THE WOMAN at the table opposite gazed in awe at the contents of her plate. 'Ooo, will you look at that,' she drooled. 'I hope the food at my dinner party looks like this on Sunday.' That may be unlikely, considering the dish in front of her was 'Roast filet of Beef topped with a horseradish crust with a galette of foie gras and a red wine sauce'. Her dessert - 'A Dome of Nougatine filled with Creme Brulee with lightly poached apricots' - would have been almost as hard to emulate as it was to know where to make the first incision with the cutlery.
The setting was the restaurant of the Hambleton Hall Hotel, in what used to be called Rutland. The Edwardian dining room, hung with paintings of golfing, hunting and shooting, was discreetly sumptuous, but the menu was nothing if not flamboyant. The 'Roast Gressingham Duck scented with lavender with a deep fried sesame ravioli & blackcurrants' perhaps came out tops for floridity, with the 'Assiette of local Rabbit with a light mustard & girolle sauce' (why an 'assiette', and why not 'wild mushrooms' instead of 'girolle'?) coming in close behind, and these were just ordinary main courses. The 'Gourmet Corner' included a 'Saddle of local Fallow Venison wrapped in a Duxelle of Chanterelles & puff pastry with a rich port and Elderberry sauce'. Hambleton Hall clearly isn't afraid to call a mille-feuille a mille-feuille.
To be fair, the food is excellent and if you wanted to take out a second (or third) mortgage for a country house weekend, this would be one of the better places to do it. But the pretentiousness of some of the menu is the sort of the thing that led the new edition of the Good Hotel Guide to criticise many of Britain's country house hotels for being over-sophisticated, for catering for foodies who form a tiny minority of travellers and diners, for being a peu trop clever for their own bloody good.
The British country house hotel, like the great British pub, is something that when done well is hard to beat: somewhere smallish, not designed by committee, with a beautiful view and walks and a decent restaurant. But many is the couple who have gone away for a weekend, sat down for dinner and been so overwhelmed by the menu they feel like diving for the nearest Pizza Hut.
Hilary Rubinstein, editor of the Good Hotel Guide, says: 'When you read a good menu you start to salivate, but in other cases you feel they don't know what they are talking about. Hotel food, of course, is much, much better - the best 30 years ago probably compares badly with the worst today - but more and more restaurants are getting chefs who have sat at the feet of great men like Raymond Blanc, Nico Ladenis or Anton Mosimann for a while and perhaps sometimes they try to over-reach themselves. At best the work of someone like Blanc is genius, and though it is complicated I wouldn't mock the achievements of places like Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons (Blanc's restaurant in Oxfordshire). They are temples of gastronomy, but there are many wayside chapels that offer a bleaker experience.' He sighs piously. 'Hotels have wanted to move upmarket, but fear the cost of a well-trained West End chef is too much, so they go for an over-flavouring youngster.'
The London restaurateur Alastair Little is in the vanguard of modern British cooking characterised by simple, light but innovative concoctions. Speaking from his summer cookery school in Umbria he commented: 'You don't want to read that your squash blossoms were hand picked underwater by Panamanian virgins. All you need is the primary ingredients, the main method of cooking and perhaps where the food has come from. Often you get problems letting chefs write menus - you get fractured French and poor punctuation.
'In the hands of good people haute cuisine is good, but when it is copied you start getting problems. People buy an old country house, put different wallpaper in every room and serve elaborate food on floral plates and think that's all they have to do.' In defence of chefs, Little adds that the desirability of a Michelin star and the snobbery of that organisation's criteria partly explain why chefs outside London might over-egg their explications. One of the young stars, Sean Hill, received a Michelin star at Gidleigh Park in Devon, a quintessential country hotel, but had it taken away when he simplified and demystified his menu, though he subsequently got it back. A star-less Little is convinced 'you don't get Michelin stars if you have paper napkins, whatever they say'.
It may often be those country venues without a star that go OTT in an effort to attract custom in a highly competitive market. Tom Jaine, cookery writer and former editor of the Good Food Guide, comments: 'Florid prose is an occupational hazard. Managements couldn't cope without verbs on their menus, they had to write full sentences, so everything was washed with this or coated with that or drizzled with this. And at country places they feel they have to justify high prices with fancy food.
'There is a lot of silly-sounding Franglais, and even at somewhere as marvellous as Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons the English translation does sound slightly naff. But Franglais is acceptable up to a point. 'White butter' doesn't sound half as good as 'beurre blanc', and we all say 'spaghetti bolognaise' because 'spaghetti with mincemeat' doesn't sound very appetising, does it? And do remember, in France the descriptions are very long, though they have a language of the kitchen we are not used to here.'
Therein lies the problem. Though our palates are better travelled and more worldly-wise, many of us are still nonplussed when confronted with fancy French food, whether pretentiously described or not. We seem to be at a transitional stage of not knowing whether to learn French properly, translate everything into English or stick to haddock and chips.
Meanwhile, many hotels are way ahead of their punters. In the drawing room at Hambleton after dinner an attentive young waiter asked a party of four if they would require any digestifs. 'Oh, I don't think so, but I'd love a Scotch,' replied a middle-aged man, before continuing a story about his days in the Army.
Overdetailing is spreading downmarket. A Post House hotel menu these days contains a 35-word description of a pepperoni pizza. However, many country hotels have found salvation in simplification, and Tom Jaine is not alone among foodies in thinking that the Good Hotel Guide's criticism is a little stale. 'A lot of the real sillinesses have been ditched and I think English cuisine is now doing rather well. I think a lot of country house places are going for a more simple approach.'
The north-east was until recently a veritable compote of foodie frippery. Alan Thompson, chef and owner of Chapters Bistro in Stokesley, north Yorkshire, admits: 'We followed the trend to begin with, I suppose because we wanted to be better than the next place, but really it's bullshit and you don't make any money. My former head chef convinced me that we needed a pastry chef, a fish chef, a bread chef, but it was just showing off. Foie gras came with almost everything.
'I had one dish which read 'Centre-cut of beef fillet on a potato and truffle galette, topped with sliced and pan-fried truffle with a madeira sauce, garnished with wild mushrooms.' It was sublime, but we would have had to charge pounds 25 a head. Now I just serve 'beef filet with madeira sauce', I've cut prices and, touch wood, we've been full for the last three months.'
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