Walk first, then dine like a lord

Jim Ainsworth visits an old manor in the heart of the Cotswolds where Sunday lunch is great for palate and pocket

The Cotswolds are made for gentle walking. Less than five minutes away from the jostling coach parties in Stow or Broadway are open fields, peaceful except for the bleat of sheep and lambs. In an ideal world one might spend the morning walking up an appetite, then relax in one of the white-stoned 16th-century manors with which this part of the country is awash. But there is no law against just turning up at one of them and leaving the walking for another day.

Over-visited it may be, but Lower Slaughter is one of the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds and attracts its share of families who potter among the daffs and gaze into the stream that winds through. On the other side of a wall too high to peep over sits Lower Slaughter Manor, an imposing place dating from 1658, although it looks more recent by perhaps a century. Any manor worth its salt hereabouts must have a gravel drive, and a flunky who comes out to greet (some even valet-park the car) and guide you through the portals.

Inside, the furnishings might have come straight from a theatrical wardrobe. Here is a grandfather clock, a baby grand piano, comfortable sofas, good carpets, big fat table lamps, pink wallpaper, and staff who walk around in smart morning suits as if ready for anything, from a wedding to an embassy reception. It feels swanky, and would feel formal, too, were it not for Peter and Audrey Marks who do a lot of "mine-hosting" in an easy- going proprietorial sort of way.

They used to own Rookery Hall in Nantwich, Cheshire during the mid-Eighties, bought after Peter Marks decided that, at 50, he wanted to fulfil a dream and run his own hotel and restaurant. Then they sold up, retired to Monte Carlo for a while, then Arizona, but missed the business so much that they dived in again, buying Lower Slaughter Manor out of receivership in 1992.

Chipping away at refurbishment for a few weeks each January, they have now restored the whole place to a comfortable house, and last December they installed Michael Benjamin - who used to work at Gidleigh Park with Shaun Hill - in the kitchen. Given all the fol-de-rol, you might expect a three-course lunch to set you back about £30 plus wine. But it costs £17.95, and the Marks have just introduced a cheaper, light lunch menu as well.

The cooking is an assured and confident run through a repertoire that draws on British, French and Italian basics. We began with home-made noodles in a light buttery sauce, on to which slices of smoked salmon had been laid at the last minute, just to warm through rather than turn colour and cook, and a tart of tomato and black olives, which may well be a clich, but when it is done well that hardly matters.

The thin puff-pastry circle, 6in across with a raised edge, was covered with razor-thin slices of tomato, then anointed at table with Provence olive oil poured from a jug, to aromatise gently as it warmed. Underneath was a smear of mild-tasting olive mush, too gentle to call tapenade, and on top was a small pile of shredded basil leaves. The acidity of the tomatoes nicely balanced the richness of oil and pastry to produce an accomplished, carefully judged and well executed first course.

Luxury items are not thrown around to try and impress, not for £l7.95 anyway, but they do crop up. Three springy fillets of baked Dover sole came with short lengths of green asparagus, a strewing of wild mushrooms that included morel and chanterelle, and another lightly buttery sauce: no arresting flavour combinations, perhaps, but a perfectly satisfying and reassuring dish of the sort that virtually any member of any extended lunching family might be happy with.

The Sunday joint was roast leg of lamb which, because we were eating late, may have passed its point of sweet pinkness but was still tender, with a surprisingly rich and slightly gamey flavour, bathed in a dark sauce of meat juices. Early in the season the lamb comes from Cornwall, later from Scotland. About now it should be local, although Mr Marks does not blindly accept what is on his doorstep. He imports honey from Provence, he says, simply because it tastes so much better than Cotswold honey.

A rhyming trio of raspberry desserts - sorbet, parfait and souffl - was eclipsed by an apple tart, supposedly hot but barely warm, otherwise a triumph, served with calvados ice-cream and flecked with artfulsplashes of caramel sauce.

Mr Marks brought back from the States a love of American wines, particularly Californian, and all on the list are personal choices. Our bottle of Acacia Pinot Noir 1989 at £28.50 was wonderful although, along with a glass of house wine to start and a bottle of mineral water, it helped to nudge the bill up to £71.40 for two.

Lower Slaughter Manor, Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire GL54 2HP (0451 820456). Open all week 12 to 2pm (2.30pm Sun), 7 to 9.45pm (10pm Sat). Set lunch £17.95; light lunch £12.95 (not served Sun). Set dinner £29.50. Service not included. No smoking in dining room.

Jim Ainsworth is editor of the `Good Food Guide 1995'.

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