Jason Lowe

Inventive cooking was slow to arrive in the Cotswolds, the bucolic English region that has become a weekend retreat for posh Londoners. But in recent years, nearly every one of its historic hamlets has been reborn as a dining destination.

June 19, 2015

"Ten years ago. Londoners would drive up to the Cotswolds and be happy with a chop, chips, and a pint—period,” said the chef Adam Caisley. “A roast on Sunday. A steamed pudding. Now....” His big, amused smile showed how outdated that kind of cooking has become in this verdant, sparsely populated region of central England. When I visited, Caisley was overseeing the restaurant at the Wild Rabbit, a rustic boutique hotel that opened two years ago in the village of Kingham. As he served me lunch of a delicately poached wild sea bass with baby leeks and clams, followed by a playful and delicious Pimm’s jelly with elderflower and lemonade sorbet, he struck me as the new model for a chef in the Cotswolds. Square-jawed and effortlessly confident, he sent dishes prepared with French and Italian techniques into a dining room that, with its rough-hewn tables and stone walls, was the embodiment of contemporary farm-to-table chic. Before Carole Bamford—who owns the Wild Rabbit as well as the nearby Daylesford Farm, one of the area’s most popular destinations—invited him to work for her, he had trained with the culinary legends Guy Savoy in Paris and Michel Roux at Le Gavroche in London. It used to be that if you were young and ambitious, like Caisley, you didn’t come to the Cotswolds to make a name for yourself. But that has decidedly changed in recent years.

In fact, not long after I met Caisley, he took his signature style to the Feathers, a venerable restaurant in nearby Woodstock that sits at the gates of the Baroque 18th-century estate Blenheim Palace. Replacing him at the Wild Rabbit was Tony Parkin, an even younger up-and-comer, who told me that the Cotswolds food scene reminds him of the culinary world of Copenhagen, where he spent several years in the kitchen of the Michelin two-starred Kommendanten. “Here there’s not only organic farmland, there’s even more wild produce than I found foraging in Denmark,” he said. “I fell in love with the place.”

During my meal at the Wild Rabbit, I watched a pheasant outside picking at seeds near a gleaming new Porsche Spyder. That evening, as Kingham’s iconic limestone houses took on a golden hue in the setting sun, the hotel’s courtyard filled up with well-heeled Londoners in Chloé and Prada, who nibbled on house-made charcuterie and sipped Prosecco cocktails before heading inside for dishes like crab-and-scallop ravioli and thick steaks from the top-of-the-line Josper grill. These images seemed to me as representative of the Cotswolds today as the walking bridges of Bourton-on-the-Water, or the hand-painted sign I saw on a nearby gate that read, "OPEN TO EVERYONE WHO LOVES EXPLORING THE WOODS AND MEADOWS."

Jason Lowe

The area is hardly unaccustomed to luxury. Only a two-hour drive from central London, it has long been known as an upscale weekend refuge, thanks to its graceful, generous estates, old-world hotels, and rolling green hills. Celebrities like Kate Moss, Kate Winslet, and Damien Hirst own homes here. Given the region’s agricultural bounty and the food frenzy that has swept London during the past decade, it was inevitable that the Cotswolds would become a culinary destination. If the Brits who visit today are going to be content with chops, chips, and a pint, the chop must come from a heritage-breed pig, the chips from heirloom potatoes, and the pint from a local brewery.

Long before these new visitors began enticing chefs like Caisley and Parkin to come to the Cotswolds, however, there was Raymond Blanc, whose Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons (now part of the Belmond group) in Great Milton was an instant culinary sensation when it opened in 1984. The Frenchborn chef—who is also the owner of the Brasserie Blanc chain and the costar of the new BBC series Kew on a Plate—is the person most responsible for ushering in the Cotswolds’ current wave of creative cuisine. I visited his restaurant with some hesitation, thinking it might now feel stuffy, but departed having decided that Blanc is a trailblazer on par with Alice Waters and Thomas Keller. Most British chefs are only now catching up with him. He is, in fact, the president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, a pioneering London-based nonprofit that advises restaurants on how to source food and work with communities.

Blanc cooks with a true passion for the land, utilizing apple, pear, and quince orchards and a garden with more than 70 varieties of herbs, nearly a hundred kinds of vegetables, and 20 species of mushrooms. The food was formal but showed a personal touch, offering, as the restaurant’s name suggests, a meditation on the bounty of the seasons. The Cornish sea bass came scented with a touch of star anise. The risotto of summer vegetables topped with a chervil cream was so fresh, so vibrant, that I felt a window to the garden must have been left open. A soft meringue arrived with black-currant sorbet, vanilla cream, and violet marshmallows. The meal contained a hint of France and a touch of Italy, but the flavors were very much of the Cotswolds.

The same graceful commingling of influences was in evidence at the Kingham Plough, an inventive restaurant masquerading as a classic village pub just a few minutes away. Emily Watkins, its chef-proprietor, learned her craft at the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s haven of molecular gastronomy in Bray, Berkshire. Watkins doesn’t rely on centrifuges and liquid nitrogen, but dishes like the pressed wild rabbit terrine with pickled and marinated fairy-ring mushrooms and the venison salami served with a red-onion-and-sloe-gin marmalade reflected her masterful technique. The appealingly acidic wood-sorrel ice cream felt like a local product, but was a shade more refined than spotted dick, the raisin dessert traditionally served in these parts.

