Experience

Middlethorpe Hall, York

It has all been most interesting.” - Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu’s final words

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the stately homes of Great Britain began to feel the pressure of increased death duties and changing social landscapes. Combined with the impact of two World Wars, nearly a third of the UK’s grandest houses have perished over the years.

These stately homes were status symbols for the upper-class families of Great Britain, usually filled with fantastic collections of arts and antiquities.

After the second world war, planning restrictions and the National Trust meant that many of the houses were saved. A large portion of these homes are now accessible to the public and the contents within them can be enjoyed by all.

In recent years costume dramas such as Downton Abbey have depicted the life in imaginary aristocratic households. There has been a renewed interest in these homes and the reality behind the fiction of life upstairs and downstairs. The nation has a keen interest in the grand residences, especially the families and staff who occupied them.

Middlethorpe Hall in York is one such property. An elegant country house hotel built 300 years ago by Thomas Barlow in the “William and Mary-style”. Thomas was a prosperous master cutler who bought the estate in a bid to establish himself as a country gentleman. Donated to the National Trust in 2008, it still has the look and feel of a well-kept manor house rather than a 29 bedroom hotel. 

What is a weekend?

- Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), Downton Abbey

I visited a couple of weeks ago for a weekend break away with the girls. Our friend Joey was bidding us farewell as she’s off on an around-the-world adventure. It seemed only fitting that we gave her a celebratory send-off, and what better setting than Middlethorpe.

Sitting in 20 acres of beautiful manicured gardens and parkland, it even has it’s own lake and helipad. I decided to leave the chopper at home and took my trusty VW instead so I could nip into the city of York, which is a ten minute drive away. 

The hotel’s exceptional customer service began even before we’d arrived. A few days before our stay, I received an email with directions to the hotel from my home, as well as providing me with the weather forecast. I was also introduced to the hotel’s concierge service, who can book theatre tickets for guests, make restaurant reservations or arrange chauffeur driven services. Suitably impressed, it set the tone for the rest of our stay. 

Since there were three of us, we were accommodated in a courtyard suite, off the main house in the old stables. Following a laborious drive in the miserable British weather, I arrived to find our little sanctuary for the weekend. Our cute cottage had an open fire which was warming the room for our arrival.

There was a plate of homemade fudge and macarons to welcome us as well as a little note from Lionel Chatard, Director & General Manager of the hotel. Lionel worked at Claridge’s before moving to Middlethorpe, he leaves a hand-written note to every guest in the hotel’s 29 rooms. 

The cottage had it’s own kitchen, a lounge and dining area, a bathroom and three bedrooms. It was surprisingly spacious which is ideal when staying in a group. The decor is traditional, in parts it’s like stepping 300 years back in time.

The hotel is quite rightly unapologetic about this, “guests should not expect the hotel to be modern like new built establishments in town or country.” That being said, we noticed a few mod cons here and there, including Roberts radios, a Nespresso coffee machine and free Wi-Fi for all guest. 

As darkness fell we spruced ourselves up before heading over to the main hotel for our evening meal. The interior is olde-world grandeur, with an ornate oak staircase leading up to the luxury bedrooms. 

The staircase still bears some markings of Thomas Barlow’s grandsons, who carved their initials and the date into the oak “IN 1764 & SB”.

A large painting of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu greets guests in the hall. Lady Mary is best known for introducing her knowledge of inoculation against smallpox to the UK.

She moved into Middlethorpe in 1713 when Thomas Barlow and his son went on the grand tour and let the house in their absence.

We were shown through to the regal sitting room for a pre-dinner cocktail. This room has billowing curtains and Georgian oil paintings. The hotel is so peaceful, the only sounds being the creaking floorboards and grandfather clocks tick-tocking away.

The food was delicious, as were the cocktails. Understandably Middlethorpe’s oak-panelled dining room comes out on top for fine-dining in York. The à la carte menu draws from the local area with vegetables straight from the hotel’s own gardens.

