11 Jun 2008

Idyllic Eating

‘When I married my husband, my dowry consisted of a labrador and an apocalyptic vision of British farming. I come from a farming background in Mississippi and had seen what happened in America. My gloomy vision was only lightened by various plans for diversifying the farm. Because I know about, and love wine, we planted a seven-acre vineyard on our south-facing slope. The vineyard has thrived’
[Lady Carla Carlisle]
I VISIED the Leaping Hare again [PREVIOUS REVIEW] yesterday afternoon. The bright restaurant overlooks pasture populated by sheep, llamas and peacocks. Slowly ripening figs clamber the exterior of the 400-year-old barn. The buttermilk interior is punctuated by primary coloured curvy paintings: animals and people and people who look like animals, covers from Country Life (for whom Lady Carla writes), a wire stag’s head and quality quilts. It all looks rather twee, but cosy rather than claustrophobic…
Carla, Lady of the estate, developed the main house’s idyllic grounds, from yew maze to edible garden, planted the vineyard and even founded a microbrewery. She describes her efforts as ‘a hotbed of defiant utopianism’.
Originally trained at Chez Panisse, California, many of Alice Waters’ organic principles shine through. A farmers market is held every Saturday and kitchen elements are sourced strictly. What might sound like ‘evangelical ingredientism’ (to again quote my friend Will) must challenge Chef, particularly when catering for Carla’s occasional ‘five mile dinners’ when ingredients come from that radius. Anyone then for Loin of Lama or Peacock Tian? I enjoyed a generous flute of traditional method Moonshine NV (made of the Auxerrois grape – curiously thought to have originated in Alsace rather than Auxerre). The bubbles were tremendous: a mini tornado rose. A convincing sparkler with notes of lemon drizzle cake, sherbet and even ice pop. It became more expressive as it warmed a little.
After salty rosemary focaccia with olive oil, I dug into my starter, a well-made, coarse-grained, ample serving of Ham Hock terrine with Fig Chutney and estate greens. Incidentally, I once tried to surrender a whole hock to a Baby Belling: ambitious. Apart from homegrown bottles, U.S. influence filters into the wine list. Excitingly, almost every bottle is available by the glass, starting just under £4 for the estate’s simple, but refreshingly drinkable, hawthorn tinged whites (I recommend the Bacchus). This ensures the concept of vine dining is attractively accessible. I chose '05 Firesteed from Oregon, a region with more cachet than cash [MORE]. This soft Pinot Noir possessed a nose of red cherry just beneath clipped privet. Cocoa dusted summer fruit brûlée lifted from the palate.
The slight sweetness in the wine mingled with my main course of Slow Roasted Pork Belly, Sausage and Crackling. Perhaps I was unwise to have ordered pork again. I certainly felt like a pig afterwards…
My companion’s poached, unbleached haddock arrived with the asparagus of the sea, Suffolk Samphire (in season until late August). It reminded me how much I adore samphire with a near frozen copita of tear salty Manzanilla.
I ordered another red by the glass, a decent '99 Santenay from Louis Jadot, which I sadly knocked over, the results filmically splayed across the white table cover. A triangle of Pine Nut Tart with Honey and Basil Ice Cream was dense and tasted of pesto. My stomach was groaning by now. Fortunately a glass of Eglantine’s '04 North Star unctuously sweet wine from Loughborough (Madeleine Angevine) provided reasonably cleansing acidity to aid digestion. Jancis Robinson MW describes this as ‘a liquid tarte tatin’. It was certainly the most convincing sweetie from these shores to pass my lips. The finish had a slightly unusual feel, almost like crushed flower stalks stirred into mead.
To be honest, everything I sampled from the kitchen, whilst tasty, lacked aesthetical finishing touches, hence no photographs.
Indeed, Lady Carla’s mantra is not, despite the Bib Gourmand, aimed towards the Michelin zenith. She harbours no desire for stars, which she fears might ‘scare off the locals’. In many ways, that is a shame. If she pulled out the stops, sourcing more extravagantly, installing serious talent in the kitchen - apparently run under contract - she could turn this into one of England's most prestigious restaurants. Defiant utopianism need not be so gently voiced…
Leaping Hare - Stanton. IP31 2DW. T. 01359 250287
My latest Southwark News article, Wines with Altitude, is ON-LINE
FURTHER LINK: Click HERE for a mesmerising Drunken History of the U.S.