We’ve spend the best part of 2020 worrying about the health of our older relatives, the futures of our children, the wellbeing of our work colleagues, and the robustness of our businesses. Along the way we have have grown accustomed to the state controlling our personal freedoms in ways that would warm the cockles of any totalitarian. So on the days when we were allowed out, my attitude was that I would carpe the hell out of the diem. The problem is the world wasn’t always ready..
The Gunton Arms in Norwich is a posh pub with bedrooms, set in a thousand acre deer park not far from the coast line. The pub is owned by world renowned art dealer Ivor Braka and features a fine collection of works by Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud and the like. The food is courtesy of Braka’s business partners who ran a Michelin starred restaurant in London. The weather report wasn’t encouraging but I packed some wet weather gear and looked forward to a pampering and relaxing weekend.
Unfortunately a huge storm knocked out the local power lines. The pub had no heat, no lights and no hot food. The roof leaked. A cloud of fruit flies invaded the only warm room with a fireplace. “It’s the end of their season and the poor dears come inside for some warmth before they die. It’s normal” explained an unconcerned staff member, as the flies started dive bombing my face. We were interrupted by a flustered member of the housekeeping team who announced that our rooms were ready – “we cleaned the rooms by candlelight hun, but the floors are still dirty”. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, but she went on. “It was a really stressful day, but we got through it. You see, I only came off the anti-depressant pills last week.” The room smelled of wet dog. I dearly wished I was someplace else.
I ate cold sandwiches in front of the fireplace with a lovely lesbian couple I befriended. Much whisky was drunk. They invited me up to their bedroom to inspect a secret passage built for Lily Langtry so she could scoot into the adjoining bedroom to visit with the Prince of Wales. What’s a chap to do…
I awoke the next morning and took a cold shower. There was no hot water. The power was still out. The Gunton Arms waived charges for our bedrooms and food. They were going to charge us for the whisky but couldn’t make the credit card machine operate without electricity. I never heard from the Gunton Arms again.
Up in the Lake District I discovered that a few months of lockdown is all it takes for the UK hospitality industry to forget everything it’s learned in the last 30 years. Reservations are lost, then found and reconfirmed after you’ve been and left. Orders are forgotten. Food and drink arrive at random and get delivered to random tables, as are the bills. Staff who appear to have been hired yesterday make stuff up as they go along.
An Islay style whisky sir? Yes, many people like Monkey 47.
Ummm, that’s a German Gin I believe?
Oh! I’ll get the bartender.
Aren’t you him?
Ummm, so what brand of whisky did you want?.
Muffled northern accents spoken through N95 face masks are almost completely incomprehensible. One can’t discern facial expressions through face masks, but I learned that the widening of the eyes in response to a request, a hurried nodding of the head and a panic stricken dash to the kitchen usually indicates that your request will be forgotten.
But all is (mostly) forgiven, because these people are so damned nice, and so pleased to be back in business. Linthwaite House on Lake Windermere was delightful with the staff even fixing a flat tyre after a hard day’s cycling. Their restaurant is run by local boy made good, chef Simon Rogan. Motoring over to Rogan’s picture postcard pretty hometown of Cartmel I was lucky enough to to score reservations at his other restaurants including the Michelin starred L’enclume and the astonishingly good value casual restaurant, Rogan and Co.
We will remember 2020 not just for the hardships of lockdown, but also for those who refused to be beaten down. Due to Covid restrictions Portuguese chef Pedro Lemos had to temporarily shutter his Michelin starred restaurant in Porto. Instead of letting his staff go, he moved them to the Douro Valley several hours away and opened a wildly popular pop up restaurant. ..
The Douro valley is one of the oldest designated wine regions in the world. It is where authentic port comes from. After an occasionally heart stopping drive down winding mountain roads we arrive at the Symington Family vineyard where Lemos’s pop up restaurant is situated. The restaurant is a true labour of love. An existing barn like space had been repainted. A temporary kitchen erected, with all the equipment including the stoves shipped in from Porto. Menus are refreshed daily based on what’s available locally. Lemos has become a local hero.
The staff were beaming behind their masks, proud of what they had accomplished, keen to show us around their temporarily space. We feasted on Pork ear salad and Bisaro ham that had been aged for 24 months. A traditional goat stew, slow cooked in rice on a wood fired oven was sublime – rich, gamey and unctuous. Afterwards there was the obligatory vintage port tasting – the Symington’s bottle fabled port brands including Warre’s, Graham’s, Dow and Cockburn’s. The port tasting was all that one could expect. Heading out in the dark on poorly marked roads our car ended up buried upto it’s axles in mud. The cooks came out of the restaurant laughing, tramped through the mud and lifted the car out. They made sure we had enough wine for the journey back and bade us farewell.
My wish for 2021 is that we will all have more adventures. Travel is a privilege. I shall never again take it for granted, but shall use every opportunity to see the world, its people and the beauty they create. I hope that you will spend the next few days in the company of your chosen bubble, with good food and a bellyful of wine. Merry Christmas!