Lunch at Milntown and a look round the gardens

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee public holidays on 4 and 5 June this year coincided with TT Week (the annual motorcycle races) on the Isle of Man, so they pronounced 6 July Jubilee Day on the island instead. This worked in nicely for a four-day weekend with Tynwald Day, the Isle of Man’s national day, which occurs on 5 July. On this date each year, since 1417, the island’s legislature, Tynwald, meets on Tynwald Hill in St John’s where all the new laws are declared.

Cut to Milntown just outside Ramsey, a lovely house and estate dating from the early 16th century, which is now open to the public with a restaurant and beautifully kept gardens. On Isle of Man Jubilee Day last Friday a model boat pageant was due to be held on Milntown’s lake, so we decided to go along for a look-see and have lunch while we were there. Sadly, just as we were arriving, the presenter on Manx Radio announced that the pageant had been cancelled owing to the rain, as had many other events around the island; remote control boats don’t like water getting into their electrics, we were later told by the estate manager.

Milntown

Milntown

The restaurant is situated in a light, airy, newly – but sympathetically – constructed extension to the house with big windows and skylights. It’s run by my brother’s sister-in-law, Jenny, and her partner Simon. Jenny, who looks after front-of-house, is not there today but Simon, the head chef, is beavering away in the kitchen helped by Lucy, Jenny’s sister, who we wave to through the door from our table. Spritzers are ordered for my mother and me, Peronis for my father and sister. I decide to have local crab, dressed and presented in the crab shell, with salad and brown bread and butter and a little pot of mayonnaise on the side. It’s a light but filling meal and the crab is delicious and so fresh – a real taste of the sea.

Dressed crab salad, brown bread and butter

Dressed crab salad with brown bread and butter, Milntown

Sticking with the seafood theme, my mother chooses the seafood medley which is a generous stack of poached salmon, smoked salmon and prawns topped with Marie Rose sauce and a sprinkling of paprika, and again served with salad and brown bread and butter. She thoroughly enjoys it and gives me a mouthful to try; I’m overcome with food envy! It’s beautifully cooked and presented and full of rich and smokey flavours.

Seafood medley

Seafood medley, Milntown

Annie has the burger with caramelised onions, salad and chips, which seems to go down a treat, and Dad goes for the lamb tagine served with saffron rice which he says is fruitier than the last time he had it and less spicy; I think he preferred the slightly spicier version.

Lamb tagine with saffron rice

Lamb tagine with saffron rice, Milntown

We all rather naughtily have puddings too, Annie the rhubarb and custard crumble which she loves, Dad the Mississippi mud pie which is a light but substantial chocolate mousse on a crisp biscuit base, and Ma and I share the white chocolate and strawberry cheesecake which is sweet and creamy, but not terribly cheesy, and has the same lovely biscuit base and big, juicy strawberries inset at the thick end of the slice as well as perched on top.

White chocolate and strawberry cheesecake

White chocolate and strawberry cheesecake, Milntown

Fully sated we take a wander around the stunning gardens which are looked after by four full-time gardeners. There’s a pond with huge goldfish, endless varieties of gorgeous flowers and flowering hedges and trees, an abundance of organic vegetables and fruit, many of which are used in the kitchen, including artichokes, figs and squashes, a water-mill, a small lake with pet ducks, and woodlands – 15 acres in total. In spite of the light rain it’s a very enjoyable and tranquil experience; in fact, that everything is dripping with water only serves to make it look all the more luscious, colourful and fecund. (I do like that word!)

Milntown
Lezayre, Isle of Man
Visited 6 July 2012

Goodwood, Bonhams hospitality and another great gastropub

After a great night of spinach and ricotta cannelloni, too much red wine and dancing round the living room with Kiki in Highgate last Wednesday night, I head south to meet up with my dad to go to Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex. We’re staying in a very pretty little town with a fairytale castle called Arundel and we start with a look around to find somewhere for a bite to eat. We’re attracted to a blackboard offering scones with jam and cream at a café up a lane zigzagged with bunting, but on further investigation they’re out of scones and we settle for carrot cake instead. It’s good moist cake with tangy cream cheese and lemon icing but we conclude it’s not as good as my mum’s!

