whose speciality was foccacia!

Armed with our purchases we crossed the Via Garibaldi and sat by some fountains to have our picnic.

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with this stunning panorama as our backdrop

Parma Panorama 360

We figured that we had just enough time to take in some of the stunning Parmesan architecture before hitting the road again.

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Back on the road we headed to Bologna. However, we made a schoolboy error and hadn’t properly researched our next stop! We spent an hour or so wondering around the central station area in search of the perfect Ragù but found nothing!

Disappointed we pushed on in the direction of Florence by passing the city but remembering our last visit here also 4 years ago as we saw the impressive Duomo towering over the city.

If ever you are minded to drive to the Tuscan coast make sure that you factor in the appalling nature of the road network!  The last 2 hours of our journey were tortuous in every sense of the word. Despite great views of the Tuscan vineyards we encountered worse roadworks than on the M1 “smart motorway” back home and 40mph speed restrictions!

Slightly short tempered and with a sense of humour stretched we eventually arrived on the  Monte Argentario peninsula just before 7pm. We passed through the little port of Porto Santo Stefano before the road wound it’s way up round the mountain and then down the other side to our hotel the stunning Hotel Torre di Cala Piccola.

After check in we were shown to our room. It had to be the best room in the hotel! Views towards the beach on one side and views towards Isola del Giglio on the other and the perfect place to catch the evening sunsets which were without a doubt a highlight of the 5 days we stayed there!

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Feeling slightly grubby from our drive and just wanting to chill we opted for room service; a bottle of the local Sangiovese wine, A tagliatelle with wild boar ragù ( as compensation for missing out in Bologna!) and a Caprese salad! Sitting on the balcony with the sound of the waves lapping against the rocks below it was pretty much the perfect dinner location and the food probably one of the best room service meals we’ve ever had!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Magical Mountain Adventure

Waking again to the same sound of the Giessbach Falls which had sent us off to sleep, we started the day of our wedding anniversary with more than a hint of anticipation and excitement for what the day would bring forth.

We took breakfast on the terrace and secured pole position overlooking both the Falls and the lake. The Grand Hotel Giessbach breakfast was a sumptuous smorgorsborg of hot and cold dishes. Highlights were local cheese with wild alpine honey straight from the honeycomb, partnered with fruit bread and a killer Bircher muesli. Starting the day as we meant to go on we reached for the Prosecco and charged our glasses!

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As we swung back past perception to confirm what time the boat left for Interlaken we had another nice surprise. Jonathan our helpful hotel receptionist from the day before had bought us an anniversary card and some Swiss chocolates as a gift. A very thoughtful and generous touch.

The concierge confined that the funicular which connects the hotel with the boat station departed at 10:40 and handed us the complimentary passes that hotel guests have for use of this novel transfer.
The funicular has the honour of being the oldest and first to have been installed in Switzerland. I’ve seen these in many locations around the world but this one certainly is the most dramatic.

imageThe Grand Hotel Giessbach stands proudly on the side of a mountain adjacent to the Giessbach Falls. It was saved from destruction after falling into disrepair by a consortium of wealthy Swiss businessmen who were keen to preserve this iconic bundling. It has the air of a palatial grand estate adorned with chandeliers and ornate furnishings and has been faithfully restored to its former glory.

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The funicular took just a few minutes to convey us from the hotel down to its own boat station on the lake. Long before the winding road was built the only way to reach the hotel was by boat from Interlarken and then funicular.

Hotel guests can also purchase a first class return ticket for the hour or so trip to Interlaken which was a subsidised bargain at 30 Euros per person. First Class also guarantees you a seat on the upper deck where we were afforded some stunning views of the Lake Brienz and the surrounding mountains. There was also a little bar so we decided another Prosecco was in order!

The toot toot of the ferry announces to us our embarkation. We pass several lakeside villages dotted around lack Brienz as we zigzag our way to Interlaken Ost across the lake. It’s turquoise green waters contrasting with the intense blue of the sky.

