This year like most of you, our summer holiday plans have been scuppered. Due to the current COVID-19 restrictions we decided to not venture abroad but stay closer to home. The Cotswolds is home to many boutique hotels and not too far from London, so we chose this area as our destination for our mini break. We wanted to be spoilt, and more than anything we wanted the food be top quality – we wanted a break in ‘Foodie Heaven’. After a lot of discussion we chose to stay in two hotels, one, Foxhill Manor for 3 nights and the other, Thyme Hotel, for two nights.
I thought that, as we have a common love for food, that I would share some of my experiences. I do not claim to be a food critic, this is just my personal experience of eating out and staying at these establishments; I will admit that reviewing is a learning curve, more than anything I found remembering to take photos of the food before tucking in the most difficult part!… You will see evidence of this in my photos – both the lack of photos of certain plates and the inclusion of half eaten ones!
We had, in fact, already had the pleasure of staying at Foxhill Manor for a weekend last year, pre-pandemic, and our decision to return for a second visit is testament to the success of our first visit. Foxhill Manor’s motto ‘whatever you fancy, wherever you fancy it’, is a true invitation to be spoilt. With only eight bedrooms this hotel offers tranquillity, yet as part of the Farncombe Estate it has plenty of private land to explore as well as two sister hotels, The Dormy House and The Fish which offer a change of scenery (and a spa) if needed. For us the main attraction of this hotel is the concept of their service and restaurant, all guests are invited to chat with the chef who will design a dinner based on what you fancy and the availability of the freshest, local and seasonal ingredients. When we visited the first time, we were not expecting such a personal approach to the food, we were very impressed with this concept and the incredible standard of the cooking. So returning under Covid conditions would be a little risky as obviously the atmosphere was bound to be different, but we were willing to take the chance…
Our Experience and the Food:
Before arriving at Foxhill Manor last week, Nick and I had already been discussing with great enthusiasm what we would be asking the chef to cook us. It had become a ‘last supper’ conversation and we were becoming rather confused about what we really wanted!…In the end we decided that at some point we would like a rack of lamb, and Nick also fancied a dover sole but apart from that we thought it best to allow the chef to guide us with his suggestions.
We were not disappointed by his recommendations. On our first evening we enjoyed foie gras which was subtly flavoured with ginger and pear, whilst our main course, the rack of lamb we had requested, was served with a light, summer white wine jus with some delicious dauphinoise potatoes. Dessert was a very elegant take on the flavours of Eton mess; cream was encased in meringue set beside a strawberry sorbet and fresh strawberries combined with a mint and thyme syrup. Although thunderstorms were on the forecast, the sun continued to shine for us and we ate al fresco, enjoying a glass of champagne followed by a bottle of a Gevrey-Chambertin, which perfectly complemented the lamb – how perfect England can be when the sun shines!…Of course, in a very British way, the weather didn’t last for us and the following day the rain forced us inside to dine – not a bad thing in any case considering that the interior of Foxhill is so beautifully designed. The next two days we continued to be spoilt eating an array of dishes – all executed to a very high standard. As starters we enjoyed a light and refreshing crab salad with fennel, also mackerel with a wasabi cream and, on another occasion, an incredible prawn cocktail – I must admit that it was probably one of, if not the best, that I have eaten – with a mixture of shrimps, prawns and crayfish in a light marie rose sauce. As main courses, Nick had his pre-ordered dover sole simply grilled, but to perfection, whilst I enjoyed a sea bass with a tomato butter sauce, it’s vibrant colours along with fresh broad beans was a feast for the eyes and my taste buds confirmed that the flavours were just as vibrant. The following evening I chose pork loin with a confit of pork shoulder with black pudding (incredible!) served with a light apple jus whilst Nick chose a ribeye steak. Desserts included a chocolate fondant with white chocolate ‘aero’, a sticky toffee pudding, a cheesecake with apple and pecan nuts and a memorable peanut parfait.
It wasn’t difficult to relax into the ‘Foxhill” lifestyle, apart from having to wear our masks around the indoor public corridors, we were happy to see that little had changed since our last visit. Foxhill Manor is by no means cheap, however the price is all-inclusive, including champagne 24-7(!). Rooms are spectacular, each one is beautifully designed, huge and well appointed (we stayed in Chestnut). It’s not surprising that our days at Foxhill revolved around food and drink, so much so that we really did very little other than enjoy relaxing in our beautiful surroundings, we had originally planned to take a few walks but initially with the overbearing heat from the surprise heatwave it seemed silly to push ourselves and even when the weather turned to the normal damp English weather to which we’re accustomed, we chose to relax in our surroundings, after all, once you’re at Foxhill, why on earth would you want to leave?!…
After our three nights at Foxhill we were rather sad to be leaving, and a little apprehensive about how Thyme would compare. Once again our main attraction to Thyme was its reputation for its food. Their chef, Charlie Hibbert, is well respected and highly regarded for his farm-based and plant-inspired menu at the Ox Barn, Thyme’s main restaurant. Thyme describes itself as ‘a village within a village’, situated on the Southrop Estate they have a gastro pub, a cocktail bar named rather cleverly ‘Baa’(!), a shop, pool, spa, the aforementioned Ox Barn restaurant, and of course the hotel; all are surrounded by the greenery of its working farm.