Carrot cake, cafe in Arundel

Carrot cake, café in Arundel

That night we eat at a promising looking pub by the river called The Black Rabbit. However, Dad is disappointed with his Sussex Smokey – basically a fish pie – and my steak and Tanglefoot (local ale) pie is perfectly good without being remarkable.

Steak and Tanglefoot pie

Steak and Tanglefoot pie, The Black Rabbit

The first two mornings at our hotel I have a flinglish, my brother’s name for a full English breakfast. Bacon, sausage, fried egg, tomato, mushrooms and baked beans – fanbloodytastic.

Full English breakfast

Full English breakfast, Arundel Park Hotel

This kind of breakfast is ample to sustain a person through until dinner time but there’s corporate hospitality to be enjoyed at Goodwood. As guests of Bonhams auctioneers we are looked after royally over two days in their courtyard within Goodwood House and then in the sponsors’ enclosure overlooking the racetrack. There are finger sandwiches with various fillings, baby quiches, smoked salmon, strawberries and cream and scones with jam and clotted cream, all washed down with magnums of perfectly chilled Veuve Clicquot, another sponsor of the weekend.

Smoked salmon and Veuve Clicquot

Smoked salmon and Veuve Clicquot, Bonhams hospitality

We attend Bonhams’ auction of vintage and classic cars on the Friday and have a lovely time looking at and taking photos of all the beautiful vehicles. The sale is riveting and highly entertaining to watch, the auctioneers so patient and professional yet quick and humourous – it’s pure theatre. The cars fetch a good deal more than was hoped for and it’s all going into trust for educational purposes so everyone is very happy – cue more champagne!

Scones and Veuve Clicquot

Scones and Veuve Clicquot, Bonhams hospitality

That evening, to avoid the traffic leaving Goodwood, we take the advice of one of the parking marshals and head for the hills, along with two of Dad’s friends, to a very nice gastropub. We do go round in a circle trying to find the right way and the Aussie navigator gets the blame, of course! At The Fox & Hounds the service is brisk and bright and despite being busy we are found a table pretty quickly. Dad has smoked haddock on mashed potato with a poached egg on top which, while a bit mean in size, is an enormous improvement in quality on last night’s microwaved (he suspects) fishy fiasco. I go for one of the specials – pan roasted duck breast with fondant potatoes, fine green beans and an orange and thyme jus. The duck is fanned into fat pink, slices with a thick layer of crispy fat; it’s rich and gamey but a touch on the chewy side. The jus is a lovely glossy gravy of reduced bitter marmalade flavours with only a hint of sweetness.

Pan-roasted duck breast with fondant potatoes, fine beans and orange and thyme jus

Pan roasted duck breast with fondant potatoes, fine green beans and orange and thyme jus, The Fox & Hounds

To follow most of us have raspberry crème brûlée. A wafer-thin shell of burnt sugar shatters easily to reveal a good creamy custard speckled with vanilla seeds and a layer of tart-sweet, lightly stewed raspberries at the base. My first ever crème brûlée had berries or rhubarb (I forget which) at the bottom and it’s been my preferred version of my favorite pudding ever since.

Raspberry creme brulee

Raspberry crème brûlée, The Fox & Hounds

Next day we venture past the Formula 1 paddock full of priceless modern racing cars and over the bridge to the other side of the racetrack where all the auto-companies have their trade stands. Enormous multi-storey showrooms, some with balconies or roof gardens, look for all the world like permanent structures but are in fact there only for the weekend, some costing as much as half a million pounds to build! We spend a while admiring a concept Bentley four-wheel drive, solid as a tank but stunning in every detail from the radiator grill to the wheel hubs to the two-tone leather interior with matching leather picnic cases in the boot.