After our meal we returned to the cottage to get warm and cosy by the fire while watching our favourite festive film, The Holiday. 

After a hearty Yorkshire breakfast we made our way to the hotel spa for some pampering.

The spa is located in a charming cottage opposite the hotel. It has a 40’ heated swimming pool, a spa bath, whirlpool, steam room, sauna and gym. There are three massage and treatment rooms in the spa offering a whole host of treatments.

I’d recommend booking in advance as the spa can become very busy. We opted to have our nails done in preparation for an evening sampling York's array of cocktail bars. 

The next morning we awoke with sore heads and, feeling extremely lazy, had breakfast delivered to us in the cottage.

Well on the road to recovery, we packed our bags and waved Joey off on her adventure. I took a walk around the hotel grounds before tackling the drive home.

Apparently early risers often glimpse deer in the gardens. I wasn’t lucky on this occasion but I was happy enough walking in the fresh air and enjoying my peaceful surroundings. Middlethorpe is the perfect location for a luxurious Yorkshire escape. 

Middlethorpe Hall Hotel, Restaurant and Spa

Bishopthorpe Road, York, YO23 2GB

01904 641 241

*Cocktail Saturdays was a guest of Middlethorpe Hall

Manchester House, Manchester

Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.” ― Jim Davis

People often talk about getting healthy in the New Year. Not me! I believe January should be about easing into the new year as gently and comfortably as possible, not depriving ourselves of life’s pleasures. With that in mind, my first post of 2017 is… a very indulgent afternoon tea. 

Lovely Sarah recently turned 30 so we decided to celebrate with tea, cakes and bubbles!

We opted for the plush Manchester House in Spinningfields, high up on the 12th floor of Tower Twelve. The Lounge at Manchester House is sleek but has a welcoming ambience with incredible views across the city. I visited late last year for cocktails and promised to return for afternoon tea.

I’ve experienced afternoon tea in many places but there’s undoubtedly something very special about dining in a restaurant with floor to ceiling windows enjoying panoramic views of a city.

It was lovely and quiet when we arrived on a Friday afternoon at 3pm. It felt like we’d escaped the hustle of the streets below. We were shown to our table, all of which are positioned looking out across Manchester, and began settling into our decadent surroundings.

Everything is displayed in a contemporary style, there isn’t a lace tablecloth or vintage china in sight. That being said, afternoon tea lovers won’t be disappointed. The obligatory delicate finger sandwiches, cakes and pastries all feature. 

The food was delivered on a two-tier chunky wooden stand. It was beautifully presented with a modern twist. We had three of everything so there was no fighting!  I had vegetarian options and my other friend, who has a nut allergy, was also well catered for. The birthday girl was more straightforward and ate from the usual afternoon tea menu. I was very impressed that we each had our own selection (well done Manchester House) and they all tasted amazing!

We started off with the bottom layer of sandwiches. I was happy to see that we were given a good variety, on different types of breads and wraps. We cleared these in record time before moving onto the scones, discovering which of us opted for Devonshire (cream on the bottom and jam on top) and which of us chose Cornish (cream on top and jam on the bottom). 

Next came the cakes! Few people could be disappointed with the selection of on offer. Macarons, chocolate fancies, Eton mess and an incredible eclair each.

We enjoyed our Champagne while watching the sun set over Manchester, leaving only the lights from the Christmas trees twinkling around us. 

The clock struck 5pm and the bar began to fill with city slickers, keen to enjoy a cocktail or two in one of The Lounge’s four heated outside terraces. We made room for them and continued drinking downstairs in the bars of Spinningfields. 

As if our day couldn’t get any better, we stumbled upon an outdoor bumper car track where we challenged each other to a race. The next day our various aches and pains proved that we’re no Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel but it was certainly a great way to end a memorable day. 

