A Weekend in Herefordshire

Travel right now is not easy, I am craving it desperately, but for the foreseeable future will be concentrating on exploring the best of Britain. Herefordshire is a county that I knew very little about, sandwiched between Shropshire to the north, Worcestershire to the east, Gloucestershire to the south-east, and Wales to the west. So when I was invited to explore its burgeoning independent food and drink scene I was intrigued and excited.

Herefordshire

Despite the relentless rain we trundled down the motorway, just 4 hours even in rush hour Friday traffic. Visit Herefordshire arranged a great itinerary for me, ticking off key restaurants, pubs and artisan makers across the county.

Herefordshire

First stop was Hereford, a cathedral town in the heart of the region. We were staying at the Green Dragon Hotel, charming accommodation that was a quiet and comfortable place to spend the night. Breakfast next morning was served downstairs in the light and airy dining room, a range of fresh seasonal dishes, including delicious mushrooms on toast, and granola with homemade berry compote.

Herefordshire

There are quite a few eateries in Hereford worth trying, The Bookshop was one which everyone raved about, thanks to their great steaks and lively atmosphere. We had a great dinner here, the service was super friendly and the meat was noticeably of a high quality (you must try Hereford beef while visiting Herefordshire). We stopped by The Bookshop the next morning too for a coffee (they use the superior beans from local roastery, Method) and the brunch looked very tempting too.

Herefordshire

After a brief walk around town, seeing the iconic cathedral and stopping by a couple of foodie shops (I recommend Fodder for bread & pastries, Mousetrap for local cheeses, and Sensory & Rye for coffee or brunch), we were on our way to our next destination…

Pensons is the only restaurant in Herefordshire to hold a Michelin star, which it was proudly awarded last year, less than a year after opening. Head chef Chris Simpson previously worked for Nathan Outlaw, and brings skill and a lightness of touch to the dishes at Pensons. The restaurant benefits from being located on the Netherwood Estate, which is surrounded by green pastures. There is also a bountiful kitchen garden which grows many of the vegetables and fruit you’ll find on your plate at Pensons! We devoured the three course lunch menu, memorable dishes included perfectly cooked Plaice with cauliflower, watercress and crab sauce, and Duck with beetroot and blackcurrant.

Herefordshire

At Pensons we tried a delicious apple mocktail, and learnt a little about the incredible apples of the area. So it seemed fitting to visit Little Pomona next, craft cider makers who are producing some wonderfully refined drinks with the famous Herefordshire apples. Autumn is apple picking season and to celebrate Visit Herefordshire have created two great cider trails (The Cider Circuits) as part of their #madforapples initiative. The self-guided routes, both around 50 miles long, can be followed by bike or car and are named after two of the county’s apple varieties: The Newton Wonder heads north from Hereford, while The Redstreak heads south. Glorious Little Pomona features on the southern route.

Herefordshire

Herefordshire is known for its striking black and white architecture which we were lucky to spy in many of the towns we drove through… Bromyard was a great place to admire the monochrome houses, and whilst in the area Bringsty Vintage shop is worth a visit for retro homeware and trinkets.

Herefordshire

As the rain worsened we headed to Crumplebury, a lovely luxurious event space, with restaurant and rooms, surrounded by woodland, fields and animals.

Crumplebury has just reopened for the season and we were delighted to be one of the first to be back at this idyllic place. At the heart of the property is Green Cow Kitchens, the on site fine dining restaurant. We enjoyed a lavish dinner here before a very restful night’s sleep in The Oakley Suite, the most spacious and decadent suite Crumplebury offer. The room was decorated to a very high specification with modern amenities, a giant bed and a copper bathtub to ensure the most relaxing of stays.

Herefordshire

We also had a chance to see some of the beautiful event spaces and wholesome wildlife, which is used seasonally in the restaurant. Crumplebury is a brilliant option for weddings and work functions, an isolated countryside escape with a five star feel.

Herefordshire

Next morning we woke refreshed and revitalised, and after a quick but very tasty Crumplebury breakfast we headed off for a final morning of exploring.

We drove South towards Ross on Wye, for a hearty Sunday lunch at The Greenman, the celebrated pub in Fownhope. A generous roast awaited, with all the trimmings, the perfect sustenance before a local walk and the drive back home to London.

