It’s not all that often I get the chance to dine at beautiful country house hotels. It’s usually only very special occasions these days – significant birthdays and anniversaries, big family gatherings, that kind of thing. But the very next opportunity we have to put on our glad rags for a smart night out, I’ll be suggesting a visit to the Milking Parlour at the Old Manor Hotel, near Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire.
I got to eat there a couple of weeks ago as the guest of food and travel blogger, Fiona Maclean of London Unattached fame. When she put the call out to see if any West Country food bloggers might join her for dinner while she was reviewing the hotel, I was only too happy to oblige.
And I was very pleased I did. Not only did I have a fantastic evening catching up with Fiona, but the food and hospitality were really rather special too.
Dating back to the 1500s, the Old Manor Hotel is a glorious old manor house and was originally part of the Abbess of Glastonbury’s estate. It even gets a mention in the Domesday Book. Tudor & Lucy Hopkins bought the hotel back in 2013 and are lovingly restoring the hotel to its former glory. Sadly, I arrived after dark, so I didn’t get to see the building at its finest, but I could tell I had arrived somewhere quite beautiful.
Head Chef Matthew Briddon has recently come to the Old Manor Hotel to head up the kitchen team in the Milking Parlour Restaurant. He has brought with him a passion and flair for beautifully crafted, deceptively simple dishes, created from the best seasonal, local produce. Matthew honed his art in places like River Cafe, Heathcotes and The Tavern on the Bay, and this experience shines through in his food.
Much of the fresh produce served in the Milking Parlour is grown in the Old Manor Hotel’s extensive vegetables gardens and the restaurant is completely self-sufficient for herbs. All meat and eggs are free-range and locally sourced, and they even boast their own smokery for home-cured and smoked meat and fish.
I met Fiona for dinner on a Tuesday night and the restaurant, while not packed, was surprisingly busy for an out-of-town joint at the beginning of the week. Word is obviously spreading about this place. It’s a charming setting; the restaurant succeeds in being grand without being grandiose. The heritage of the building is sensitively brought to the fore through the eclectic decor, an unforced combination of vintage and shabby chic. You feel like you are in a beautiful, lived-in and much-loved country home, rather than an overly-styled, all-for-show hotel.
This feeling of honesty comes through in both the food and the service, neither of which is showy or pretentious. It’s just simple and very, very good. The waiting staff are chatty and bubbly. They’re not in that ultra polished mould, where all sense of individual personality has been trained out of them. Those more used to the kind of high-class restaurants where the staff speak in hushed, revered tones probably wouldn’t approve, but I really enjoyed the warm, slightly quirky and thoroughly ‘West Country’ welcome we received.
We were treated to the Milking Parlour’s five course tasting menu, which I’d say at £55 a head is incredibly good value. Considering the quality of the dishes and ingredients, this menu is a match for most fancy London restaurants at a fraction of the price.
Our amuse bouche was a charcuterie board with remoulade; an excellent selection of cured meats sourced just up the road in Bath. This was followed by a lovely dish of pickled beetroots with whipped goats cheese, roast nuts and beetroot essence. As you may have picked up, I’m slightly obsessed with beetroot and this dish certainly met with my approval. The whipped goats cheese in particular was exceptionally good and something of a revelation.
I’d have been happy eating beetroot and whipped goats cheese all night to be honest. But no – we’d another three courses to go, and next up was a generous plateful of the chef’s home-cured hay-smoked salmon with a lemon vinaigrette and more remoulade. I adore smoked salmon but very often it is too rich for me to manage very much. This salmon though was incredibly light with just a subtle, delicate smokiness. I happily cleared the plate. I can see why these last two dishes, the beetroot and the salmon, are constant features on the Milking Parlour’s tasting menu. They are just so popular with customers, Matthew keeps these on, while the other courses change daily.
The fourth course was a gloriously autumnal dish of confit belly of pork with a rich mushroom puree, green beans and walnut pesto. The pork was cooked beautifully but, alas, the crackling, which looked cooked to crispy perfection, was just too hard for my teeth to manage – although Fiona gleefully munched through hers. Perhaps she has a stronger set of gnashers than me? The rest of the accompaniments worked well, although I did find the mushroom puree just a little too intense.
Pudding next and we were treated to chef’s homely treacle tart and clotted cream, from his very own Grandma Wendy’s recipe. This was no poncy restaurant version of a treacle tart; it was a proper old fashioned, no frills treacle tart; perhaps a surprising choice (and rather a large portion size) for rounding off a five-course meal, but a completely delicious finale in my eyes. Although I was a tad too full to finish it all, and it’s not often I’m beaten when I’m eating out.
I look forward to coming back to the Milking Parlour again, maybe in the new year when they start opening the restaurant at lunchtimes, which will work better for families. I’ll be interested in trying out the a la carte menu next time.
If you’re planning a trip to Wiltshire, I reckon the Old Manor Hotel would be a superb place to base yourselves. They even offer ‘family escapes’ to nearby Longleat House and Safari Park, which has long been a favourite destination for my two girls. Read Fiona Maclean’s review over at London Unattached.
Old Manor Hotel
Near Bradford on Avon
Wiltshire BA14 9BL