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On arrival at Interlaken Ost boat station we changed to our third mode of transport for the train journey to Wengen changing at Lauterbrunnen. One of the great things about Switzerland is the Swiss passion for ruthless efficiency which means trains running to time with minimal hanging around between connections!

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At Wengen just five minutes walk from the train station is the Cable car to Mannlichen. Already within striking distance of the stunning Alps this last stage of journey was for me the most exciting! Powdery white snow dusting the majestic peaks of the mountains like a patisserie chef adding the finish to a fondant!

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Exiting the cable car, the vista was breathtaking, a combination of quaint Swiss chalets, rolling green alpine pastures and snow capped mountains set against an azure blue sky.

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A further surprise as we passed a group of cows, their large bells clunking in harmony around their necks was the dramatic and haunting sound of the local Alpenhorns and an annual Alpenhorn festival.

Click here for clip of Alpenhorn Festival
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Walking from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg along trail Number 33 was breathtaking and ranks as one of my favourite walks of all time! Words and pictures can’t really do justice to the beauty of the panoramic vistas.

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After ninety minute of walking along the trial we arrived at the tiny village of Kleine Scheidegg just in time to pick up the mountain railway to Grindelwald.  From here we crammed onto another train full of international tourists returning from the Jungfrau theme park back to Interlaken hoping to catch the last ferry back to our hotel.

We arrived back at Interlaken Ost some thirty minutes or so after the last boat departed but realised if we took the next fast train to Brienz we could catch it up there so as to enjoy our return to the hotel in the same way we departed and save on a thirty Euro taxi fare from Brienz!

We made excellent time back to Brienz and still had time for a refreshingly short dip in the icy waters of lake Brienz, so cold that it actually took my breath away, in time to catch our boat.

As the funicular pulled us back up the mountainside our thoughts turned to dinner. We had booked a table in the critically acclaimed Cascades restaurant in the hotel but having spent the day in the alpine fresh air we were reluctant to relinquish the great outdoors and so decided to opt for the bar menu again on the terrace.

When we got to the bar the terrace overlooking the lake was buzzing as it was such a beautiful evening. We need not have worried! Our new found friends from the previous evening Swiss Toni and Giota had reserved the best two tables for us so that we could chose which one we wanted! They had anticipated that we would probably want to eat al fresco and didn’t want us to have a disappointing end to our special day!

Hotel dinner

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Sautéed Goat’s Cheese with Wild Garlic Pesto.

The wild garlic pesto was a triumph complimenting the richness of the goats cheese perfectl!

Main course

Entrecôte steak with thin fries and garlic/herb butter. Juicy , perfectly cooked: rare for me and medium rare for Gillian. We asked if the sommelier could come from the Cascades restaurant to advise on a wine to partner the steak, something Swiss.

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We had the chance to meet the charming sommelier, Kevin Hischke who recommended Teninento La Prella from near Ascona on Lake Maggiore, in Ticino. This wine, a Merlot grand reserve had a nose of chocolate, cherry and spice. On the palette there was morello cherries and a hint of cherries in kirsch combined with soft tannins in a well rounded finish. A perfect recommendation with the steak.

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As we ordered a post prandial coffee we asked Swiss Toni to recommend a typical Swiss digestif . He recommended Nocino a nut liquor which was syrupy, sweet and with a buttery nutty taste.

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Giota, Tim and Swiss Toni!

imageThanking both Toni and Giota for looking after us both so well and making the end to our special day so memorable we climbed the two flights of stairs and slept like the proverbially logs!
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Dinner Fit For a Gourmand

We arrived at Chateau Courban shortly before 6pm still buzzing with the excitement of our serendipitous visit to Champagne Louise Brison . As the evening sun bathed the exquisite gardens in warm light we planned to take a cooling dip in the pool as soon as we checked in.

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Check in was smooth and efficient but they kept from us the best surprise of all…. An upgraded room which was straight out of a scene from the new BBC drama Versailles. A master bedroom with stunning views across the Côte d’Or countryside leading to a bathroom whose central feature was a beautiful roll top enamel bath, with shower room and toilet in separate rooms off of the bathing area so as not to spoil the Feng Shui!

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We wasted no time in heading to the pool area for a refreshing pre dinner swim. Decadently we enjoyed a half bottle of the 2010 vintage Louise Brison champagne as an aperitif while getting ready for dinner and luxuriating in our sumptuous surroundings. (See previous posting for tasting notes)

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This was our second visit to Courban after discovering this stunning oasis last year. We weren’t the least bit surprised to learn that many guests return again and again in what is a case of once discovered never forgotten.

It’s a great stopover at anytime of year especially if you’re heading south to the French Alps, Switzerland or Italy. It was also incredibly great value at a pre Brexit booking price of around £200 for half board which included a four course Discovery menu from their legendary Head Chef, Takashi Kinoshita. The restaurant is also deservedly included In the Michelin selection 2016.

Whilst perusing the Discovery menu we enjoyed a glass of the house champagne, Champagne Robert Barbichon, a Blanc de Blanc with 15% Pinot Noir, made to biodynamic standards in the Côte des Bars. This was the first time I had tasted a Champagne made in this style and the 15% Pinot certainly added to the taste making it arguably a more suitable companion for the amuse bouche.

Dinner

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Amuse Bouches No1

Mustard macaroon with toasted pecans.
I loved the sweet and savoury juxtaposition of this mouthful, a perfect balance of light sugary meringue and tangy mustard. It also looked incredible.

Deep fried epoisse parcels presented on a bed of dried lentils. I think this dish would work better with a more over ripe epoisse when its power would balance with the Tempura. Tasty though the same.

Amuse Bouches No 2

Gazpacho with Celery Foam.
Like a lightly textured fresh and slightly spicy Bloody Mary.

Starters

Prawns with baby aubergine.
Prawns in a light tempura with daikon salad, wakame with a yuzu and toasted sesame oil vinaigrette.
Lemon foam and sweet soy sauce binding all the ingredients together.

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Duck Foie Gras with petits pois mousseline.
A fusion of spicy flavours including coriander seeds and chorizo offset by perfect soft and silky textured foie gras. Garnished with lemon foam and egg yolk confit.

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Main Course
Roasted supreme of Bourg en Bresse chicken with duxelles of girolles mushrooms new potato soufflé and courgette ribbons, veal jus, spinach with red basil. Garnished with whole sautéed girolles.

This breed of chicken in my opinion deserves its place as the best in the world. Melt in the mouth breast, moist and flavoursome. The devil sauce carrying loads of Unami flavour from its base veal jus.

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Dessert

Courban countryside dessert.
A soft cream cheese set in a light green meringue wrap with white chocolate batons and ice cream.

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A Summer Swim
Segments of Pink grapefruit and red shizo sorbet, peach and toasted sesame meringue with red shizo garnished with rose wine jelly and green spun sugar.
Light, fresh and sharp the perfect palette cleansing dessert in stunning summery like technicolour.

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We chose a stunning local wine from nearby Chablis…..with the main course in mind.
Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles Regnard 2011. A great nose expressing both minerality and fruit. On the palette, further minerality, augmented with notes of plump ripe quinces, a fat wine with a long finish and one that I believe will continue to improve with age.

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We had just enough room for coffee and petit fours. These provided the perfect finale to this discovery menu. Light and chewy meringues and rich lavender flavoured chocolate truffles.

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We strolled back to our room having thoroughly enjoyed our Gastronomic experience wondering what the next day would bring as we drifted off into a deep sleep.

Al Boccon di Vino -Venetian Gastro Heaven!

We’d been planning to go to the Richmond institution that is Al Boccon di Vino since my friend Jojo went there about a year ago and hadn’t stopped raving about it since. Be warned you really need to book in advance and although I usually prefer dinner over lunch, as their menu free banquet  can last well over two and half hours on Jojo’s advice we opted for a Saturday lunchtime booking.