I definitely recommend Manchester House for a special occasion, the staff were all excellent and even left a birthday card on the table for Sarah, which was a lovely touch. Even if you don’t have an occasion to celebrate, still get dressed up and treat yourself. The perfect way to cheer yourself up during this cold and dark January. 

www.manchesterhouse.uk.com

Slattery's Patissier & Chocolatier

When you feel melancholic, have a bit of chocolate. When you feel a bit under pressure, have a bit of chocolate. When you feel happy, have chocolate. You must always, at all times, have chocolate in the cupboard. That is de rigueur.” - Raymond Blanc

cocktail_saturdays_slattery-7530.jpg

I always plan to spend these last few days leading up to Christmas relaxing at home with a cocktail, wrapping presents to put under the Christmas tree while watching some festive films. The reality is, I’m sat covered head to toe in sellotape after I unwisely requested my young niece and nephew help wrap last minute presents. What I'd hoped would be a cocktail may turn out to be the glass of sherry we've left out for 'Santa'.

This hysteria is a far cry from the chocolate making course I took earlier this month. I received the experience as an early Christmas present off my family.

As a self confessed chocoholic, it's probably the best gift someone could ever buy for me; receiving a voucher to Slattery's Patissier & Chocolatier is somewhat alike finding a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Slattery’s is a 3rd generation Chocolatier located near Manchester. A sweet heaven, housed in a large 3 storey building filled with handmade luxury cakes, ice creams and chocolate, lots and lots of chocolate. 

The ground floor of the building is the shop where you can buy treats to enjoy at home. On the first floor is The Masons dining room which serves items fresh from the onsite baker and afternoon tea. At the top of the building is where you can master the art chocolate making, Slattery’s school of excellence.

I’m sure all chocaholics will agree, even just the word ‘chocolate’ has a certain magic about it, so to have a whole day working with a professional chocolatier learning about it, making it and, more importantly, tasting it, was a real treat. 

I arrived just before the 9.30am start time and met with the rest of the group attending the course. Our tutor for the day, Julie, introduced us to the owner, John Slattery. John’s parents set up the business 44 years ago, he explained the history of Slattery’s and how four members of the family still work in the business today. 

Julie then set about teaching us, starting by telling us that chocolate grows in pods on trees (which in my mind makes it healthy) and grows in warm regions close to the equator, in what is nicknamed “the chocolate belt”. 

The cocoa beans are roasted and ground before being pressed in a hydraulic press to produce cocoa solid and cocoa butter. The two ingredients are then put back together in the proportions as to how it is to be made, i.e. dark chocolate, milk chocolate or white chocolate. 

Generally, most of the chocolate we buy in the shops today has had the cocoa butter replaced with vegetable oil, the cocoa butter is then sold on for use elsewhere, for example in beauty products. Chocolate with a high cocoa butter content is shinier and tastes much better (it melts in the mouth a lot quicker as the cocoa butter melts at our body temperature.)

We had a tasting of various types of chocolate. From white, which has no cocoa solids in it just cocoa butter, to dark chocolate with 95% cocoa content. Throughout the day you choose which type to work with. Slattery’s uses authentic couverture from Belgium. 

For the workshop, there are three machines which melt and temper the three different types of chocolate, meaning we could set about making our own chocolates straight away. 

We were each given an attractive hair net to wear and told to put on an apron. Most of the people on the class were smart enough to bring their own, I on the other hand was far too excited to be working with chocolate to consider such a thing. I stuck out like a sore thumb in my bright red plastic pinny. 

Undeterred, I began by filling the mould trays with my preferred milk chocolate. This coated the mould meaning that I could fill it with my choice of ganache once the chocolate had set. I opted for Champagne as well as salted caramel and plain chocolate fillings. 

Once our little chocolates were made, we moved onto making larger chocolate moulds (tortoises for me), delicious truffles, a chocolate bowl made using a balloon to hold all of our chocolates, as well as the pièce de résistance, a ganache covered chocolate cake with swirls on top. 

