Neil Sowerby finds perfect partners for Rupert Rowley’s exquisite cuisine
IMMEMORIAL’S a lovely word. There are many spots in the Peak District you can hang it on from the Sheepwash Bridge at Ashford to the plague village of Eyam or a medieval pile such as Haddon Hall, while up in the high places standing stones mark yet more ancient sites.
What could be better than a pre-prandial stroll watching sous chefs picking herbs and salads for the very meal?
At first glance in pale spring sunshine, canopied by horse chestnut trees, gabled Baslow Hall gives off that timeless vibe. Yet look more closely and you recognise it’s an Edwardian creation. Inside very Art and Craft Movement with every innovation of that period. A previous owner, inventor Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, installed an electric plant just after the Great War.
It became the current fine dining restaurant with rooms after Max and Susan Fischer bought it in 1988. It has held a Michelin star for nearly a quarter of a century, first under Max himself and since 2003 with head chef Rupert Rowley at the helm – Sheffield trained with a subsequent cv that includes Raymond Blanc, John Burton Race and Gordon Ramsay.
So far so very country house (except it is rare a mega-talented chef should stay so long). On a visit three years ago Observer critic Jay Rayner, a fan of Rowley’s food, confessed that “outbreaks of floral and chintz made me mutter about being buried alive in Laura Ashley’s coffin.”
Harsh, but there is a hushed, time warp feel to the main building. We were staying in one of the outlying Garden Rooms in their own courtyard – recently upgraded and discreetly luxurious. Across the way chef Rupert has his own bespoke new kitchen to play with complete with a chef’s table counter, for those curious to witness Michelin sorcery close-up.
Our visit was to witness a further contemporary twist to the Fischer’s template – pet project of Neil Fischer, a drinks industry specialist, who has joined his parents in running the Hall (they also run Rowley’s Village Pub in Baslow, where Max was helping out in the kitchen while we were at the Hall; a staffing emergency meant Susan was manning reception).
The Wine Room is a striking grape-fed cuckoo in the Fischer’s nest. Once The Study, a private dining room in keeping with the rest of the 11-room hotel, it has been transformed with blue teal Georgian panelling and a temperature controlled ‘wine wall’. Its mission is informal wine education.
We got the flavour of this matching Fischer’s spring dinner menu with wines from their acclaimed list under the tutelage of Debbie Ault from the Notts Derby Wine School.
A minerally Italian white Pecorino accompanied Yorkshire Fettle cheese and wild garlic; a mega-floral Alsace Gewurztraminer from Roly Gassman was pitch perfect with foie gras; so too a Cheverny, a lesser known Loire Sauvignon (with a good splash of Chardonnay) that partnered Devon crab tempura with yuzu and dill. And so it continued, climaxing in the best Derbyshire lamb I’ve ever tasted. The whole experience completed by a playful ‘post-dessert’ tray of pina colada magnums (no wine match).
Part of the secret behind Rupert Rowley’s phenomenal cooking is the sourcing of fresh produce. Max has his own farm, supplying both restaurant and pub, while the kitchen garden is the centrepiece of five acres of a classic walled garden. What could be better than a pre-prandial stroll watching sous chefs picking herbs and salads for the very meal?
It’s not just about edible plants. The high sandstone wales encase traditional cottage garden borders, clipped yea and box edges plus an arboretum, ponds and their own bee hives.
Perhaps the arrival of the Wine Room is a harbinger of big changes at Fisher’s in the future. It is a difficult balancing act. You don’t want to alienate the returning customers who relish the traditional trappings but then the Garden Rooms seem a more appropriate preparation for the very contemporary food in the main house.
Whatever, this is a wonderfully well-organised base to explore one of the UK’s most beguiling landscapes – and all just an hour and a half from Manchester (and not much further from Liverpool or Leeds).
Here are three favourite destinations…
Chatsworth House: 30 stately rooms, internationally renowned art collection, range of shops in The Stables and The Orangery; for youngsters, The Farmyard and Adventure Playground. Book in advance and park for free. Full details, including special events throughout the year, and admission charges, visit www.chatsworth.org
Haddon Hall: Homely in comparison with Chatsworth, it was described by Simon Jenkins in England’s 1,000 Best Houses as “the most perfect house to survive from the Middle Ages”. A mile south of Bakewell, this grey, fortified manor house sits among woods overlooking the River Wye. For 200 years until 1921 it lay empty like some castle in a fairy tale until the Duke and Duchess of Rutland resumed residence. A must-see. Full details including admission charges, visit http://www.haddonhall.co.uk
Ashford-in the Water:
The duck-haunted Sheepwash Bridge at Ashford in Water is one of the Peak District’s great waterside settings. The origin of the name? This packhorse crossing has an attached stone sheepwash: lambs were placed in the pen on one side of the river and the ewes swam across the river to get to them, while being pushed underwater by the shepherds to clean the fleece before shearing. Willows overhanging the Derwent, it’s a tranquil spot despite the proximity of the A6 Buxton-Bakewell road. The 13th century parish church was mostly rebuilt in around 1870 but preserves examples of maiden's garlands, made to mark the deaths of virgins in the village until 1801.
Fischer’s Baslow Hall, Calver Rd, Baslow, Bakewell DE45 1RR. 01246 583259.
Room Rates start from £260 for B&B. Sunday Stay and Save: Enjoy £110 off B&B rates when joining Fischer's for dinner on Sunday. May Stay and Save: Enjoy £110 off B&B rates when joining Fischer's for dinner – selected dates in May. From £150 per night.
For more about upcoming Wine Room events visit this link. The next in the series of Meet the Maker dinners is on Wednesday, July 4, when the guest producer is Champagne house Maison Gardet, which combines 21st century technology with the tradition inspired by the founder, to produce bubbly of outstanding quality. Alongside such events check out the regular series of wine encounters called Channel Your Inner Sommelier.