If you were entertaining foreign guests with romantic notions about England and Englishness, then Swinton Park would be just the right kind of place to take them. With its rolling parkland, placid lakes, walled garden and ivy-clad turret it is the very epitome of a grand country house.
Nowadays Swinton is a luxury hotel, with a cookery school and spa to boot. The centrepiece of the whole operation, though, and arguably the most impressive room in the property, is the lofty dining room that is home to Samuel’s restaurant. With its ornate gilded ceiling, huge windows, heavy drapes, tall vases of lilies and mellow parquet floor, it is impressive enough during the daytime; during the evening, by candlelight, it becomes grander and more magical still.
There were three dinner menu options on offer when we visited, the ‘Market’ menu at £42 per head, the ‘Signature’ menu at £47.50 and the ‘Tasting’ menu at £58.50. We decided to go for the mid-range ‘Signature’ menu, which included coffees and petit fours. There was an extensive wine list, with prices ranging from around £20 all the way up to £400. Sticking well within double figures we chose a pleasant bottle of tannin-rich and vanilla-tinged Amarone for a little upwards of £40.
Everyone seems to be serving food on slates these days, and Samuel’s is no exception. We were each presented with a slate loaded with four colourful and very promising little canapés, the watermelon with balsamic vinegar being perhaps the most memorable.
Shortly afterwards a selection of four different kinds of bread and two varieties of butter arrived on a wooden board — a refreshing change from those restaurants where the waiter asks you to choose from a selection of breads, slaps one on your plate then disappears forever, leaving you wondering what the others were like. We were also regaled with a very toothsome complementary pre-starter consisting of a goats cheese mousse overlaid with a tangy tomato jelly and topped with pea shoots.
Starters proper were, for me, foie gras, and for Piers, loin of rabbit. To be accurate, mine was entitled ‘Pan Fried Label Rouge Foie Gras, Hibiscus and Crispy Spiced Bread’. I gather that Label Rouge is some kind of quality accreditation. As for the hibiscus I’m not sure whether it was the amber-coloured jammy stuff on which the foie gras was perched, or something to do with the red blobs artistically disposed around the plate. Suffice it to say the presentation was immaculate and the flavours intense and nicely balanced.
Piers’ loin of rabbit came in the form of three compact roundels, the meat having been wrapped, together with a dab of black pudding, in Parma ham. Carefully arranged around them, a tracery of microscopic watercress leaves and other tiny vegetable items turned the whole plate into an elegant miniature artwork.
And I use the word ‘miniature’ advisedly. I don’t think I’ve seen such small starters for a long time. That’s not a criticism, mind you. As far as I’m concerned the ideal first course should pack a weighty punch flavour-wise, but not blunt your appetite for the rest of the meal. Our two starters certainly came up trumps as far as flavour was concerned — both were quite exquisite. All I’m saying is that if you’re a sumo wrestler looking to bulk up for your next fight then you might consider eating elsewhere.
Our mains followed much the same pattern: modest quantities of sublimely tasty foodstuffs, cooked with split-second accuracy and presented with panache. My pan-seared tuna was a revelation — seldom have I eaten tuna so melting and light. It came with small cylinders of sweet potato, topped with nutty shards of foie gras. Piers’ venison — from Swinton’s own herd of deer — was, likewise, perfectly cooked, and served with, amongst other delights, crisp miniature beetroots and a Port wine reduction.
Desserts were preceded by another little amuse-bouche, a kind of thick berry jelly topped with elderflower foam. It’s the little extra touches like these that make you feel that your money has been well spent.
Piers’ dessert choice was white chocolate cheesecake presented with plums in three forms. The cheesecake itself was neither here nor there, but the three interpretations of plum — plum ice cream, a lozenge-shaped plum jelly and, in particular, a tall glass of plum sorbet-cum-compote — were bursting with the heady tastes of late summer. My to-swoon-over dark chocolate marquise was silky, sensuous and brooding, and it was partnered by a fabulous cherry jelly and some intriguing rosemary ice cream.
Out came the slates again at coffee time, this time laden with luscious petit fours. We took coffee in the marvellous powder blue and gold drawing room, with its deep squashy chairs and gilt framed family portraits.
And our conclusions? Swinton Park is certainly one of the costlier dining options in the region, but if you want an evening of unstinted luxury then it makes a splendid choice. Not just memorable food, but professional, friendly service and a knock-your-socks-off stately home ambience. A timely reminder, too, that England really isn’t such a bad old place after all.