Julie made it all look very easy but us novices had chocolate spewing everywhere.

The downside of working with a professional chocolatier is that hygiene is key so you’re not allowed to lick up any of the spilt chocolate. Consequently we spent most of the day looking wistfully as our creations, desperate to taste them. 

The course was very fast paced and we had to work quickly to keep up. Julie was excellent and helped us all along the way. The aim behind the workshop is to equip you with the skills to be able to make the same chocolates at home, so it’s not too technical. 

I couldn’t believe how much we made in the one day and left laden with bags full of chocolate delights. Most of the things made on the course can keep for up to 6 weeks, although my family demolished most of mine within seconds of me walking through the door.

You can find further information about the courses on the Slattery’s website: https://slattery.co.uk/courses

DreamWorks Lights, Liverpool

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift… that’s why they call it the present” ― Master Oogway

Readers of my usual alcohol themed posts might want to look away now, for this review doesn’t feature a single cocktail. Instead it features Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar..… panic not, normal service will resume shortly!

The DreamWorks Lights Lantern Experience has arrived in the UK for the very first time. In fact, right on my doorstep, in the iconic St. George’s Hall in Liverpool. St George's is widely regarded as one of the finest neo-classical buildings in the world. Built in the early 1800s as a space for music festivals and the Civil and Crown courts, the hall has always been at the heart of community life in the city.

Richard Hollis from DreamWorks explains, "We chose Liverpool because it is an iconic city, a true cultural capital known all over the world for its great events and the stunning location of St George’s Hall is the perfect setting for DreamWorks Lights.

Using my 7 year old niece as a guise, I went along on Sunday to meet Shrek, Alex, Po and friends.

There were over 100 figures on display from the three major DreamWorks films. As we arrived, we were greeted by a huge Shrek peeping out from the top of St. George’s. 

Upon entering the hall, we met a 12m by 12m dragon perched on top of a volcano. The illuminations then took us on a journey through each of DreamWorks best known films while working our way around the vast rooms of the hall. 

Tickets are staged so that there are never too many people walking around at once, meaning you can really enjoy each of the lanterns and can photograph them to your hearts content. 

It didn’t take us too long to work our way around, probably 15 minutes, however, we didn’t stop to watch the two films on display at either end of the hall so it would be possible to stay much longer.

There is also a green screen photo experience and DreamWorks shop to enjoy.

The Christmas markets outside St. George’s proved too tempting and we left the illuminations to get a hot chocolate and some roasted chestnuts. 

It was such a lovely atmosphere walking around both the lantern experience and the Christmas markets. If you’re looking for gift ideas for little ones, this is definitely worth the trip. 

I’d recommend booking tickets in advance via: https://sales.webticketmanager.com//default.aspx?companyid=1701


Belmond Northern Belle with Raymond Blanc

For me, rail travel is the most enjoyable and relaxing mode of transport. When I heard that top Chef Raymond Blanc was hosting a fine dining experience on board the Belmond Northern Belle, I had to book tickets. 

Formerly known as the Orient-Express, Belmond is an expert at providing memorable luxury train journeys. Old-school glamour, vintage carriages and some of the country's finest dining. Together with Raymond Blanc, they have formed the perfect partnership. Blanc being one of the UK’s best chefs, his restaurant Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons has held two Michelin stars for over 30 years. 

My mum is a huge fan of his, having dined at Le Manoir over 20 years ago, so it was easy to decide who to take with me. After a frantic dash through traffic, still with no idea exactly what we would be eating or where we would be travelling to, we arrived at Chester station just before departure at 5.45pm.

We followed a group of very smartly dressed people and found our carriage, Warwick, where we hopped aboard and settled into our seats, safe in the knowledge that we were in for a gastronomic adventure.

Each carriage is named after a British stately home or castle and decorated with art nouveau lamps, mahogany fittings and plush armchairs. Evoking the opulence of 1930s rail travel.