Joining us were Jojo and her other half Pete, they had the advantage of knowing a little about the running order. “Don’t ask for the wine list Tim, there isn’t one!” Jojo said. This was great insight as when the restaurant manager Simona asked us”You want Redda or Whita wine?” in her thick Italian accent, I was able to resist the temptation to ask for the wine list!

Whilst I love to spend time pondering a menu and wine list I am equally happy to just go with the flow especially on the back of some great recommendations. I love the confidence dare I say even arrogance of a restaurant that says “we’ll serve you the most amazing, seasonal fresh ingredients and wines that match but don’t expect a choice!” I think if more establishments could pull this off,  dining out would be more of an adventure!

Having strolled down the river from Twickenham to Richmond before lunch we went for the white wine option and were rewarded with a crisp Lugana, a delightful floral wine with a wonderful bouquet.

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The Lugana proved to be the perfect accompaniment to our never ending run of starters.

First up. English asparagus with parmesan shavings, rocket and pomegranate. Deliciously simple and a great seasonal starter to kick off the proceedings.

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This was augmented by the classic pairing of Charentais melon, with its wonderful bouquet and sweet tasting flesh, which worked brilliantly with the slightly salty air dried prosciutto.image

We were by no means done with the rolling starters, the next duo was a delightful vegetarian course one of sliced artichokes in olive oil with herbs and garlic and the other a mixture of grilled courgettes, aubergine and peppers with plenty of freshly baked italian bread to capture all that nectar like dressing.

The next offering was a juicy seafood combo of giant garlic prawns and razor clams in their shell served in a rich garlic and herb sauce, perfectly cooked so that the seafood retained its texture without the rubbery consistency that comes with over cooking these delicate morsels.

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We were still a course away from the mains and the wine was flowing well, Pete and I were already exhibiting a healthy glow….

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Finishing off the last of the Lugana as the pasta course arrived we ordered red to come with the meat pasta dish, a delicious Sangiovese I recall but to be honest I was starting to feel a little squiffy at this point.

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As the pasta course was cleared away,  a fanfare from the kitchen heralded the entry of a ceremonial cortege of waiting staff carrying a vast roasting tin with a whole suckling pig inside, its crackling sparkling.

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Riccardo (left of photo) is every inch the Italian stallion, proudly showcasing the wonderful fare on offer, its’ no surprise that he is both chef and owner and never seems happier than being front of house exuding Italian charisma and charm that the likes of George Clooney can only dream of!imageThe Suckling pig was a triumph although I was starting to feel just a little full. The crackling was crisp but the meat juicy, succulent and flavoursome, served with a simple pomme purée.

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Our finale came in the form of a simple strawberry compote with pannacotta and served with a deliciously rich Moscato di Trani from Puglia. One of the oldest DOC in Italy, exhibiting a wonderful nose of buttery honey and yellow fruit jam; a taste that had real depth with a rich flavour perfect with the fruit compote.

With the wines costing approx £25 and the the meal fixed at £45 you know where you are budget wise here but do be prepared to be blown away by the quality of the food!

One nice surprise at the end was that with my half century birthday just 2 weeks away our generous friends Jojo and Pete treated us to lunch!  We really did feel quite spoilt!

 

A Birthday celebration in the Cotswolds!

A few weeks ago I reached that most auspicious of birthdays! The half century! To be honest its been a great excuse for a little more of the things that a like to do best; drinking fine wine, eating amazing food and catching up with friends!

On the day itself Gillian had planned an overnight stay at the legendary Lords of The Manor hotel in Upper Slaughter. Still recovering from the previous week in which I had managed to get in a vintage tasting at Furleigh Estate in Dorset combined with an overnight stay at the incomporable Summer Lodge Hotel in Evershot, dinner at The Quality Chop House in Farringdon with friends and a magnum of the iconic Domaine de Trévallon 2001!

Determined to make the most of the forecasted flaming June weather we made an early start arriving in the sleepy Cotswold village of Upper Slaughter shortly before 1pm.

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The front lawn at The Lords of the Manor

Quickly checking into our room, we changed into our walking gear and set off on an appetite building 15 mile circular walk of the local villages.

