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

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The Independent Culture
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