Herefordshire is the ideal weekend escape from London… an array of foodie spots are dotted amongst the verdant and gloriously green countryside, so you can both eat handsomely and get a breath of fresh air before returning to busy city life.

In collaboration with Visit Herefordshire.

Zebra Riding Club at Birch Community

Birch Community was finally able to open its doors last week after lock-down delayed the venue’s final renovation works. Situated in Cheshunt, just 30 minutes drive from North London, this multi-disciplinary space is an artistic hang-out for creatives urbanites needing a quick escape from the city. It provides a place to sleep, work, eat and explore, all whilst being surrounded by 55 acres of nature.

Birch Community

I was delighted to be asked to be a founding member, and spent 24 hours last weekend living the Birch way of life. Admittedly the hotel is not 100% ready yet, some finishing is a little rough around the edges, and the design and focus suggests they are still fine-tuning the place’s identity and purpose. However, everyone seemed to be having a great time trying out pottery and glass-blowing classes, relaxing in the music rooms and best of all, feasting on the superior Birch food offering.

Birch Community

The food is all overseen by the brilliant Robin Gill, of The Dairy and Darby’s (amongst others) fame. I have been finding solace throughout the pandemic at his Brentford bakery outpost, Rye by the Water, so was delighted to find a bakery onsite at Birch. Here, guests are invited to take part in the sourdough shaping and pastry preparations. In the morning we tried all the pastries on offer: rich and buttery delights accompanied by Caravan coffee from the Birch coffee shop.

Zebra Riding Club

The undoubted highlight of our stay at Birch was the meal we relished at Zebra Riding Cafe, the main restaurant on site. This impressive dining room feels more grand and luxurious than the other rooms, and I predict many will travel simply to try this eatery, even if they aren’t staying at Birch.

Zebra Riding Club

The restaurant’s philosophy and ever-changing menu is led by nature and seasonality, and much of the ingredients will be grown on site at Birch. There is little choice, instead a versatile set feasting menu caters for all with a comforting selection of Robin’s delicious inventions.

We began our lunch with cocktails from the succinct but tempting selection. Of the two the Birch Old Fashioned was our favourite, a smooth strong drink with a hint of herby birch sap.

Zebra Riding ClubZebra Riding Club

Service was attentive but discreet throughout our meal and I was incredibly impressed with their careful attention to detail when it came to our complicated dietary requirements. Rest assured vegetarians and vegans will not miss out here.

The meal kicked off with an assortment of bite-sized snacks… I particularly adored the fresh courgette tart, which was light, zingy and summery.

Zebra Riding ClubZebra Riding Club

The next two dishes were ideal for butter addicts like me… Heritage grains with Kentish corn, and a fresh egg from Birch’s rescued hens, was warming and soothing with a lovely texture and umami flavour profile. We sat in silence as we slurped it up. Next we were treated to Heritage King Oyster mushrooms swimming in a hot rich buttery jus spiked with rosemary, dulse and pickled kombu.

Zebra Riding ClubZebra Riding Club

The main event was an ode to Swaledale lamb, accompanied by tropea grilled onions, wood oven Cornish mid potatoes and green salad. It was a suite of loveliness, but for me, it was the succulent, salty lamb ragu with garden sorrel that won over my heart, and stomach. The sticky, sweet quality of the meat made it impossible not to finish, despite it being very rich.

Zebra Riding Club

The meal finale came in the form of a palate-cleansing Blackberry ripple ice-cream with diced white peach and rosemary sablé biscuit. A yummy pairing of flavours and the perfect end to the meal.

Zebra Riding Club

After months of confined eating at home it was a real treat to experience The Zebra Riding Club, another triumph for Robin Gill and a highlight of the Birch experience.

More information about Zebra Riding Club and book here.

I was a guest of Birch, as one of their Founding Members.

A trip to Cognac

France is home to so much specialist produce and products. In the culinary and drinks world it is a destination second to none. This trip I was in the South-West of France, just under 2 hours from Bordeaux, to discover the world of Cognac.

Cognac

The sleepy region of Cognac is quiet and charming, and makes a wonderful weekend getaway. Ahead of April’s Cognac Show in London I was here to learn about this special, historic spirit with The Whisky Exchange.

Cognac

Cognac is a variety of brandy, made exclusively in the Cognac region of France, it is a protected product and can only be made here under strict production methods and legal requirements. The spirit is made from distilled white wine, mainly made from the Ugni Blanc grape (often better known as Trebbiano) although a few other grape varieties are allowed. The soil structure in the Cognac region is said to be very similar to the Champagne region.

The wine must be distilled twice, using copper pot stills and then aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Many Cognacs are aged for much longer, creating more complex, rare spirits.

During our three days in Cognac we visited four Cognac houses, each with a different approach to the spirit.

Our first Cognac experience was at Hine, a boutique Cognac company founded in 1763. Both the spirit and branding of Hine is refined and stylish, and the striking bottles immediately grabbed my attention.

First we visited the vineyards, which have had a hard year due to the unusual weather conditions. After seeing the impressive pot stills at work we sat down for a detailed tasting.

Cognac

Most Cognac houses produce blended Cognacs, with some choosing to also make single estate. It is interesting to also consider the grading of a cognac.

The current legally defined categories of Cognac include:

V.S.: a minimum age of two years. Also known as Very Special or Three Stars.

V.S.O.P.: a minimum age of four years. Also known as Very Superior Old Pale or Reserve.

X.O.: a minimum age of six years.

Trying the Hine Cognacs was an interesting and tasty experience. I found the younger spirits had flavours of vanilla and fresh fruits, with older Cognac tasting more of red fruits, with some spice notes.

We were lucky to be staying the night in the Hine house, a luxurious home with lavish bedrooms and a grand dining room, where we enjoyed a great dinner and typically French pastry breakfast!

Cognac

It is a common misconception that Cognac is an older person’s drink. I discovered this couldn’t be further from the truth… this spirit is so varied depending on company and age and blend. It is also more popular with mixologists as a great cocktail spirit, I loved drinking it topped with ginger ale.

Cognac

Founded in 1858 AE Dor was named after house founder Amédée Edouard Dor. Like Hine they are based in the centre of Cognac town, and are open to hosting tastings.

We had a brilliant morning at AE Dor with one of the brilliantly knowledgeable and enthusiastic team, trying everything from their entry level VS Cognac (approx £40 a bottle) to the very rare and special ‘Sign of Time’ Cognac dating back to 1893 and costing a staggering £11,000 per bottle.

Cognac

(At the Whisky Exchange you can also get miniatures of some of these bottles, the perfect way to try a Cognac before investing.)

Cognac

Maison Ferrand has a big range of spirits in its collection, from Caribbean rums to artisanal Citadelle gin. But their Cognac is one of their most distinctive products. This cognac proudly uses grapes planted on the Angeac terroir in the heart of the Grande Champagne region. Maison Ferrand was founded in 1989, making it one of the newer houses, but they use traditional methods to make their Cognac.

Cognac

After visiting some of the Ferrand properties we were treated to an indulgent dinner at newly opened Chais Monnet Hotel in the centre of town. Here we feasted on local delicacies all accompanied, of course, with wonderful complementing Cognac.

Cognac

Stepping foot in the Vallein Tercinier caves felt special. Immediately the sense of passion and history was apparent and our group revelled in the story of this house’s Cognac. We sat at the tasting table while the wind howled furiously outside and warmed our bodies with divine cognac.

Cognac

Foodies will love the food and drink options in Cognac town. While in the area don’t miss Bar Luciole, a great cocktail venue to try perfectly mixed Cognac drinks… our group particularly loved the Butter Kir Royal. I also highly recommend lunch at Poulpette in town. A relaxed modern eatery serving inventive French food using the best local ingredients.

Cognac

Cognac is such a lovely destination, ideal for foodies and drink fans. I loved wandering round the town, soaking up the authentic atmosphere and learning about Cognac, a unique and special spirit.

As this year’s Cognac Show has had to be cancelled, you can experience all the Cognac fun from home with these great online sessions on the Whisky Exchange Facebook Page:

Friday 24th April, 5.30pm: Cognac 101 with Dawn Davies MW

Friday 24th April, 6.30pm: Cocktail masterclass with Guillaume Le Dorner, Bar Luciole

Saturday 25th April, 5,30pm: The Many Faces of Cognac with Dawn Davies MW

Saturday 25th April, 6.30pm: Calvados 101 with Dawn Davies MW

Order your virtual tasting set here and join in on the fun next weekend.

I was a guest of the Whisky Exchange.