Jason Lowe

Watkins’s food reflected an unmistakable passion for what grows and grazes in these beautiful hills. My meal at Kingham Plough, which followed an afternoon walking through nearby fields and pastures, glimpsing vegetable gardens and orchards and visiting dairies and jam makers, showed me that while the Cotswolds may be changing, its traditions remain intact.

I had the same pleasant realization all over again after driving 40 minutes to eat at Made by Bob, a busy four-year-old restaurant in the heart of the market town of Cirencester. Its owner, Bob Parkinson, trained at the legendary London restaurant Bibendum, a background that at least partly explained the perfectly executed roasted figs with honey mousse and the fish soup with rouille—not to mention the superlative steak with béarnaise sauce that has earned a cult following among the locals. When I asked what made him leave London’s high-end restaurant circuit, he joked, “I wouldn’t be married or having children if I’d stayed, now would I? Too much crazy living.”

But this is also Parkinson’s home turf: he grew up in Cheltenham, half an hour to the north, so it’s no surprise that he returned to the region. A closer inspection of his menu revealed that his cooking is not so much an ode to Bibendum as to this fertile countryside. He gets his eggs, vegetables, and freshly churned butter from neighbors. His fruit comes from a nearby orchard and a friend shoots his game—including partridge, venison, and mallard ducks. Even his truffles are English.

Before opening Made by Bob, Parkinson helmed the kitchen at the Swan at Southrop, a 17th-century inn on the village green of Southrop, one of the prettiest hamlets I’ve ever seen. The owner of the Swan is Caryn Hibbert, a former London doctor who more than a decade ago “upped sticks and decamped to rural Gloucestershire for the good life” with her husband and three children. She first bought the Manor House, the former hub of the village, which had fallen into disrepair. Later she added the Swan, several dilapidated barns, and a great deal of farmland to create Southrop Manor Estate, hiring the legendary landscape designer Bunny Guinness to create the ornamental grounds. Hibbert, who came from a farming family, used her expertise in poultry, livestock, and garden produce to make the estate a sustainable operation.

Jason Lowe

In 2009, she added the cooking school Thyme, where the curriculum is designed, she said, to tell the “whole story of food,” from growing and sowing to eating and drinking. The place has an in-house forager and a crustacean expert on call, as well as noteworthy guest chefs such as Darina Allen of the venerable Ballymaloe House in Cork, Ireland, and José Pizarro of the chic London tapas restaurant Pizarro. A stroll through the kitchen garden is a global botany lesson, with crops like French heirloom cabbage, Dutch dill, Aztec broccoli, Russian tomatoes, Chinese coriander, and “Wizard” field beans.

And other than eating, strolling is the most pleasant thing you can do in the Cotswolds. My favorite paths were in the villages of Lower and Upper Slaughter. Lower Slaughter Manor, another 17th-century beauty turned into a lovingly appointed hotel, is a dreamy place to begin your wanderings. There is a glorious tea service, with all the little cakes and sandwiches that tradition dictates. If after eating you do still plan to walk, a good pair of boots is a necessity. Lower Slaughter Manor thoughtfully provides guests with Dubarry boots. Round your first bend and you will likely find yourself amid a flock of grazing sheep—joined, perhaps, by a white goat or two. A herd of Gloucester cattle will surely be close by. This historic breed, dating from the 13th century, is prized for its lovely chocolate color and rich milk, which is used to make delicious Single Gloucester cheese. With its inimitable balance of nuttiness and tanginess, it alone is a reason to visit the Cotswolds.

One of the best Single Gloucesters can be found at Daylesford Farm, Bamford’s vast estate, where she introduced organic farming practices 30 years ago. Under her watch, Daylesford has grown to include a farm shop, a creamery, a café, a smokehouse, and a spa. Four caféshops in London sell the farm’s produce. Some locals have criticized Bamford for Hamptonizing the Cotswolds with astronomical price tags and organic chic, but few would argue with her dedication to sustainable farming. Fewer still, I would guess, could resist the rows of jams, honeys, and chutneys that line her shop, or the little pots of lemon posset and fresh clotted cream, or the hearty breads, cheeses, and biscuits that beg to be taken on a country picnic. At the café, the health-obsessed will find a breakfast of chia, goji berry, and flaxseed muesli, while the more traditionally minded will be content with the Earl Grey fruitcake.

On my way out after lunch at Daylesford, I passed a neatly painted sign that read, "WE USE CLOVER INSTEAD OF CHEMICALS TO BUILD NATURAL FERTILITY IN OUR SOIL." It gave me the pleasant feeling that my meal of venison carpaccio with artichokes, capers, and preserved lemon had been as virtuous as it was tasty. That’s a common sensation in the Cotswolds today. It lingered as I strolled through vibrant pastures back to the Wild Rabbit, where I was staying that night. I was already thinking about dinner.
 

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