Obituary: Francis Coulson

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FRANCIS COULSON was a deeply sensitive cook. He said you needed a light heart to bake a light cake. He likened pastry-making to piano- playing. "It is an art that comes as much from the heart as the hands," he said.

Coulson completed a remarkable half-century as owner with his partner Brian Sack of Sharrow Bay, in Ullswater, Cumbria, the most admired country- house hotel in the country. The Victorian house beside the lake which he bought in 1948 set the pattern for a new era of British country hotels, luxurious but homely, stylish but unsnobbish. The food, cooked by Coulson, was both elegant and comforting. Sharrow Bay was Egon Ronay's Hotel of the Year as long ago as 1974, and Restaurant of the Year in 1980.

Coulson was born in Bedford into a Quaker family, the son of a draper in the town. He went to Bedford Modern School. Disliking its authoritarianism, he found satisfaction with a tutor learning the organ, but his hopes of pursuing a career in music were dashed by the outbreak of the Second World War.

He was a conscientous objector, drafted to forestry work before moving to the church organisation Toc-H. Here he became responsible for producing 300 meals a day and above all caring for his charges. He'd found his metier, which he later described as "cosseting, nourishing and nurturing".

His mother had been a fine pastry-cook. His sister Bessie ran a small hotel and, as a boy, he had earnt his spurs making omelettes for her. Now, with help from his father, and with his own savings, he bought Sharrow Bay. From its original nine rooms he built it up into the internationally acclaimed hotel it is today, with some 30-odd rooms, a member of the lofty Relais and Chateaux group.

As a cook Coulson had few models apart from his family and reading of Constance Spry and Elizabeth David. He took pastry-making lessons from a Cordon Bleu-trained cook, Renee Atkinson. He revelled in making difficult croissants and brioches as well as more homely scones and cakes. His airy, light sticky toffee pudding could stand as an epitaph to him in itself.

One of his proudest dishes was a rich cream dessert he named La Stupenda Bavarois, dedicated to the great opera singer Joan Sutherland. In 1967 he journeyed to London to pay her this edible tribute in her Covent Garden dressing room on the opening night of Bellini's Norma. She tucked into it with delight. Coulson, always a man of gentle wit, recorded that the after-effects was not so happy, as she struggled with wind throughout her performance.

Twenty-one years ago I met Francis Coulson for the first time. He was already renowned. We were on a plane to Paris, where he was to produce the dessert for a five-course meal organised by the restaurant guide supremo Egon Ronay, designed to put British food on the European map. He was to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's, then a citadel of Parisian gastronomy.

Coulson confided that he was extremely nervous. Given that he had a delicate heart condition requiring a pacemaker, it certainly did not seem wise to submit to the pressure of cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen for the combined food critics of Britain and France, not to mention those who were being flown in from the US.

That wasn't why he was anxious, he said. It was because he was planning to smuggle two gallons of thick Cumbrian dairy cream through French customs. He said he wasn't prepared to compromise his dish by using an inferior product, French cream.

French customs waved him though, and his syllabub with his incomparable shortbread biscuits was applauded by the several hundred international guests.

Francis Coulson was a thinking cook, among the first to introduce "modern" soups such as tomato and orange. But not so modern that he embraced pink meat or al dente vegetables. Each vegetable, he insisted, had its own quality which should be respected.

Francis Coulson, chef and hotelier: born Bedford 6 June 1919; MBE 1994; died Ullswater, Cumbria 20 February 1998.