Our first stop was the neighbouring village of Lower Slaughter. The contrast could not be greater between these two Cotswold jewels. Lower with its bustling hoards of visitors, picturesque stream and Mill juxtaposed with the tranquility and calm of Upper Slaughter and without a single coach party in sight!

By contrast Lower Slaughter is a world away from the heaving hordes of visitors that flock to Bourton-on -the-Water, our next stop on our walk. I don’t know why towns feel it’s really necessary to tap into some sort of Romantic association with things Venetian, but I do feel that just because there’s a few little streams running through the town that calling it “the Venice of the Cotswolds” is really poetic licence gone too far!

We picked up a delicious picnic at one of the really outstanding gems in the village, Bakery on The Water. Quiche Lorraine’s with melt in the mouth pastry, delicious spiced pork sausage rolls and a tempting selection of tarts and cakes!

We made our escape from the maddening crowds and found peace and tranquility adjacent to the River Windrush.

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Our picnic spot by the River Windrush, Bourton-on-the -Water

We picked up the pace fortified by our picnic and followed the waymarked trail across woods and valleys of buttercup clad pastures and sun kissed meadows.

After several hours we arrived in the tiny village of Naunton and headed to the village pub for some refreshments before completing the last few miles back to Upper Slaughter.

On arrival back at the hotel we were greeted by Michael Obray, the General Manager who informed us that we were being upgraded to the full tasting menu which was a really lovely surprise!

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The bedrooms at the Lords of the Manor

We thought that we’d start as we meant to go on and ordered cocktails to sup whilst getting ready for dinner! The long walk had given me a thirst and so this Negroni went down a treat!

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Pre Dinner Negroni!

Included in our Secret Escapes package was a complimentary glass of NV. Tattinger, currently one of my favourite champagnes.

We decided to take this with our canapé al fresco in our attempt to squeeze every last drop of warm sunshine out of the day.

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A trio of Canapé: L-R Mackerel with Apple, Foie Gras Tuile. Goats Cheese with Raisin and Caper Jelly

These were all outstanding and really set the tone for the whole meal. I loved the delicate balance of the food pairings here e.g. the saltiness of the goats cheese with the sweetness of the grape and caper jelly.

As the sun started to go down we were called through for dinner and the anticipation of what would follow was almost too much!

 

The appetiser arrived with a flourish! Like an exquisitely composed still life the complimentary colours of the tomato and chervil enhancing each others colour whilst the natural colour of the viola shone on the consommé canvas. Flavours and textures balanced perfectly with added creaminess from the ricotta and crunch from the pine nuts! A real triumph! Meanwhile the Rousette grape delivered a steely clean and fresh taste with an apple like acidity that partnered the consommé jelly to a tee.

 

The next course arrived with another sublime pairing suggested by our sommelier Michael Bray. The richness of the Petit Manseng grape yielding notes of thick unctuous honey and sweet orange marmalade. By contrast the duck liver’s richness enhanced by rolling in port contrasted with the texture and acidity of the apple jelly, pickled rhubarb and hazelnuts.

Course number four arrived and we were already feeling the wow factor! It was really no surprise to learn of the restaurants well deserved one Michelin star status. This course balanced oriental spiciness with stabilising flavours of oriental mushrooms and tomato. The exotic notes of papaya combined with hints of apple and honeysuckle in the superb 2014 Mangan Vineyard Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc with a little vanilla spice from light oaking and good natural acidity.

My favourite red meat is always going to be new season English lamb. Here served three ways with spectacular presentation and garnished with olive tapenade, tomato confit, minted broad beans and lamb jus, it was just heaven! What made it even more special was the pairing with a stellar 2009 La Rioja Alta, Reserva! Just 2 months earlier I had sat in their tasting room in Haro, with Ainhoa Elosegui, their PR manager learning more about this iconic estate! Here the wine combines notes of violets, and damsons with a little pepper. So good it’s one I’ll be seeking out again!

