EATING OUT / Fortress of new English food: The Castle Hotel, Taunton, Somerset

TIMES are still not easy for the hotel business. Filling a hotel is just as hard as filling a theatre, and managements of both are driven to desperate measures. In the theatre it's not so bad: the management can bring in 'toofers' - two tickets for the price of one - and if things get really bleak they can always take the play off.

In the case of a hotel, the show not only has to go on, it has to go on and on and on. In boom times, of course, the real show, the whacky, knockabout erotico-farcical entertainment, is provided by the guests themselves. The hotel just supplies the sets, the uniformed supporting cast and, of course, the food. In leaner years, hoteliers are reduced, like theatre managers, to doing 'deals', and also to putting on what used, in the Sixties, to be called 'happenings'.

I was involved in one such happening a few days ago at the Castle in Taunton, giving a talk after dinner. It is a real castle, standing among other medieval buildings in the middle of the town, with a dry moat at the back and a romantic garden. I'm sure the management would deny that a meeting of the Castle Dining Club was in any way promotional in intent; but the Castle has been there for 800 years, for a substantial part of that time as a hotel, and such shenanigans, like their very popular musical weekends, do help to keep it on the map.

Flying in the face of some very good advice given to me about after-dinner speaking by William Rushton - 'Never agree to eat a dinner, Fat Jack, for under 200 nicker]' (and that was in the days when money was worth something) - I accepted the invitation to plug a forthcoming book, unpaid, in exchange for the rail fare and a couple of nights in the hotel, needing in any case to be in the West Country on literary business.

Having declared my interest, I hope I will not be accused of bias if I describe the dinner I ate there the night I arrived, untroubled by the thought of having to stand up afterwards and 'work'.

The dining room is like a set for a Fifties Agatha Christie, with big oil paintings of flowers and a certain amount of chintz. The night I arrived, a lot of well-preserved, middle-aged gentlemen in suits were having dinner with their astonishingly pretty young wives, and going out of their way to mention 'my wife' when talking to the waiters.

Music and entertainment apart, the Castle believes that it really is food that keeps the hotel popular. It is taken very seriously and there is a request on the menu that you should not smoke. Their two last chefs, Chris Oakes and Gary Rhodes, now have successful restaurants of their own. Kit Chapman, who manages the hotel, is a well known enemy of nouvelle cuisine. His present chef, Phil Vickery, seems to feel the same, and they offer a robustly English choice of food with the stated intention of establishing a new English style. There are two set menus, one at pounds 22.90 a head including cheese, the other at pounds 29.90.

For the first menu you could have, to start, creamy pepper soup with basil oil, salad of sauteed sweetbreads and kidney in garlic dressing, or sweet pickled black bream with olive oil and shallots. After that there was steamed sea fishes with crab sauce and leaf spinach or a baked tomato, herb and olive tart. If you could still move there was a cheese board, and then steamed syrup sponge with custard sauce, a selection of ice-creams and sorbets with coconut biscuits, or poached rhubarb with plum sorbet.

If you wanted to join the grown-ups, the more expensive menu - which I won't go into in full - included potted duck with spiced pears, steamed lobster sausage with lobster and caviar dressing, roast monkfish, tournedos Rossini, roast saddle of venison, the cheese board, and then various life-threatening treats such as the chef's selected chocolate desserts or hot chocolate pudding with bitter chocolate sauce and vanilla ice-cream.

I kicked off with a stew of wild mushrooms, full of all kinds of flavour, surprisingly meaty and substantial in texture, and served with strips of home-made pasta. It was very good, a bit like something you might be given in Italian-speaking Switzerland, and difficult to categorise as a new departure in English food.

Then the braised shoulder of lamb with thyme, garlic and winter vegetables arrived, and I got a real inkling of the New Cooking. It had been braised for a very long time, fell apart under the pressure of the knife and brought back some kind of fantasy memory of Victorian kitchens, with old ovens and gleaming copper saucepans and pudding basins tied with muslin. Suddenly the whole idea of eating half-raw meat or a fan of sliced avocado seemed horribly foreign.

It could have been the booze. Having been mocked by my lifelong hero Peter Cook for admitting to only a quarter bottle of British Rail red on the train a fortnight ago, I may have pushed the boat out a bit too far with a bottle of Craigmoor Shiraz 1991, from somewhere called Mudgee in New South Wales, recommended by David Sommerfelt, who fills the Castle's cellars, and I have a feeling I also accepted some pudding wine. I certainly have very happy memories of a clementine blancmange with coriander syrup.

Had I been paying for it, the evening, with pounds 1.50 supplement for the mushroom stew and pounds 19 altogether for the wine, would have cost me pounds 50.40. So, on reflection, I think Rushton would have been quite proud of me.

Whether it was the hangover or a determination not to be bought at any price, I found the service at breakfast the next morning a bit slow and slightly offhand.

The Castle Hotel, Castle Green, Taunton, Somerset TA1 1NF. Tel: 0823 272671. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Average pounds 25 per person for three-course dinner without wine.

Last orders 9pm. Access/Visa/Diners/Amex

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific