Cliveden! A name that simply hums with posh scandal. The 19th-century Italian "pleasure palace" overlooking the Thames was synonymous with the smart set in the 1920s and '30s, when stars of the literary, political and thespian galaxies – Kipling, Churchill, Gandhi, Amy Johnson, Henry James, Roosevelt, Lawrence of Arabia – were entertained by Waldorf and Nancy Astor. Cliveden was also, of course, the house where Lord Astor took John Profumo, then secretary of state for war, for a stroll around the stone-flagged swimming pool in July 1961, found a naked, dark-haired girl half-swathed in a towel, and said, "Jack, this is Christine Keeler…"
Driving up to the house's imposing 1851 frontage, with the great clock tower looming up on the right, it's hard not to feel both the weight of history, the hot breath of scandal – and a gnawing apprehension that the place has passed though so many hands, it must surely be ruined.
Nothing of the sort. The crepuscular gloom of the Great Hall, with its massive 16th-century fireplace, suits of armour and Singer Sargent portrait of Nancy looking girlishly sexy, feels unchanged since the 1930s. It breathes faded elegance, English country-house repose. A bar has been added, but seems little more than a trolley. The current owners, the inspiringly named London and Regional Properties, have even resisted the urge to plump up the sofa cushions, which are as thin and unyielding as they were when Wallis Simpson sat on them. A photograph in the hallway shows Nancy carousing with her zany pals Amy Johnson, Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw.
The dining-room is gorgeous. High windows overlook the long garden running down to the Thames valley. The big mirrors are silvered, the walls Fortnum & Mason duck-egg blue, the curtains an elaborate grey-green satin. Huge vases of gladioli and hydrangeas dominate the centre. You eat your supper sitting in luxurious teal armchairs. The whole room resembles a graceful, aristocratic old dame of the inter-war years, stylish, slightly batty but still beautiful.
The chef, Andre Garrett, is clearly enthralled by the classic and traditional milieu in which he operates. His menu is full of rock-solid European dishes from Ye Olden Dayes, put together with enormous care and a slightly excessive determination to impress.
Angie's raviolo of native lobster was a substantial pasta package containing a huge chunk of lobster, surrounded by a moat of bisque. The soup was infused with basil, and had a slightly soapy aftertaste. The presence of parma ham and melon on the plate seemed a little odd.
My red mullet minestrone came with heavenly smoky aubergine, and was delicious, its fishiness emphasised by bottarga, that cured and compressed grey mullet roe that you seldom see on menus because it's scarily expensive.
Main-course fillet of Cornish turbot was a dizzyingly pretty dish, with a big yellow courgette flower opening to disclose a fat spoonful of crab mousse. The turbot was roasted perfectly, the thick flakes of unearthly whiteness both solid and soft. Mr Garrett had also slung in a handful of cockles, and some red stuff which turned out to be tomato chutney. With fish? It's not as odd an idea as it sounds. You'd eat tomato ketchup with fish and chips wouldn't you?
My fillet of Lake District Longhorn beef had clearly been slow-roasted for hours in the ancestral ovens to reach a fabulously soft and juicy pink consistency. Was the addition of snail persillade an adornment too far? The snails were alarmingly huge, rubbery and, thank God, al dente, but I'm not sure they added a lot to the steaming carnivore's-delight of the fillet. The carrots were glazed and sweet, and the mash given a nicely sticky texture with a dab of Lincolnshire Poacher cheese.
Puddings ended the meal on a high. Roasted peach quarters were served with baked vanilla tapioca and meringue that was as soft as a sauce, with lavender ice-cream rounding off a light and summery dish. I wondered if it was wise to have lavender and vanilla flavours battling for mastery, but concluded that one should really admire Mr Garrett's crazily generous way of piling things on. He displayed some old-fashioned chef skills with the banana soufflé and peanut-butter ice-cream, the soufflé so unearthly in its light fluffiness, you wonder how it ever went out of fashion.
With the (excellent) coffee came a trolley of "bonbons" that included Ladurée macaroons, white chocolate truffles and the shortest shortbread in the world. And given where we were, and the amount we'd consumed, we did what every couple dining at Cliveden probably does: asked if there was a room available, to stay the night. But at £252 for the smallest, it was a not-quite-affordable indulgence for would-be Profumos and Christines.
Cliveden, Taplow, Berkshire (01628 607 100). Around £65 per head for three courses with coffee and "bonbons" before wineReuse content