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.

São Lourenço do Barrocal

São Lourenço do Barrocal is a hotel that had been on my wishlist for years, an idyllic escape in the Portuguese Alentejo region. Just a few hours drive from Lisbon, this hotel works perfectly as a second stop after a few days enjoying the excitement of the capital city.

São Lourenço do Barrocal

The hotel has a special history… the atmospheric property has been in the same family for over 200 years and feels very much in tune with its beautiful surroundings. The hotel has a 780-hectare estate that includes olive groves and vineyards (you can taste the olive oil and wine on site), and also boasts an orchard and wall garden.

São Lourenço do Barrocal

A main building hosts evening sundowners and cakes, and is also home to a charming bar for all your refreshment needs. The reception here are on-call to help make your stay at São Lourenço do Barrocal as memorable as possible. Guests have so many options to fill their daily itinerary with… from horse riding, to hot air balloon rides over the region.

The hotel prides itself on being incredibly family-friendly with activities to suit all age groups. But for those needing some alone time, the Susanne Kaufmann spa is the perfect refuge.

São Lourenço do BarrocalSão Lourenço do Barrocal

There are 40 rooms including courtyard, winery and farm rooms, and cottages for accommodating families. The rooms are all decorated in a similar style – laid back and luxurious. The courtyard room we called home was spacious and comfortable, with a generous living area and outdoor terrace.

The bathroom felt lavish with underfloor heating and dual sinks, bath and separate power shower, and best of all… mini Susanne Kaufmann toiletries.

Our room felt like a suite and it was a lovely oasis to come back to at the end of the day.

São Lourenço do BarrocalSão Lourenço do Barrocal

The hotel restaurant, Alentejo, is a homely dining room for feasting on the finest local produce. In the morning, a huge buffet offered fruit and cold meats, pastries and cereals. A cooked menu offers all the hot dishes you might desire, and I was impressed by the thoughtful service, particularly when the waiter remembered my coffee order on the second morning.

I looked forward to dinner at Alentejo both days. The menu was full of enticing farm to table recipes and I particularly loved the slow cooked meats, which were incredibly flavoursome and delicious when paired with the São Lourenço do Barrocal wine.

São Lourenço do BarrocalSão Lourenço do Barrocal

In the long warm days we lazed by the pool, with the scent of citrus fruit in the air. On our second day we were treated to a picnic in the grounds, prepared specially for us by the hotel. It was wonderfully relaxing to be able to spend all our time here, there is so much to see and do on site that I didn’t get my usual itch to explore further afield.

São Lourenço do BarrocalSão Lourenço do Barrocal

For a sunny and calm European getaway I would highly recommend São Lourenço do Barrocal. The design-led but traditional interiors made this hotel a pleasure to spend time in, and the authentic friendly service ensured every detail of our trip was perfect. Waking up to the birdsong and falling asleep under a sky full of stars are two memories I will always remember from our short stay at this magical hotel.

More information and book a stay at São Lourenço do Barrocal here.

I was a guest of the hotel.