A palette cleansing Mango and Kalamansi foam shot prepared our tastebuds for the finale…image

Before the soufflé finalé they bought me a lovely decorated  plate with a single macaroon and a candle with a chorus of happy birthday!

The raspberry soufflé followed…..which was incredible, light and with a zing of raspberry sharpness contrasting with the light creaminess of the tonka bean ice cream. The finale eclectic pairing was a rare Franz Haaz Moscato Rosa from Friuli. Its rarity and low production are due to the low yield. It is not a late harvested grape, nor it is a passito, naturally it has a high content of sugar and is harvested when ripened well.

Before heading into the lounge to take coffee we had our final surprise of the evening and something that speaks volumes for the brigade working the kitchen at Lords of the Manor, the entire service that evening had been executed under the supervision of Senior Sous Chef, Paul Evans, who came out to meet us in person.

It’s always really great to get the opportunity to speak to the chef in person especially when they’ve delivered such a memorable tasting menu!

 

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We settled down with a little espresso and these delightful petit fours before rolling into our comfy beds for a wonderfully long lie in!

It’s always hard thinking about breakfast after such an amazing dinner the night before but Senior Sous Chef Paul, had already piqued my interest! The full English was so worth it!

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Beautiful presentation and the really neat thing was that it was a manageable size portion that left you satisfied without disappointing! Perfectly poached eggs and the crispiest of bacon excited my taste buds all over again.

After breakfast we decided to walk around the ten plus acres of grounds and gardens. Truly stunning as this little montage shows

Before heading off Michael Bray the sommelier had one more trick up his sleeve and offered to show me round his extensive cellar under the dinning room! Above ground they’ve also converted one of the old fire places to house some of the more popular wines in a more ambient cool temperature.

Overall a stunning way to spend my 50th birthday and a brilliant introduction to this jewel in the Cotswold crown!

 

 

 

 

 

Fabulous Furleigh! A English Wine Triumph!

Its hard to think of a more fitting way to celebrate the start of English Wine Week than a visit to one of the real success stories of the English wine scene, and not just in the commercially viable English sparking wine market.

I first came across the Furleigh Estate on a visit to Dorset last October. As I was heading down to Bridport I spotted a small black and white sign saying vineyard! I’ve been coming down to this part of West Dorset for the best part of 17 years and had never noticed this before.

Curiosity took me down to the vineyard which was closed but a Google search of Furleigh Estate and its many trophies and medals prompted me to investigate the possibility of a visit/tasting on my next visit to West Dorset.

One slightly complicating factor was that the tour I wanted to do was on a Friday morning and the next one was on 27th May. This coincided with a long weekend down there but we were not due to arrive till Friday evening!

Spurred on by the perfect alignment of English Wine Week, A long sunny Bank Holiday weekend and the opportunity to take a day’s leave on Friday led to us booking on the 11am Vintage Tour at Furleigh Estate.

After the disappointment of missing the start of the tour at Vina Tondonia due to a combination of traffic and my poor navigation we decided to come down the night before.

Gillian rather generously offered to drive and in about 15 minutes drive we were heading down the rough drive to the vineyard.

On arrival we were greeted by Jim the recently retired estate manager who was helping out that day and our guide for the tour. We were given a brief introduction to the history of Furleigh and a glass of Classic Cuvee 2011, a great way to start the tour, especially as Gillian handed me her glass for a second helping!

After the intro we headed out to the vines.

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The vineyard was purchased in 2004 when Ian and Rececca sold their actuarial business and the opportunity arose to purchase the diary farm that had been run by Rebecca’s family many decades before. The first year was spent laying out and preparing the site and Ian enrolling on a wine making degree course at Plumpton College in Sussex.

In 2005 the first rows of vines were planted with the second phase of planting taking place in 2006. Grapes are grown across three sites in Dorset, here at Thurleigh and a near by plot and also at Wooton Fitzpaine near Charmouth.

They have 10 rows of Rondeau, a red grape which strangely usually produces red juice! They have 40 rows of Bacchus, a varietal which is suited to the English climate although very difficult to grow and that produces a Loire style Sauvignon Blanc.

