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Eating out with Bertie

Yalbury Cottage Lower Bockhampton Dorchester DT2 8PZ 01305 262382

Yalbury Cottage, Lower Bockhampton, Dorchester DT2 8PZ

Mr and Mrs Freddie have once again abandoned our green and pleasant land: a light dusting of snow was enough to persuade them to flee to warmer climes (well, three inches is a light dusting to us country folk). The advantage of this for Mrs Bertie and me was that it opened the way for us to sample the fare of a hotel in surroundings so rural that we felt quite at home.

Yalbury Cottage is a couple of miles east of Dorchester in the tiny hamlet of Lower Bockhampton, where eight-year-old Thomas Hardy went to school – indeed, his birthplace in Higher Bockhampton is a short walk away (‘Yalbury’ was later to become his equivalent for ‘Yellowham’). The cottage itself is more than three hundred years old and was once the home of the local shepherd and the keeper of the water meadows. The restaurant is in the oldest part of the cottage and is full of character – stone walls, low oak-beamed ceilings and inglenook fireplaces.

What immediately strikes you is that everything here is small-scale – actually, if you’re above medium height and are not careful, what immediately strikes you might well be one of the low oak beams. But the great advantage of this small scale is the intimacy which comes with it – you feel as if you are a personal guest from the moment your hostess, Ariane, greets you. She is one of those people who can’t help showing that she enjoys what she does: she and her husband Jamie moved to this rural spot after years in the hotel business, going from one part of the world to another – Cairo, the Maldives, Riyadh, Budapest – before deciding to settle down with their children in a quiet part of a quiet county.

Ariane ushered us into the lounge, where we were given home-made canapés with our drinks while we made our choices. We were a little surprised by the small number of items on the menu until we realised that this was an inevitable consequence of the smallness of the operation: the maximum number in the restaurant is twenty, and since Jamie only deals with fresh and seasonal ingredients a vast menu would be enormously wasteful. Besides, there was enough variety on this one to satisfy tastes from the most carnivorous to the most vegetarian. Mrs Bertie, a lover of all things Italian (she had swooned in the lounge when the dulcet tones of Andrea Bocelli washed over us – what I had assumed to be her snuggling cosily up to me was simply an attempt to get closer to the loudspeaker), chose to start with the home-made spinach gnocchi. This came with a sauce made from Windswept Cow blue cheese (made in Purbeck). ‘Andrea would love it,’ was her comment: praise indeed. I opted for wild mushrooms pan fried with garlic on brioche, which was served with a soft poached duck egg. The mushrooms actually tasted wonderfully of mushrooms – there were blewits, chanterelles, pleurottes and pom poms, all with subtly different tastes.

Mrs Bertie decided to be adventurous for her main course and went for the organic pearled spelt. Spelt is a variety of wheat which used to be a staple in Europe until medieval times but has had a revival as a health food; unlike some other health foods, it actually tastes good as well, as Mrs Bertie discovered. Country girl that she is, she loves her vegetables and was delighted with the selection that accompanied the spelt: they were all seasonal and came from an organic farm in Wyke Regis – Jamie is always mindful of keeping food miles down – and, moreover, tasted wonderful. ‘Not always the case with organically grown veg, you know,’ Mrs Bertie pointed out.

I couldn’t resist the Portland Bill Dover sole, especially after I discovered that the fish man calls in every evening with the day’s catch and that Jamie adapts his menu to whatever is available. This version came with truffle crushed potato, leek fondue, wilted Dorset baby spinach and a lemon butter sauce. Mrs Bertie demanded to sample the spinach. ‘There’s an art to cooking spinach,’ she explained, ‘and this is exactly right.’ As far as I was concerned, every mouthful was exactly right.

And so to dessert: only four items on the menu and yet we were spoilt for choice. I have never known Mrs Bertie, who would quite happily have desserts instead of the starter and main course, take so long to choose. Eventually she asked for the home-made lemon tart of citrus curd and crisp honeycomb. (I suspect lemons remind her of Italy and Andrea.) I opted for an old favourite, rum baba, although the Yalbury version came with white wine poached pears, hot chocolate ganache and white chocolate ice cream, which definitely gave a new lease of life to a familiar friend.

The cheese board contained only Dorset-made varieties; tempting as it looked, we couldn’t manage it – we didn’t even have room for the post-prandial coffee. This was a surprise, because the portions were not huge. ‘It just goes to show that if the food is good, your appetite will be satisfied,’ said Mrs Bertie.

There is a set price of £34 for dinner, which includes canapés, three courses, cheese and coffee – well worth it for the home-madeness of everything, even down to the bread rolls. We may well wish to consign the cliché ‘small is beautiful’ to the dustbin of history (along with clichés like ‘consign to the dustbin of history’) but it has never been more appropriate than at Yalbury Cottage.

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