Lavenham, where the famous Lavenham horse rugs come from, is a chocolate box village full of beamed Tudor houses, a wool pack hall, a glorious church atop a hill, and a picturesque market square. There are several tea rooms and a couple of good pubs to while away an afternoon here, but it was The Great House, built some 600 years ago by the Caustons, an important weaving family, that caught our attention.
It’s been called ‘one of the best restaurants in England’ by The Sunday Times; has won the 2016 AA Inspectors Choice Gold awards; and is a Sawday’s British 2015 Food award winner. And little wonder – the team recently celebrated 30 years of ownership by head chef-cum-cookery-writer Regis Crepy – with three decades to refine its offering.
The food and service is classically French, with little modern twists here and there, but ingredients are mostly sourced from Britain. The starters range from foie gras to sea bass coco de paimpol (with beans and butter sauce), the mains pigeon to turbot.
We arrived half an hour early but it was no trouble to the French (naturally) waiter who sat us down and offered us a glass of Crémant D’Alsace. The 14th-century interior is masked by a Georgian facade, and the dining room is painted in grey hues that complement the ancient wooden beams and vast fireplace. The dining room is separated in two so it feels private but not empty.
The well-paced meal began with foie gras, as smooth and buttery as you’d expect and partnered with friendly platefellows, pistachio, pear and warm brioche. Salmon was nicely pink and a warm reminder that fish can and should be full of flavour if well sourced. (All fish and shellfish served in the restaurant are certified sustainable.) It was served with wakame (a sea vegetable), dill, picked cucumber and mozzarella.
For main, roasted set trout with black quinoa, saffron and chervil crisps and chive mousse in a lettuce leaf and Jerusalem artichoke sauce felt classic yet contemporary. The Suffolk pork fillet with apple chutney with wasabi, grilled celery and mustard sauce was well-cooked but we would have liked a more confident kick from wasabi.
We did the English thing and had desserts before cheese. A chocolate and pistachio entrement with a chocolate cylinder, pistachio espuma and chocolate sorbet was wonderful. The cheese trolley is worth saving room for though, with an impressive selection of goats’ and ewes’ cheese, plus all the old favourites: Époisses to Camembert, Brie to Bleu D’Auvergne.
Words by Lucy Cavendish, April 2016
The bed and breakfast
You have to walk through the main restaurant to get upstairs to the five boutique rooms, which are all individually designed around the natural quirks of the building. We stayed in the Four Poster Room, overlooking the village square and its charmingly crooked buildings. There’s a small lounge area with a writing bureau, TV and a stack of magazines and books, including a recipe book by Regis, hinting at the meals to be enjoyed downstairs.
In the room proper, the four-poster dominates with plumped up pillows standing to attention like bouncy marshmallows, along with an armchair and dressing table. There’s a complimentary decanter of sherry and a Nespresso machine tucked out of the way in the wardrobe, and a compact shower room in the corner.
You can’t order food up to the rooms but it’s worth making the effort of slipping out of the fluffy white dressing gowns into proper clothes for the short journey down to the dining room. You learn how to do things properly when you’ve been serving for 30 years and so breakfast is a real lesson in continental hospitality.
As well as a table for juices and cereals, a central dining table had been transformed into a breakfast buffet. A giant jar of clearly homemade Mirabelle plum jam jostled for space with a stack of still-warm croissants, French baguettes, a fresh fruit basket (pears, apples, blood oranges and strawberries), a fruit salad bowl, boiled eggs, slice-your-own charcuterie, yogurts and an edited version of last night’s cheese board.
Hot breakfast is available, too, and a Full English appealed the most – an elegant take on the British classic, with two fried eggs, sausage, bacon and a grilled tomato arrived. Just enough to fuel us up for a day exploring the village.
Words by Laura Rowe, April 2016
The Great House
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