Flavours of the first rank

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The Independent Culture
BAILLIFSCOURT

Climping, nr Littlehampton, West Sussex BN17 5RW. Tel: 01903 723511. Open daily for lunch,12-2; dinner 7-9.30. Three-course table d'hote lunch pounds 17.50; dinner pounds 29.50. Three courses a la carte, about pounds 35. All credits cards accepted

THE HINTERLAND of Littlehampton in West Sussex is not a place you would expect to find a perfectly preserved medieval manor, set in its own park among its own authentic contemporary barns and outhouses. And the Guinness heir, Lord Moyne, didn't when he bought 1,000 acres there by the sea in the Twenties, so he pulled down a Georgian farmhouse, built on the site of an earlier monastic foundation, and employed the architect Amyas Phillips to create an extravagant reconstruction. It was put together almost entirely from authentic architectural salvage from all over the country, and in those days cost a million pounds.

It is now Baillifscourt, a hotel with a very good restaurant, and lunch there, unusually for that kind of country hotel, does not cost a million pounds.

I arrived a few minutes before my guest, and was immediately impressed. The authentic medieval doorway to the courtyard has been glassed in - necessary protection with a cold east wind blowing - but otherwise it is all ill-fitting ancient oak doors, well-worn but elegant rugs, old plaster, beams and the smell of wood fires. I sat in the bar, where two young executives were swapping tales of property speculation over what looked a very satisfactory pub-type lunch. Then the French manager came in and asked me if I was waiting for Mr Moore.

I had arranged to meet the great xylophonist, cricketer, philanthropist and astronomer Patrick Moore, who lives vaguely in that neck of the woods, and he was on unusually good form. His eyeglass sparkled, he rattled off anecdotes at dizzying speed, and by the time we had been shown to a table by the authentic mediaeval open fire in the chastely beamed dining room we were chuckling away like a pair of lunatics.

Large napkins were shaken out in our laps, and as the largely respectable county clientele tucked in all round us - I spotted one particularly impressive pre-war clergyman of the old school - we set about ordering lunch. There was a choice of four starters and four main courses. Patrick ordered home smoked duck salad with a raspberry vinaigrette and I asked for a parsnip veloute laced with curried herbs. The alternatives were peppered salmon with a tarragon butter sauce and terrine of pork and black pudding with apple and walnut dressing.

The leather-bound wine list seemed modest and reasonable with nothing much over pounds 25 a bottle except some Mouton and Latour, and even those were not over-priced. I'm afraid we may have been a disappointment to the staff, both being in abstemious mood and only ordering a glass of house red and a bottle of mineral water, but they continued to smile and treat us as if we were perfectly normal.

Conversation then ranged fairly widely, from where you could buy fresh fish on the south coast to the astronomer in Manchester who believes the moon is a cardboard disc. According to his theory its phases are due to the accumulation of what he calls "cosmic dust", and photographs he has taken through a small telescope out of the bedroom window at certain times of the year reveal what he calls a "finger-like projection" appearing beyond its rim. Patrick interviewed him in a television programme called Do You Speak Venusian? 20 years ago, together with a man who had actually learned Venusian during a brief trip in a flying saucer, and I have never forgotten it.

The duck salad and parsnip soup arrived at that point, and I began to think more seriously about Baillifscourt as a restaurant. There is a kind of food you associate with chintz curtains and inglenooks, however authentic, that lags a year or two behind what you can find in places of the first rank. On the evidence of what we ate at lunch, Baillifscourt at the moment actually is in the first rank. My soup was a really intriguing mixture of flavours, the parsnip coming through as dominant and the curried herbs providing such a complex accompaniment it would have taken a wine critic - or even a professional food writer - to describe it. Patrick also tucked into his duck salad with enthusiasm, and said it was "jolly good".

The choice of main courses was between chump of pork, swede and carrot dauphinoise with blackberry gravy, noisettes of lamb with curried aubergine and a tapenade gravy, "bouride" (I am sure they will add the extra "r" when the menu is reprinted) of seafood with chive butter sauce, and poached smoked haddock with champ and Meaux mustard. Having recently seen Babe and being in any case slightly foxed by the word "chump", I avoided the pig, and Patrick avoided the lamb. Instead, having been talking earlier about buying fresh fish from honest old fishermen, we chose the bourride and the haddock.

Patrick got very enthusiastic indeed about the bourride, served without the traditional Provencal soup, but obviously full of good fish, and I was amazed by how delicious the poached smoked haddock was, tasting exactly as you'd imagine, very tender from the poaching, but still preserving a mild flavour of smokedness. If I was put off by "chump" I was bewildered by "champ", but it tumed out to be an Irish mixture of mashed potato and spring onions, and was absolutely lovely.

There was a warning on the menu about ordering the puddings well in advance as they were "of an intricate nature and time-consuming". Whether this was true of the chocolat marquise with raspberry sorbet I couldn't say, but the lemon tart with strawberry and ginger salad I ordered was as simple as anything and tasted wonderful. It may have referred to the coconut craquant, glazed bananas, white chocolate and pistachio sauce which Patrick ordered with a wild gleam in his eye as "glazed bananas, please". It came as a little tower with twirly gold aerials on top and seemed wholly suitable as a tribute to the great astronomer.

We both had coffee, and the bill for two of us without the tip came to pounds 43.25.

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