What, I wonder, is there left to say about a place that has received so many plaudits in recent times. The praise for the splendid castle which is Swinton Park Hotel in Masham is lavish. There is barely an award, regionally and nationally, they and Samuel’s, the three AA rosette fine-dining restaurant at the hotel, hasn’t scooped up, including restaurant of the year last week at Welcome to Yorkshire’s White Rose awards.
It is worth visiting Swinton for the drive in, alone. The splendour of the castle sitting perfectly in its landscape, the free-roaming deer, magnificent trees and manicured grass, gets me every time. It is just so, so British.
The car park for the hotel is set a short walk away from the main entrance and I do appreciate a car park in front of the hotel would not work but can be annoying when, like on my visit, it is raining and I have to totter in my best heels. If there is valet parking, no one mentioned it.
Escorted by the doorman, I continued to totter down the long, carpeted hallway toward the Georgian drawing room where we were handed over to another member of staff who seats us. Another quickly arrives to welcome us and offers menus and requests for drinks, then shortly after, someone else with a plate of canapés which we respectfully enjoy surrounded by the Downton-esque grandeur of colossal oil paintings (presumably family ancestors), fine rugs and brocades.
Chef Simon Crannage leads the brigade in the kitchen. He has been considered one of the finest chefs in Yorkshire just now, which is probably just as well given the palette of ingredients he has to hand at Swinton. The 20,000-acre estate boasts game, fish and an abundance of fruits, herbs and vegetables in, what is reputably, the largest hotel kitchen garden in the UK. What chef wouldn’t like all of that to play with? Added to this, Simon has scoured Yorkshire for the best suppliers and embraced seasonal cooking at its core and all is strongly reflected in his menus.
At dinner there are three to choose from; a seven-course signature tasting menu (£60 plus £28.50 for sommelier pairings); Samuel’s classic with three courses on offer (£52); garden produce menu, again three courses but with less choice (also £52). The latter two are interchangeable, which send me into a spin, not for a long time have I wanted practically everything on offer. There is a comfortable wine list devoid of eye-wateringly expensive bottles, instead there’s plenty of old-world familiar names and the odd three-figure price tag for those wishing to impress.
Drinks finished, off we set again, this time to the dining room where a hushed reverence greeted us. This was an alarmingly long room to walk through in high heels on a wooden floor with no music or loud conversation to soak up the clatter. As expected with fine-dining, the amuse bouche was a mushroom velouté and a tarragon foam (I didn’t realise foams are still doing the rounds…). Quickly on its heels came my starter plate of beetroot and blackberry, and across the table, a slow-cooked Greedy Little Pig ham with butterbean purée, and piccalilli-spiced vegetables.
Simon Crannage is yet another chef to eschew the white plate. My starter was served in a dark, moody, stoneware bowl, which perfectly cupped the assorted textures of a feather-light mousse, shards of beetroot crisps tiny, tiny beetroots, purée and sharp-flavoured pickled blackberries (a first for me). I was giddy with delight. The Greedy Little Pig ham – greedy little pigs are dry cured bacon, fresh sausages and hams from a farm near Holmfirth – fell into chunky threads of tender, salty meat and came dressed with popcorn shaped crackling. A cracking dish I was informed.
Having stuck closely to the garden produce menu I went from dark earthy to the lighter textures of leek and potato. This dish fared less well for me as there was simply no wow. Equally, there was nothing wrong with it – soft potato, baby leeks and crispy leek on top – but I couldn’t help thinking that this dish has no protein and yet costs the same as one with a slab of meat or fish. I expected more for my money.
Bang for buck a-plenty with the roast loin of estate venison, grapes (good choice) crispy quinoa and squeaky, fresh garden kale bathed in a generous wash of game sauce. There were smiles in abundance for the flawless cooking and expert balance of tastes and textures.
Desserts did not disappoint. Meltingly soft blackcurrant and coconut financiers with a spiky blackcurrant sorbet was only bettered by the Granny Smith concoction of an apple mouse, crisp, and a face-sucking lemon sorbet. Two great desserts to both sweeten the taste buds and cleanse the palette at the same time. Very clever.
Service throughout dinner was as clean and sharp as the Granny Smith dessert, but with an added smile. And, it is the smile which moved this meal from a stiff, hushed-up, bow to gastronomy, prim and properness, through to a thoroughly pleasing, dinner, as staff chatted with guests and the atmosphere lightened.
There were unexpected twists, turns, textures and tantalising tastes from food so fresh, I swear some of it was still growing. Plaudits? Every one is, I am now certain, very well deserved.
Swinton Park, Masham, Ripon, North Yorkshire HG4 4JH. 01765 680900, www.swintonpark.com