The tables were set with white linen and even had bespoke china and silverware. It felt like we had been transported to a bygone era.

As the train pulled out of Chester station, we were given our menus as well as a glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne.

No matter how much Champagne we drank, our glasses were never empty, continually being topped up by the serving staff.

The sommelier explained that we would be travelling as far as Derby before making the journey back home. A 130-mile round trip.

A circular tour of the English countryside lasting five hours; the perfect amount of time to enjoy five dishes of Raymond’s finest cuisine.

The canapés arrived, mum had the salmon while I had the cheese, which we nibbled on while admiring the Cheshire countryside.

Shortly thereafter we were offered some homemade bread, both of us chose a miniature baguette in honour of our French host. 

Our first dish arrived, an amuse bouche of Ironbark Pumpkin Soup with Hazelnut Biscotti and Cashel Blue Cheese. 

During the dinner onboard entertainers walked through the carriages entertaining the guests. We were serenaded by The Chanteuse who sang French classics. The train’s resident magician did a good job of impressing us all with his magic balls.

In between, an accordionist played soothing classics. 

Our second course was Leek Terrine with Jerusalem Artichoke and Truffle Dressing. It was delicious and reminded me of a dish I had the first time I visited Paris. It was accompanied by a glass of white wine from Burgundy.

For our main, mum had Braised Jacob’s Ladder with Mashed Potatoes and a Red Wine Jus.

I had the vegetarian option, a truffle and mushroom risotto. Just as we began tucking into our dishes, our host appeared.

Throughout the dinner he walked between the carriages greeting his guests. He said a quick hello but told us that he wanted us to enjoy our mains without distraction and that he would pop back once we had finished. As he walked away he instructed me, “you will enjoy that risotto.” He was absolutely right. 

Our mains were paired with a beautiful glass of red wine, which our waiter topped up frequently. Of all the drinks served, this was my favourite. From the Rhone Valley, it was full-bodied and perfectly complemented my risotto. 

As promised, Mr Blanc returned. He chatted to us for a while, talking about his restaurant and his career. He spoke to my mum about his 14 vegetable gardens at Le Manoir where all his seasonal organic produce is grown. He was an absolute gentleman and gave us a signed copy of his latest book before posing for photographs.

It turns out mum’s old friend, James Humphreys who worked at the Chester Grosvenor, is now the Operations Director of Northern Belle. James told us that Mr Blanc spends more time with the guests than he is asked to and is an absolute gentleman.

Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
£16.00
By Raymond Blanc

 

Mr Blanc set the tone for the evening. Despite the menu being formal, and the costume being black tie, the whole experience was completely relaxing. The serving staff all took time to chat to us as did our fellow diners. We got chatting to a lovely family sat opposite us, a husband and wife and the lady’s parents. They had been on over ten journeys with Belmond, all around the UK. They promised us that the next course would be “the best cheese board you’ll ever have...”

Perfectly timed, the serving team appeared with a large wooden tray which straddled the aisle, resting on tables either side of the carriage.

On it was a selection of gorgeous European Artisan Cheeses, each with their own origin and story, one was so special it is only produced every six months. The cheeses were served with a glass of red dessert wine from Corsica. 

We ended the dinner with Chocolate Marquise with Tonda Hazelnut and Lemon Butterscotch Sauce.

While we were enjoying this Head Chef Richard, who assisted Mr Blanc, walked through the carriage receiving an appreciative round of applause on his way through. 

Just when we thought we couldn’t be impressed any further, the train came to an abrupt halt in the middle of a patch of darkness in the countryside. The lights went off and seconds later a firework extravaganza set off in a neighbouring field. 

It was truly magical sitting on board watching the fireworks in the distance and mum and I promised each other that we’d book on the same journey next year. Definitely the most special train journey I’ve ever taken.

Belmond Northern Belle