Our Experience and the Food:
I must say that entering Thyme’s grounds, even in the summer drizzle was quite spectacular, the estate drive takes you from the picturesque village of Southrop through their fields of black sheep to their ‘village’ of stylishly renovated farm buildings. We were greeted by friendly staff and were initially very impressed as we were shown around the property – all beautifully designed with modern rustic flare. However, when we entered our room we were rather underwhelmed. We had been expecting that the room, in comparison to our Foxhill palatial suite, would be a simpler affair, but we were rather taken aback by how small and tired looking it was. There was no wardrobe, just a small rail in a cubby hole with four coat hangers, the bathroom was tiny and the rug was water stained (we were soon to discover why..). We were willing to ignore these ‘niggles’, but our disappointment was to turn to frustration when using the shower before dinner we discovered that it caused the bathroom to seriously flood – probably the reason for those water stains on the rug! On the way to dinner we mentioned to the hotel reception the problem and hoped they could remedy it – or at least remove the sopping wet towels we had used to mop up the floor. Returning to our room after dinner we were bemused to find that the wet towels were still on the floor; given that the price of the room was not that much cheaper than Foxhill Manor (particularly when you add on the extra charges for breakfast and dinner), we decided to cut our losses and check out early the next day! Certainly, our bedroom needed to be updated, but you get the feeling that staying guests are not Thyme’s priority. The problem is, that it seems to be a restaurant and a cookery school with rooms rather than vice versa, and thus you feel like you’re staying in a B&B on a stunning estate, but paying rates of a luxury hotel.
Our dining experience at Thyme was fortunately more positive. The Ox Barn is an impressive room with an incredible high, beamed ceiling. The atmosphere is energetic, the restaurant takes bookings from non-staying guests and it is obviously a popular local venue. I must admit that I was rather pleased that Covid restricted the number of guests, as I feel that it might have been a little too noisy under normal circumstances. The food was executed to a high standard – a fennel, blue cheese & apple salad and a porchetta tonnato, then as main courses, hogget (aged lamb) pea, anchovy & parsley sauce and roast pork with borlotti beans & sauce vierge, finally for dessert, gooseberry ice cream and an almond tart. However despite the presentation and the individual ingredients being impressive, the flavours were rather underwhelming, both Nick and I both agreed that there was ‘something’ missing, and that our lunch experience earlier that day at the ‘Wild Rabbit’ (review below) was much better. Perhaps if our dinner hadn’t been preceded by the ‘shame of the shower’ we would have been more forgiving – the flavours of food, in my opinion, are generally linked to an overall experience.
So our escape to ‘foodie heaven’ was generally a success, undoubtedly I would recommend Foxhill Manor, although to eat there you go have to stay there – so it would be an expensive meal! You can, however, dine as a non-staying guest, at their sister hotel, The Dormy House; we had our first lunch here, and both enjoyed a beautiful piece of salmon; I would definitely dine there again. Obviously, I cannot recommend a stay at Thyme Hotel on the back of our experience – I’m truly gutted to say this, as the staff were genuinely welcoming and the grounds stunning. But if I was passing by again, I would definitely give its Ox Barn restaurant a second chance, it would be a good lunch option.
Situated in Kingham, Oxfordshire and owned by the Daylesford Estate, this restaurant was one of the highlights of our Cotswold food adventure. Kingham is a picturesque Cotswold village, which unlike some of the more well known villages in the neighbouring area is not as touristy so retains its original charm. The Wild Rabbit has a lovely, welcoming dining room with an open kitchen, we were made to feel very much at home by its friendly and professional staff, the service was extremely good and most importantly the food was first class and well presented. Unfortunately, on the day that we lunched, we had had a huge breakfast at Foxhill Manor(!), so we didn’t order starters but looking around the dining room I noticed that they all looked delicious. We did however enjoy the complimentary house crudité and bread; I was particularly impressed that they had a homemade gluten free option for me, these days it is still unusual for even the top restaurants to serve quality, homemade gluten free bread – something I find frustrating and disappointing seeing as it is not difficult to produce. For our main courses we ordered venison wellington and turbot with braised lettuce & peas, both were absolutely delicious – five star! We shared a dessert, a poached white peach with raspberries & vanilla cream, fresh and fragrant – a real joy.
I would without doubt recommend The Wild Rabbit. We have since discovered that the village of Kingham has a station which has direct links to London Paddington, so in fact it is quite possible to take a day trip to Kingham, have a country walk and finish off with a late lunch at the Wild Rabbit before returning home on the train – we will be browsing the train timetables soon!…