I am gradually catching up on writing the reports of my recent travels to England and France and would like to share my experiences with Chowhounders. These were written from notes made at the time, not from memory.
Thornbury Castle Hotel and Tudor Gardens,
Thornbury, Nr. Bristol, South Gloucs BS35 1HH
Telephone +44 (0) 1454 281182
Sat July 3rd 2004
After arriving at London Heathrow at around 1pm, my parents kindly picked us up and drove us West to Bristol where my mother pandered to my whims by preparing a light lunch of mozarella, tomato and basil salad. We didn't want to spoil our appetites for the gastronomic evening ahead.
Arriving by taxi at Thornbury Castle a few minutes early, we took advantage of the spare minutes, the beautiful blue sky and the warm evening by wandering arounds the castle's grounds. Apart from a vineyard (yes, the castle makes its own wine), the grounds include the oldest Tudor garden in the entire country. It's difficult to explain, after living in America for so long, exactly what it feels like to be inside a building steeped in so much history, especially one that dates back to 1510. Even if money were no object, there is no way you could ever spend an evening in such a place in the US - you actually have to leave the country for this kind of experience.
We were shown to the lounge - or maybe it's the drawing room? Wooden panels, leaded windows, tapestried sofas, a huge fireplace and ancient portraits including one of King Henry VIII who stayed here with Anne Boleyn adorning the the soaring loft-height walls. This was the grand setting for us to choose apperitifs (3 Kir Royals and 1 Scotch in the case of our party), peruse the menu and nibble on the complimentary canapes: a bowl of salty olives, miniature cottage-pie tartlets, petit quiche lorraine, little goat cheese biscuits.
Dinner is a set menu of three courses only, with no 'a la Carte'. After making our difficult choices and finishing our apperitifs, we were guided to the grand circular dining room with cross-shaped windows (originally designed for shooting arrows at enemies). Each table setting had a silver plate at its centre . Very grand. Our chosen red wine (Gigondas) was decanted infront of us before being poured into our glasses. My mother, who prefers white, had taken a glass of the Thornbury Castle-made wine instead, which she declared to be very reasonable.
Once we had our drinks in hand, the waiters arrived with an amuse gueule (amusement for the mouth) - a little espresso cup, each filled with a sweet roasted orange pepper soup topped with a bitter green pepper oil. It was absolutely delicious but difficult to get ahold of fast enough with the tiniest of teaspoons that was provided.
A basket of warm bread rolls (served with silver tongs) were presented to us next. My mother and F couldn't get enough of the cheese variety whilst I preferred a plain white crowned with poppy seeds.
My mother and I had both decided upon the 'trio of ham hock' for our entrees. Beautifully presented on a silver tray was a consomme (thin soup) which tasted fine but was not very inspiring, a ham rillette with puy lentils which may have been better tasting without the excess salt, and some kind of crispy mustard-batter coated succulent ham basking on a bed of sweet pea puree. This was the highlight of the dish and could have made it on its own, as a star performer, without any need for inferior sidekicks. Dad had a cod and tomato salad which looked healthy (not a bad move considering his next course), while F had a foie gras terrine with duck, a red onion confit and some kind of jelly (the latter which he ignored). F said his pate was good but that it didn't have enough salt (he should have taken some from my rillettes).
For my main course I had chosen a Guinea Fowl with duxelle of mushrooms and parsnips. The breast meat was extremely tender with an almost too overpowering flavour of truffles. The accompanying confit-style crispy morsels of the bird served over spinach were by far the most exciting part of this dish. Everyone else had eagerly chosen the steak. They certainly didn't look disappointed as they all lapped up every last little scrap of food on their plates, including a cabbage and bacon potato cake.
The next interval between courses presented us with another complimentary taster from the kitchen, a mini yoghurt, fruit and crisp dessert which, whilst not unpleasant, would have been more at home on a breakfast menu.
We pushed the half eaten remains aside and waited for our real desserts, the ones we had chosen ourselves. I had chosen an 'assiette de vanille', a selection plate of vanilla based desserts including an extremely moreish frothy vanilla milkshake, a chewy undercooked vanilla risotto, a fairly ordinary vanilla panna cotta and a delicious vanilla ice cream in a brandy-snap basket. For someone who can take or leave icecream, read that as praise indeed.
Mum and F both chose the Chocolate fondant, a gooey chocolate cake concoction which F declared to be good despite claiming to not like sweet things at all whilst Dad, a diabetic, had no other choice than to make a selection from the extremely interesting looking British Cheese Board. As he offered none of us a nibble of any of his cheeses before 'licking his platter clean', I can only surmise that he found the selection to his satisfaction.
We retired to the drawing room once again for coffees and after-dinner drinks before heading back to my parents for a well earned jet-lag-recovery night's sleep.