Emma Cullen’s pick of the region’s festive menus…
For me, a visit to the Chilterns is all about rest and relaxation, and more than a bit of indulgence too. The stunning scenery that abounds here is a feast for the eyes, and there are plenty of eateries around offering ample foodie feasts too, especially at this time of year. Here are a few of my favourites.
THOMPSON@Darcy’s – St Albans
Thompson@Darcy’s is one of my go-to places for a fine dining experience. Why? Because here I find myself treated to the most exquisitely crafted food, beautiful tableware and flawless service, with none of the stuffiness of some fine dining establishments. I love the unusual setting and quirky history that the place boasts. Darcy’s is a restaurant the residents of St Albans are immensely lucky to have on their doorstep, and Michelin-starred chef Phil Thompson is a chef in whom I would happily entrust the responsibility of cooking up Christmas dinner.
The menu is something you will relish reading, but might struggle to choose from. I’m picturing starting my Christmas meal with a glass of bubbly and sampling the canapés on arrival. Our Christmas meal is, of course, always centre stage on Christmas Day, which is why we like to go somewhere a bit special. We always start the day with a walk in the countryside before heading out for dinner, so the canapés will be well-received. As you would expect from a rosette-adorned establishment, the festive menu is gleaming with seasonal ingredients, indulgent combinations and festive flavours. To start we have the choice of cannelloni of poached native lobster with roast and pickled cauliflower, roast shallot and lobster vinaigrette; clay baked baby beetroot with warm goat’s cheese mousse, compressed apple and truffle honey; poached boudin of wood pigeon and smoked bacon, salt baked celeriac, watercress and roasting jus. There’s then a middle course of Cornish white crab with crispy, red onion and coriander – scrumptious.
For the main event, my dad would no doubt opt for the roast breast of Norfolk bronze turkey, with pigs in blankets, sage stuffing and redcurrant and almond fricassee, while mum would be pleased with the vegetarian option: field mushroom, spinach and truffle pithivier with charred tender stem broccoli and roast chestnuts. I’ll be torn between the pan-roast halibut and the slow-roast rib-eye of Dedham Vale beef and its mouth-wateringly tempting herb Yorkshire pudding and red wine jus.
Dessert will be one of the most difficult decisions to make. There’s traditional homemade Christmas pudding with Brandy creme anglaise and vanilla ice cream; salt caramel and bitter chocolate tart with malt ice cream and hazelnuts or the poire Williams parfait, spiced wine poached pear and cinnamon ice cream. Of course, the selection of British cheeses is just as special, with celery sorbet, walnut bread, and homemade chutney and crackers.
Finishing up with a civilised round of tea, coffee and mince pies, I’m anticipating we’re going to need another walk this year.
It’s well worth £110 per person, although you could opt to dine on Boxing Day menu which offers a similar, slightly reduced menu for £75 per person.
The White Hart at Maulden – Maulden
Picture a thatched country pub, garnished with sparkling lights like a layer of frost; inside a roaring fire burns and as you shrug off your coat and gloves someone hands you a glass of Prosecco. This is how Christmas day at The White Hart at Maulden will begin. This is a classic country coaching inn; one with a history that dates back hundreds of years, and they really know how to do a Great British Christmas. It’s perfect for a cosy Christmas: an inviting, warm interior with little nooks and corners (great if you’re looking to spend an intimate Christmas, just you and a loved one) and the food here is pretty noteworthy stuff. With that glass of Prosecco you’ll be delivered bread and in-house churned rose-salt butter.
Just a glance at the Christmas menu and you can tell that every dish has been carefully considered, infused with the spirit and flavours of the festive season. Vibrant beetroot and dill house-cured gravadlax with blinis and lemon creme fraiche could be your first port of call or perhaps the seasonal mulled spice venison Carpaccio with salad and Old Winchester cheese. There’s also Gloucester Old Spot ham hock terrine with plum and Port chutney and bread and Portobello mushroom, roast chestnut and Wensleydale tart with pear and rocket. Don’t forget that’s just for starters.
On the main menu you’ll find duck, turkey and beef. The duck looks extremely tempting: roast Gressingham duck breast and confit leg with all the trimmings – goose fat roast potatoes, celeriac purée, baby root veg and plum and Port sauce. The vegetarian option is one that will have your mouth watering, and not a nut in sight! Goat’s cheese and cranberry ravioli with roasted beets, sage butter and seasonal panzanella salad is bound to gather fans from across the board, veggie or not. The baked salmon fillet with an almond and tarragon crust completes a well-rounded menu.
Plum and ginger add a unique twist to the Christmas pud; that’s if you can pass up iced orange chocolate parfait with gingerbread and triple-sec Chantilly cream. Tough call! It gets harder as you read on: mulled wine berry crumble with Devon clotted cream, and refreshingly sorbets for those who are just that little bit too full. With teas, coffees and mince pies in front of the fire, you’ll never want to leave.
Adam’s Brasserie at Luton Hoo Hotel – Luton Hoo, Nr. Luton
For a festive lunch or dinner in fabulous surroundings and at a pocket-friendly price, head to the stunning Luton Hoo Hotel. Believe me, you won’t be the only one to appreciate the beauty of Luton Hoo; the hotel has been used for location filming over the years, and has been graced with the presence of high-calibre celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Adam’s Brasserie features high ceilings with wooden beams and is adorned with dramatic chandeliers. Large windows flood the room with light and provide charming views over the stable courtyard. This is just the place to take my girlfriends for a Christmas gathering. It’s laid-back enough that we can exchange gifts and have a giggle over some bubbly before indulging in some fine food. The menu is an extensive homage to festive flavours and seasonal ingredients, and at only £25 per person for a three-course lunch (dinner is £32), it’s a bit of a steal. First up are starters like jasmine smoked rillette of trout, pressing of smoked chicken and slow cooked duck leg with an orange dressed salad, and roast celeriac and apple soup.
There’s also, of course, traditional roast turkey with duck-fat roast potatoes, stuffing, veg and chipolatas wrapped in pancetta. I’ve got my eye on the slow-cooked blade of beef with sweet potato purée, buttered kale and red wine jus. There’s a roast pumpkin and goat’s cheese Wellington on the menu for vegetarians and pan-seared fillet of black bream for fish lovers. Dessert promises classics like traditional Christmas pud with brandy butter and sauce, and a cheese selection to showcase the best of Britain’s cheeses. What do you say to apple and ginger cheesecake with walnut praline and vanilla ice cream, or white chocolate and raspberry panna cotta? Yes please!