Nick revisits Hambleton Hall.
The next time I venture north from King's Cross to Peterborough and then on to spend the night at Hambleton Hall in Rutland, after what I hope will be a shorter hiatus than the 11 years since we last visited there, I intend to play the following game. This game has one very simple rule: to try and spot the changes that have taken place since our last visit.
The Hall is still owned by Tim and Stefa Hart who bought it in the late 1970s when he decided to turn his back on London and a career in merchant banking. The hotel still has only 17 bedrooms, the same number as in 1980 when it opened. Aaron Patterson is still the head chef, as he has been for over 20 years.
The wine list is as impressive as it has always been – although prices have gone up considerably – and the same French sommelier, Dominique Baduel, is in charge. He and Hart have developed an easy modus operandi: Hart buys and Baduel sells.
The front entrance to the hotel is as well kept as it always has been while the views from the rear, overlooking Rutland Water and two pollarded cork trees, are exciting at any time of day: morning, noon and particularly at sunset.
The interiors, Stefa’s speciality, are as ornate as the 1980s demanded. They have no truck with the modern but everywhere is extremely comfortable. There is a fair amount of swag and chintz – no hip hotel this – but that does not appear to put anybody off either the bar area or the dining room. Certainly not Nicholas, brother of Sebastian Payne MW, pictured here, who took all his tasting notes with a fountain pen in his notebook. (The reason for our short trip to Hambleton Hall was an extended tasting of ancient Sauternes about which Jancis will be writing.)
The bedrooms are still immensely comfortable, particularly the beds, ordered by Stefa specially, but so too are the bath towels and dressing gowns, which have a thickness of cotton that is not widely available in hotels today.
On our last visit there were four Hambleton Bakeries in various locations around Hambleton in the East Midlands. Today there are six. The central bakery continues to supply the hotel with all its bread, and the bread basket on our breakfast table was the first I have ever been tempted to tip unceremoniously into my backpack for the journey home.
But it was on the road from Peterborough to Hambleton that I got an insight into how Hart has maintained his position as one of the country’s leading hoteliers as he took a phone call from Carolyn Turner, his marketing manager. Although I do not tend to make it a practice to overhear other peoples’ telephone conversations, certain details struck a chord.
When he had finished, Hart turned to me and explained that what he had been discussing was his special lunchtime offer at Hambleton from mid January to mid March next year. ‘This is a lesson I learnt from you back in the 1990s with your FT Lunch for a Fiver offer. I think it was £15 for two courses then and we won the category for three years running, if I am not mistaken. The price has gone up but we’ve run it every year since and it does make a huge difference: it keeps the staff busy and the dining room full.’
Such an approach to hotelkeeping, with one eye always on the immediate future, must have seen Hambleton Hall through some tricky periods. And being in a position to offer staff, here in as short supply as everywhere else in the UK, accommodation in the Hall’s stable block will prove to be an asset which Hart believes could be a very positive advantage for hoteliers. ‘A lot of staff left the UK and went home as a result of Brexit and COVID-19 but we are seeing many returning already to take their place’, he commented, ‘and being able to offer them somewhere to live without them having to find three months’ deposit for a flat certainly does put me in a strong position.’
This must make Patterson’s life a lot easier too as his cooking style requires a lot of staff. On a short walk as dusk fell, I could not help noticing the number of young men, all of them kitchen staff, who politely said good evening en route to the kitchen, having collected items from various different storage units. If they’re happy, it will surely be reflected in the quality of the food they prepare.
Our post-tasting lunch certainly proved this, although the 27 sweet wines we tasted beforehand – from a Ch Rieussec 1952 back to a Chateau Filhot 1919 – may have contributed to our appreciation! We began, as every wine tasting ought to end, with a small cup of soup – a few drops of an intense beef and tomato consommé holding an oxtail tortellino – before moving on to an even more impressive dish of a slice of a terrine of carrot with a spiced carrot ice cream. This is a dish I have rarely seen before but it was delicious: as pretty to look at as it was to eat. And quite inexpensive to produce, too.
The main course that was just as ingenious but barely necessary. A poached fillet of halibut with a butternut squash and sage risotto and a bouillabaisse sauce that was definitely the sum of its parts but was perhaps a little too much and little too complicated. It was, however, just the prelude to the waiting staff walking in carrying 14 dishes each containing a perfectly risen apple-crumble soufflé, a dish which seemed to put a smile on everyone’s face.
It is difficult to pigeonhole Patterson’s cooking. His roots are clearly in an era of cooking that has passed, but that cannot be held up as a criticism. He has retained his Michelin star since 1982 but is not stuck in some form of ‘classicism’. Rather he has adapted his style of cooking to what his customers are looking for and to what, I should imagine, his employers, the Harts, enjoy. But by building so successfully from the ground up he has established a definite style of his own which, combined with Hambleton’s welcome, efficiency and generosity of spirit, would make any visit worthwhile.
There is one more compelling reason to visit Hambleton. It still remains, after 41 years, the very clear vision of one couple, Tim and Stefa Hart: of what they enjoy, of what they would like to eat and drink, and of how they would like to be looked after. When they opened they were following a trend, just like Paul and Kay Henderson at Gidleigh Park, Peter Herbert at Gravetye Manor and numerous others. Today, the Harts are one of the rare couples who remain in the country-house hotel they founded. The phrase ‘a national treasure’ is grossly overused but in this case may be justifiable.
Hambleton Hall Ketton Road, Oakham, Rutland LE15 8TH; tel: +44 (0)1572 756991.
Three-course dinner (with several choices at each course) £83.
Two-course weekday lunch £38.50, three courses £48