I recently received an anxious e-mail from a friend in Oxford. "Help!" it read. "I'm going to Barnsley House for dinner. What should I wear?" Now what kind of country house hotel is hip enough to provoke a fashion crisis in a woman of otherwise impeccable personal style? Normally, when we townies plan a rural retreat, our only worry is whether anyone will notice the pristine condition of our green wellies.
It's Paul Smith wellies or nothing at Barnsley House, which comes dripping designer glamour thanks to high-profile regulars such as Elizabeth Hurley and Kate Moss, who both have houses nearby. Located in the unspoiled Cotswolds village of Barnsley, near Cirencester, it's the latest of a new wave of country house hotels that owes more to Vogue than to Country Life.
Like Babington House and Cowley Manor, it's funky, modern, and aimed squarely at stylish urbanites, sporting a plasma screen in every bedroom, a DVD library and the regulation wacky design flourishes (sadly, we weren't allocated the room with the grotto and waterfall). Unlike its rivals, it doesn't offer spa facilities or a swimming pool; instead, food is at the centre of the Barnsley House experience, and the only wallowing to be done is in the deep end of the wine list.
The kitchen is under the supervision of one of the giants of the British restaurant scene, Franco Taruschio, late of the fabled Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny, who has come out of retirement to act as consultant. In Wales, he married Italian tradition and local ingredients to exhilarating effect. At Barnsley House, he and head chef Graham Grafton (formerly of Bibendum and The Ivy) have the run of a formidable cottage garden, the legacy of Barnsley House's previous owner, society gardener Rosemary Verey.
Quite what the genteel Mrs Verey, who helped Prince Charles design the gardens at Highgrove, would have made of the hotel's shiny Sixties shag-pit of a bar, one can only imagine. But we felt more comfortable there than we probably would at Highgrove, where cries of "Groovy, Baby!" tend to be discouraged.
The dining room, by contrast, is an impeccably neutral space, with rush flooring and taupe panelled walls. Nothing neutral, though, about the gutsy parade of dishes which followed. Franco Taruschio was on duty in the kitchen, and we were treated to a full range of his specialities, ancient and modern. They included two of the Walnut Tree's best-known dishes, Lady Llanover's salted duck, the breast sliced and served cold with pickled kumquat and gooseberry, and vincisgrassi, a "white lasagne" made with Parma ham, porcini and truffles. Both lived up to their reputation, the vincisgrassi, in particular, a rich and intensely savoury sensation. Marinated fennel brought out the character of a plate of silky home-cured bresaola, while crisp belly pork was a masterclass in texture, its surface crunch yielding to a mouthful of melting sweetness, echoed by the accompanying mustard fruits.
And those were just the starters. The main- course menu that day was dominated by fish dishes, and we tried two of them, salmon with orange zest and rhubarb, spinach and nubbly new potatoes, and a stewy mackerel dish called brodettato which would probably have been fine if either of us had been keen on strong-tasting fish cooked in tomato sauce. As it was, the faint whiff of tinned pilchard hung over the enterprise. No complaints though, about roast rack of lamb, served perfectly pink, with a smoky chickpea purée which confirmed the expertise of the kitchen - if they can make chickpeas taste that good, they can do anything.
The sommelier's choice of wines by the glass was also spot-on, particularly a plummy Argentinian malbec to match the lamb, though by then I had five glasses lined up in front of me, and wasn't really in a fit state to judge. We were surprised to be offered champagne with a plate of blue cheese, but maybe it's one of those classic combinations, like Sauternes with foie gras, and we've just led sheltered lives.
Our fellow diners were mainly twenty-something couples, prompting a wave of "how can they afford it here?" resentment from my other half. We saw them all off; they'd long since selected their DVDs and retired as we lingered over our puddings, an airspun "spuma", or chocolate mousse cake, and pineapple carpaccio sprinkled with fresh mint and pomegranate seeds.
Our meal at Barnsley House cost £46 a head for four courses, with wine and service extra. Rooms are priced from £260 a night, so it's definitely a special occasion place, though the owners also run The Village Pub down the road (see below), which offers cheaper accommodation. The celebrity count was limited during our stay to a near-sighting of Anne Robinson's husband. Not exactly Elizabeth Hurley or Kate Moss, I'll grant you, but perhaps that's just as well. After all, what woman would choose to sit near one of them when she's about to indulge in a magnificent four-course blow-out? E
SECOND HELPINGS: COTSWOLD HOT SPOTS
By Caroline Stacey
The Village Pub
Impeccably plain and heritage toned, the VP's Uggs-off pubby but mainly for eating. Fab, basically British nosh is posh in just the right places: beer-battered hake comes with braised peas and bacon.
Barnsley (01285 740421)
White Horse Inn
Groomed into more of an attractive, clean-lined restaurant than a pub. Most people come for the equally bright, unfussy and satisfying dishes such as chicken liver parfait and bream with pak choy.
Frampton Mansell (01285 760960)
From breakfast, through lunch and dinner, the brasserie cuts a metropolitan dash. It suits: the Londoners heading this way. It scores: with zesty, well- constructed, eclectic dishes. Around £25 for three courses.
Stow-on-the-Wold (01451 831700)
Daylesford Organic Farm Shop
A place of pilgrimage for high-rolling foodies. The café in this handsome barn of organic bounty serves Daylesford estate's own bread, award-winning Cheddar, meat and veg cooked with élan.
Moreton-in-Marsh (01608 731700)Reuse content