Overall the estate is weighted towards the commercially successful sparkling wine market with Furleigh producing 2 white and one rose sparkling wines, but more on these later and this accounting for around 70% of the 200,000 litres of wine produced!

Interestingly unlike most of what I’ve seen in Champagne the vines are grown on the vertical shoot method, partly because this keeps the precious grapes out of reach of pests like badgers etc…. and partly to optimise the grape to foliage ratio. With this method both the height and width of the rows is critical to getting the best yield.

The soil type hear is sandy loam unlike the chalk soils of the Sussex Downs which are on a similar geological line to the Champagne area. Crucially though with sparkling wines it is what the winemaker does with the grapes at the second fermentation that has the biggest impact on the overall taste and finish.

Furleigh Estate Vineyards panorama.

After a walk through the vines which sit in fields adjacent to rolling hills with Dorset breed sheep grazing we headed back to the wine production area. We also learnt of the importance of frost minimisation strategies; at Thurleigh they have a large man-made lake adjacent to the vines as this helps to keep the night time temperature a few degrees higher. West Dorest is also renomned as a faily windy place and you generally don’t get a frost when the air is circulating so again this is a benefit when there’s a frost risk.

Furleigh use a minimum of sulphites in their process which is generally a good thing. There’s been a huge investment by Ian and Rebecca in the best technology to help them make award wining sparkling wines. From the whole bunch presses to the gyropalette which mechanically turns the champagne the required number of turns that is part of the second fermentation.

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The gyropalette achieves in just 5 days what would have taken considerably longer and been far more painstaking by hand!

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They use a French Oak fermentation barrel and then new American Oak for aging their still wines. I recently wrote about the dying art of the cooper and this trade is in such demand that a new oak barrel can cost around £600!

After the tour of the production area we headed back to the tasting room for the highlight of the tour , tasting 7 of the Estates wines.

Bacchus Dry 2014

A clear and bright colour with nose of grapefruit and elderflower, a Sauvignon Blanc style with  a palette that is fresh and citrusy with a good balance of acidity and minerality. Alcohol 12%.

Perfect with locally caught plaice or the local Woolsery dairy goat’s cheese.

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Sea Pink 2014

Dark rose colour, an off dry rose with a  hint of wild strawberry and summer fruits on the nose, a palate of red fruits including cranberry with a hint of acidity. Dry with a long finish

A must with anything crustacean from the legendary Samways fishmongers in West Bay!

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Tyrannosaurus Red 2014

Aromas of cassis and plum. On the palate juicy fruit balanced with acidity, think peppered strawberries and sour cherries. A light smokiness comes through from the oak. A long fish tops out the performance.

Would partner well with roast pork or spicy Moroccan tagine and can even work as a lightly chilled red with meaty fish

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Rosé 2010

A colour of pale salmon pink with red wine added at the dose stage just 17ml per 750ml. Aroma of wild strawberries. Palate is dry with mix of red summer fruits and a citrusy acidity.

A blend of 60% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier.

A good partner to local seafood, scallops or garlic prawns.

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West Dorset Chardonnay 2014

Aromas of baked apple and beeswax on the nose. Followed by a palate of dried apricot and apple compote balanced by a light oak with a buttery finish without masking the fruit. Don’t overchill

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Bacchus Fume 2014

A dry aromatic white. A bouquet of passion fruit and mandarin on the nose followed by a palete of pineapple and tropical fruits.

Use instead of a Pinot Gris with spicy oriental food.

Classic Reserve 2010

Their premium white sparkling wine. Aromas of toasted hazelnuts and brioche. Palate of baked apple and buttered toast. Complex with a long finish.

A sparkler that is made to partner food such as turkey, chicken, quail or partridge.  A blend of 60% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Meunier, 5% Pinot Noir.

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After a few purchases from the shop and feeling slightly light headed were headed off to West Bay in search of some crustaceans to partner with the best of Furleigh’s wines!

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Tim and Jim and the many awards that have been bestowed on Furleigh