One of life’s great pleasures surely has to be finishing work early on a Friday and heading out for a swanky lunch with friends. You should be trapped at your desk for another couple of hours, but are instead are being spoiled with fabulous food and great company. Eckington Manor made our Fri-yay dreams come true a few weeks ago, inviting us for lunch in the glorious Worcestershire countryside.
Eckington’s head chef, Mark Stinchcombe, won MasterChef: The Professionals in 2015 and thankfully has stayed at Eckington Manor, with his wife and fellow head chef Sue, to grace the Cotswolds with his incredible cooking. Surprisingly, unlike most other fine dining restaurants, you can often pick up a walk-in table for lunch, afternoon tea or weekday dinners. You might even get a weekend table if you are lucky but I’d definitely recommend phoning ahead just in case. Considering the quality and value of the food on offer, you’d be a fool not to! It normally takes a lot of luck or planning to eat this well.
Before lunch, we had a quick tour around Eckington Manor’s grounds. We’ve stayed here previously and had a wonderful time, but it was dark and snowy so we were keen to see it in the sunshine. It doesn’t disappoint with stunning buildings, amazing countryside views and stylish rooms to satisfy even the most demanding of travellers.
Taking a seat in the gorgeous dining room, unrecognisable from its origins as a humble barn, we were all famished and couldn’t wait for our lunch to arrive. Thankfully, a beautiful wooden tray of bread appeared to sate our appetites; it’s strange how this humble offering can make such a difference to a meal isn’t it? I’m always rather pleased to receive warm, freshly baked bread to start although I am equally frustrated on the odd occasion when I am presented with a dry, stale hunk of bread and miniscule pat of butter. As you might expect, Eckington Manor didn’t disappoint; the miniature baguettes, and wholemeal/fennel rolls were incredibly light, super fresh and served with a game changing chicken butter. A few people around the table were on a low carbs diet so I didn’t need asking twice to finish off the leftovers.
We then moved onto mains. Sarah chose a very clever cheddar cheese and cauliflower lasagne, served with roasted cauliflower, cumin and capers. This was definitely a favourite around the table and made for a rather unusual take on a classic dish. I plumped for leg of locally sourced venison, cooked perfectly pink with confit swede, crunchy pumpkin seeds and cabbage. Knitting it all together was a rich, sticky jus that I would probably have happily drunk straight from the pan. Although we’re heading into spring, this was a perfect comfort dish to fend off the cold. It was also a great reminder of how lucky we are to have such a breadbasket of wonderful ingredients on our doorstep.
It’s always so tough choosing dessert and Eckington didn’t go easy on us. After a small battle, I kindly let Sarah have the poached forced rhubarb, specially grown in Yorkshire. (Incidentally, they have their own kitchen garden and will shortly be serving their own rhubarb along with plenty of other tasty garden treats, and their own meat from the farm.) This dish was a properly pretty affair with a mini rhubarb doughnut, rhubarb sorbet, rhubarb agar tube filled with vanilla parfait and an olive oil biscuit. Mark poaches the rhubarb in hibiscus to give the pink even more vibrancy and it’s this attention to detail that makes his food so special.
Having lost this round of the endless dessert battle, I “settled” for the burnt honey cream and pear sorbet, topped with a thin disk of chewy honeycomb and a little almond cake. Again, this was a feast for the eyes and not overly sweet which is definitely a good thing. The flavours could have been overpowering but instead they balanced nicely, and l would happily have eaten it again. The last dessert on the menu deserves a special mention; a four layer dark chocolate, white chocolate, peanut butter ganache and salted milk ice cream concoction. This was a rather sculptural creation, with a shard of chocolate resting over the shiny ganache exterior. Mark explained the process behind this dish and revealed that it takes nearly a day to make with all of the processes involved. With all that effort, its no wonder the food is so magical.
Eckington Manor Cookery School
Having dined like kings on Mark’s perfectly cooked lunch, it was time to get our hands dirty. We followed Mark into the kitchen; thankfully, it wasn’t to do the washing up though! Instead, Mark was going to teach us to cook a simple yet effective wild mushroom filled pasta dish. Our little group ranged in experience from accomplished home cooks to someone who once set their hair on fire; this was the perfect tutorial then to master the basics and learn how to elevate even the most straightforward of dishes.
Time to Cook
We began with Mark explaining the dish and doing a quick demonstration. Moving back to our stations, we began by chopping shallots and garlic, sweating them off with a sprig of thyme. The most wonderful array of wild mushrooms were then added to the sizzling pan before letting it cook off. At this point, the aromas were already pretty heavenly but splashes of chicken stock, mushroom stock, double cream and a hearty glug of madeira sent my nose into overdrive.
Pulling myself away from the delicious aromas, Mark showed us how to make pasta, before sending us off with pre-made batches to flatten out through the pasta makers. I’ve always been a bit scared to use one as I’ve seen plenty of people make a hash of it; Mark had some great tips though to get it working like a well oiled machine;. It turns out it is pretty simple to turn a lump of dough into a humongous sheet of translucent pasta. All that PlayDough practice as a child paid off big time.
Pasta sheets made, we piped in some pre-made mushroom duxelle; finely chopped mushrooms, truffle, herbs, butter and shallots cooked down into a paste. Normally you’f find this gracing a beef wellington so we just knew it was going to taste amazing! Mark showed us how to make a few different shapes, from tortellini to ravioli; ultimately though, he was keen to stress that we could make whatever we were happy with. Sarah chose a rather large tortellini so, to balance things out, I made little round and square parcels. After a quick blanch, the pasta was added to the heavenly sauce with a large handful of spinach. I might have sneaked in some bacon too. Ooops! Handily, Eckington Manor provide takeaway cartons so we loaded up and headed home; ready to stack the fridge with incredible ready meals for the week ahead.
Eckington Manor is the UK’s largest AGA cooking school; perfect for those of you with a classic Cotswold country kitchen. If you’re left with an irrepressible sense of longing like us, then fear not. They have plenty of induction hobs too. The cookery school is well equipped, light and spacious so it is easy for groups, large or small, to give it a go and whip up their own pièce de résistance.
A clever addition to the standard set up is a pair of flat screen televisions over the demonstration station. We’ve been to a few classes before where you can barely see what’s going on . Although it was easy for the four of us to see Mark up close, in a larger group the cameras would have been invaluable. They also email proper recipes to you afterwards so you don’t need to frantically scribble notes whilst stirring your sauce.
I can imagine that some people are put off cookery schools for fear of a wannabe Gordon Ramsay bellowing at their every mistake. Don’t worry though; Mark is the antithesis of the classic head chef in a really good way. His advice is reassuring and helpful, delivered in a very down to earth and friendly manner. The class was fun, with loads of helpful tips and plenty of laughs; and most importantly, we left with loads of delicious food made by our own indelicate hands. We had some for dinner that night and it was incredible; we often make pasta but this showed how easy it is to take it to the next level. You just need a few pro tips to get you there, or a cheeky last minute table at Eckington Manor if you’re feeling lazy! Guess what our next dinner guests are having?