Emma Payne gets behind the wheel with a 19th-century countryside haven set firmly in her sights
We Brits are good at so many things – tea drinking, queuing and indecisive elections to name but a few – but one thing we excel at is stately homes. Sprawling country piles bring tourists from far and wide to our fair isle, and the Regency splendour of Backwell House is as fine an example as any. Opened in 2016 after an extensive refurbishment, this countryside haven boasts nine en-suite double bedrooms, quintessentially English walled gardens and a perfectly elegant restaurant. We took a quick trip slightly south to check out the latter…
Our first impression is one of Brideshead Revisited-esque grandeur, as we roll up a sun-drenched gravel drive in fine-dining attire (albeit in our pokey Ford Fiesta, and not an open-topped 1920s Morris). It’s hard to believe we’ve driven a mere 20 minutes outside of Bristol’s buzzing centre, as we emerge from the tree-lined car park to see Backwell House looking out proudly over the rolling North Somerset hills.
Tearing ourselves away from the vista, we wander through the impressive entrance hall, complete with glowing chandelier – no, light installation – and are seated in the dining room, where hotel guests are already whiling away the balmy evening, chilled cocktails in hand. Trendy, dark slate walls and heavy black lamps give a contemporary edge to complement the rustic, period features; our gaze drifts from the splendid fireplace and tall sash windows to the beautifully crafted oak tables, set with wildflower posies.
We settle in and make a beeline for the wine list, choosing an eminently drinkable – and hugely popular, we’re told – South African Chenin Blanc. We choose to stick with this refreshingly crisp vino for the remainder of our meal, but for those wishing to sample something different, each item on the menu comes with a ‘sommelier’s recommendation’ – a nice touch if, like us, you’re regularly overwhelmed by bountiful wine lists like Backwell’s.
Turning our attention to the small but perfectly formed menu – with just three starters and four mains to choose between – we’re struck by the familiar anticipatory stomach grumble at the mere mention of a sirloin steak. Just as we contemplate gnawing on a handbag mint, an attentive server materialises, hoisting a platter of curried ox and ‘BLT’ appetisers – the latter a fresh take on a Great British classic.
Appetite teased and minds focussed, we waste no time and pick out all three courses with surprising efficiency – wine, heat and hayfever considered. The lure of a summery tomato gazpacho is strong, but I plump for the pressed pork with intriguing tarragon ‘emulsion’ to start, while R is dead-set on a bit of Brixham crab. With the knowledge that Bristol-born chef Ross Hunter’s menu is based entirely on locally sourced, organic produce, including vegetables and herbs from Backwell’s own kitchen garden, our expectations are high.
Our delicious curried ox and BLT starters hit the spot
After another (fabulous) taster of warm sourdough with whipped butter, our first courses make their entrance, each component arranged daintily in the centre of two expansive, contemporary dishes. My perfectly tender pork with crunchy garden peas, tangy vinaigrette and crackling to rival mum’s Sunday roast, captures the flavours of an English country garden, as Backwell’s own flora and fauna flutter outside the windows. It’s R’s seaside scoff that steals the show, however, as his delicately seasoned stack of crab, enhanced by a theatrical splash of pink beetroot purée and crunchy nori seaweed, evokes the salty Devon sea air of many a childhood summer holiday.
My pork starter with fresh peas and broad beans, topped with a perfectly crispy piece of crackling
Abandoning him to powder my nose and quash my crab-related food envy, I take the chance between courses to meander around the hotel’s ground floor. Passing by the plush chesterfields and rich velvet curtains of the lounge, I come across the glittering bar – an atmospheric hideaway clad in dark oak panels, walls lined with tempting tipples. It’s not often you write about a toilet during a food review, but Backwell’s commitment to Georgian-glamour-meets-hunting-lodge luxe pervades throughout, from the quirky sink in a suitcase to the vintage copper fittings and ornate tiles.
The glittering ‘beer barrel’ bar
Returning to the dining room, thoughts turn to the main – I’ve ordered a fillet of ling, with fresh spring greens. The meaty white fish (which, we’ll admit, we hadn’t heard of until that moment) disassembles at the touch of the fork, though we do miss the crispy skin of a pan-fried piscine fillet. The star of the plate, however, is a tasty little crab bonbon, with crunchy deep-fried casing around a soft, herby filling – an ideal match for the accompanying crab bisque. As I comment on the unusual addition of salty kohlrabi (a biennial relation of the cabbage family), R tucks into his ballotine of chicken leg, barely pausing for breath between mouthfuls. Surreptitiously stealing a bite, I’m impressed by the succulent poultry, earthy girolle mushrooms and seasonal asparagus.
R’s succulent chicken main, with asparagus and girolle mushrooms
Courses one and two devoured, the highlight is yet to come. The moment our desserts hit the table I’m in my element, struggling to pick between the mallowy meringue and fresh berries with my strawberry cannelloni – cleverly created using a bright red gel encasing smooth vanilla cream filling. It sticks around just long enough to admire the smaller details, including the playful splatter of jus. Equally, R’s assiette of chocolate and passionfruit, comprising refreshing fruity sorbet and creamy mousse hidden in a chocolate sphere, more than hits the spot.
The strawberry cannelloni dessert
Trundling back down the drive, we’re sorry to leave the serenity of this countryside hideaway, sneaking one last peek at the view before we head to the cut-and-thrust of the city. Two hundred years on from its creation, this beautiful estate is the perfect fusion of old-world splendour and contemporary decor, a concept which permeates in the refreshingly minimalist restaurant offering. If you’re looking for some respite from the city and want English cuisine at its finest, Backwell is the one – but be sure to book a room to fully immerse yourself in daily life at the manor (vintage car and tweed optional, but recommended…)