Eating Out with Freddie
Fernhill Hotel, Charmouth, Bridport DT6 6BX, 01297 560492
Published in September ’08
In a crowded market, quality on its own is sometimes not enough, so Fernhill Hotel has a priceless asset in its position and in the views it commands over some of West Dorset’s most stunning countryside. In one direction you look across the Char Valley to the sea; turn through ninety degrees and the view is up through the gap between the distinctive shapes of Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon Hill. (How is it that Pilsdon always looks the higher, even though the Ordnance Survey assures us that Lewesdon beats it by a few feet?). You can understand why Rob and Jo Illingworth were drawn to this beautiful spot when they took over Fernhill fifteen months ago.
For both of them it was a step in the dark but, despite a lack of experience in running a hotel or restaurant, they are well-qualified to make a success of their own business. Rob was a senior buyer with Tesco, while Jo held an equally high-powered position in the marketing department of Dixons. As Jo points out, ‘Both our careers have involved a lot of travel, so we had a good idea of what we like to find when we eat out or stay in a hotel.’
The previous owners had undertaken a lot of restoration, but the Illingworths added their own touches. One thing they took over with the hotel was the holistic therapy centre called The Cabin, where treatments range from Indian head massage to reiki and the Bowen technique. This was of special interest to Jo, who had found time in her busy life to become a qualified Shiatsu therapist. They also took over the ten letting rooms and quickly realised that as they were double rooms and the restaurant has forty covers, there was a need to attract local diners.
The décor of the thriving bar is light and modern, with some attractive art, provided by local artists, on the walls for when you can drag yourself away from the view. The art is for sale, which always strikes me as sensible because everyone benefits: the artist, the restaurant and the dinerguest. The dining room is something of a contrast, its high ceiling making it more elegant then intimate, but it is very comfortable. A touch which we liked inordinately is that the napkins are in rings – we couldn’t think of anywhere else that does this.
From the seven starters, Mrs Freddie chose the chicken liver pâté. Her description of it as ‘smooth but with texture’ flummoxed me a bit until she allowed me a small mouthful and I had to say that I saw what she meant. The flavour was good without being too strong and she was loud in her praises for the accompanying toasted rye bread. All the bread was good, in fact, even if the butter was perhaps slightly past its best.
I chose the most intriguing starter on the menu: avocado and cheese scones. Scones is exactly what they were and at first taste they didn’t seem all that special, but I found that the unusual combination of flavours really grew on me: one of those tastes which you only really appreciate a little time after you have put in a mouthful. The scones were wrapped in Denhay ham, which gave a pleasing contrast of textures. We both liked the salad with a spirited dressing that accompanied the starters.
Mrs Freddie was similarly intrigued by the idea of a melted gruyere cheese and saffron sauce on trout and with toasted almonds, which was her choice for her main course, and she confessed herself surprised when she found that it went very well. The tomato garnish also gave a pleasing contrast to the pink trout in both appearance and taste. A good beef Wellington, like a good woman (or is it man?) is hard to find, but the one I had for my main course certainly qualified. The pastry, faor from being stodgy, as it so often is, was crisp and tasty, while the pâté was not too obtrusive; sometimes it can completely dominate the meat but here it enhanced it.
‘The helpings are not for the faint-hearted,’ said Mrs Freddie and this applied also to the generous dish of al dente vegetables and to the delicious anna potatoes: a sort of cross between Dauphinoise potatoes and crisps. It meant that we only had room for a modest pudding and so regretfully passed up the carrot pudding, which we were assured dated backthe recipe for which was inspired by one from the to the 12th century; it was just one of the many interesting and innovative items on the menu. Mrs Freddie enjoyed but couldn’t do full justice to her whisky cream bavarois, quite a stiff mixture of custard, gelatine whisky and cream. I had a raspberry sorbet which tasted of real raspberries and not that strange artificial flavour which sometimes masquerades under the name.
I am always a bit uncertain about South African reds, but Mrs Freddie having recently returned from a flying visit to that country, we drank in her honour a John X Merriman (named after a 19th-century prime minister of Cape Colony) from the Simonsberg Mountain near Stellenbosch. A blend of grapes, primarily merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it was really too heavy for the trout – Mrs Freddie having unselfishly forsworn a white – but had bags of fruity flavour.
Three courses at Fernhill will come out at around £26 without drinks. That seemed to us pretty fair in view of the standard of the cooking and the surroundings – not to mention those priceless views. When we were talking to Jo Illingworth before the meal, she had said as an afterthought but with the quiet determination of someone who achieved a successful business career at a young age, ‘And we don’t like to fail.’ Judging by the evening we spent at Fernhill, failure is very unlikely.