In the evening we’re invited to a black tie ball at Goodwood House and we arrive at 7pm, duly frocked up, for more Veuve Clicquot on the lawns served by an endless parade of pretty girls in their distinctive orange aprons. Sadly I’m feeling rather off colour and by the time we’ve moved inside to the beautifully grand, ornately gilded Regency ballroom for dinner I’ve decided the only place I want to be is in bed and organise a taxi back to the hotel. Dad and the other 1500 guests go on to enjoy a very fancy three course dinner, a performance in the vein of Cirque de Soleil, incredible fireworks and a great rock band with the sort of volume that thumps you in the chest. What atrocious timing to come down with what turns out to be just a 24 hour bug!

The Black Rabbit
Mill Road, Arundel, West Sussex
Visited 28 June 2012

The Fox & Hounds
Funtington, West Sussex
Visited 29 June 2012

The great British gastropub and Pizza Express

I have always loved going to stay with Claire, the perfect hostess and my bestest buddy from our Durham University days. On the basis of a questionnaire about interests and habits they put us together in a shared room in college for our first year. The hilarious thing was that we’d both put that we didn’t smoke in fear of ending up with someone who would chain and stink the place out. Within five minutes of meeting we’d admitted that we did in fact smoke, if only socially, and were sitting on the wooden steps outside our room sharing the first of many fags. And so began a treasured friendship that endures to this day, almost 20 years on.

Well, neither of us smokes any more but we do love good food and a glass (or should that say bottle?) of wine or two. A delicious lunch last Tuesday of toast and paté, salami, marinated artichoke hearts and olives leads into school pick-up, play time, dinner and bath for her two gorgeous, golden-haired littlies. This in turn takes us nicely up to 6pm and wine and nibbles time – a crisp Pinot Grigio with salt and vinegar crisps and smoked salmon taramasalata. Once the children are settled in bed Claire takes me out for dinner in their impossibly pretty Oxfordshire village at a lovely country pub cum restaurant called The Sweet Olive. There’s rustic bread and olives on the table to eat while we’re looking at the menu and listening, several times, to the list of specials from one of the French owners.

Olives and bread

Olives and bread, The Sweet Olive

We both go for one of the specials – I for the panache of fish and Claire for the scallops with a sun-dried tomato and saffron risotto. My fish – a piece each of sea-bass, pollock and hake – is pan-fried so it’s crispy on the outside and perfectly cooked through. It comes in a beautiful creamy champagne and saffron sauce with fragrant lemon rice.

Panache of fish with champagne saffron sauce and lemon rice

Panache of fish with champagne saffron sauce and lemon rice, The Sweet Olive

Claire’s scallops are the winner of the day, sweet and melt-in-the-mouth, and the accompanying risotto is rich and flavoursome.

Scallops with sun dried tomato and saffron risotto

Scallops with sun-dried tomato and saffron risotto, The Sweet Olive

My photography antics get lots of curious attention from our fellow diners (not to mention the owners) and one man Claire knows comes over and invites me to take a picture of his lobster. After struggling somewhat with the focus I explain that I can’t possibly include it in my blog unless I can have a taste. He’s willing to let me but I’m not that mean and I leave him and his friends in peace to enjoy their meal.

The next day while the children are at school and pre-school we go to a nearby town for lunch. The suggestions are a café or Pizza Express and having loved Pizza Express in my London days I fancy that option. We have some dough balls with garlic butter to start (yum!) and Claire chooses a salad (garlic mushrooms, baby mozzarella, avocado, roasted tomatoes, spinach, rocket, balsamic syrup, honey and mustard dressing) and I, for old time’s sake, go for what I always used to have – a Fiorentina pizza (spinach, egg, black olives, parmesan) with a runny egg. It doesn’t disappoint after all these years. The base is thin but with a pleasantly chewy consistency, the egg is indeed nice and runny and I spread its yolk all over the surface of the pizza, the spinach is plentiful in its well dispersed little mounds as is the finely grated parmesan, and the olives add a bit of bite.

Fiorentina

Fiorentina, Pizza Express

After lunch it’s time to collect the children and take me to the station to catch a train back to London and on to the next visit on my whirlwind UK tour of friends and family. It’s a hard life but somebody’s got to do it!

The Sweet Olive
Baker Street, Aston Tirrold, Oxfordshire
Visited 26 June 2012

Pizza Express
12 Saint Mary’s Street, Wallingford, Oxfordshire
Visited 27 June 2012