The long avenue up to Babington House was sprinkled with drifts of snowdrops, I thought, it’s quite true Babington House spoils you for anywhere else. This special place is a country house hotel near Frome in Somerset - not all frills and flounces but simple, sophisticated and unfussy. From the moment of arrival one feels kind of easy, comfy and unhurried. This was my second visit, this time I was back as “guest chef” on the invitation of the manager Justin Greene, formerly of Browne’s Townhouse and Brasserie on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, and the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. He has been at Babington House for almost a year now - he loves his job and has introduced several new concepts since his arrival, including the guest chef programme – I felt very chuffed to follow in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver and other fancy celebs Babingon House and its sister hotel, Soho House in London are the brainchild of Nick Jones. Nick is incredibly engaging with great sense of fun and a brilliant feel for lifestyle. His hotels are like fantasy homes but with all the modern ‘must have’ trimmings. They appeal hugely to the young arty creative set who adore the unstuffy atmosphere where they can kick off their Jimmy Choo’s and slip into wellies.They revel in being able to detox and have an all day treatment in the Cowshed, or one can breakfast at four in the afternoon or have Champagne and Caviar or a Babington Beefburger on a floury bap, maybe a duck shepherds pie. They can also bring along the kids (not an option in many posh country house hotels), and be sure that they’ll be able to relax because the kids will have raced off to the Little House where they are looked after by trained and fun nannies. There’s childrens’ tea every day, the sort of food kids love with lots of chips and sausages, pasta with tomato sauce and great pizza from the wood burning oven. For the older ones, there are ponies, goats and a pot bellied pig, lots of duck and tame water hens. If it rains there’s Scalextric, a train set, videos and lots of computer games. Last time we visited, the proportion of kids to grown- ups seemed to have tipped the balance, not surprising considering the temptations. Nowadays the proportion of kids to grown ups is carefully managed and there’s a child free hush in the panelled library. In the corner of the room a humidifer hums as it keeps the Montecristos in optimium nick and the snooker table confounds expectations – it’s covered in red baize. It’s that kind of place. Several sitting rooms and bars, stylish and comfy contemporary furniture easy with the past. Home from home for the vodka and vitamin crowd who want to live life to the full. One sitting room can be converted into an edit suite to suit any production and doubles as a private dining room or meeting room. The dining room can accommodate anything from a grand ball to a board meeting. The breakfast room with its wood-burning oven opens out onto a terrace for barbecues overlooking the lake. The Georgian house is surrounded by 17 acres of grounds- a floodlit hard tennis court for midnight volleys and four grass courts for Wimbledon hopefuls. There’s even a pitch for football and cricket, less sporty types with a lower boredom threshold like me, can reveal their primitive streak on the croquet lawn. The bedrooms are simple with polished floors and contemporary furniture, state of the art tellies and heaped goose-down pillows, superabundant warm towels, big bars of soap and a heady selection of oils and lotions,great big roll top baths for sociable soaking. Shower heads the size of soup plates made me think of the daily irritation of the dribbling shower at home. The active set spend most of their time in the ‘Cowshed’ – so named because in a former time it was just that. Now, however it’s a beautifully converted space devoted to mind and body. So if you really want to feel that you deserve your dinner, go to the gym or have a swim through steam misting the air over two graphite pools or you might want to learn self defence, yoga or baby massage. If this all gets too much, step into the Babington House cinema with a love bomb- herbal tea or fresh organic orange juice- better still let them pummel scented oils into every pore. Since our last visit a Mongolian yurt and a tepee have been built near the lake and you can now choose from a selection of massages for total mind and body rejuvenation – just what I needed on this occasion, but sadly I was there to cook a dinner and not merely to be pampered. Barnaby Jones and his team in the kitchen gave me a warm welcome, we had lots of fun and got a terrific response to the Spring dinner. We started the evening with drinks in the playroom where we met the guests. The meal was served family style, everyone mingled and sat at large tables, 12, 10 14’s … The food was served on large platters so people shared and helped themselves. This immediately engendered an atmosphere and a spirit of conviviality. Within a short time complete strangers were chatting amicably and were bosom pals by the end of the evening. Many come regularly to these guest chef evenings because of the social element as well as the food. In the other dining room the regular Babington House menus were being served. ‘Small plates’, winter regulars, wood oven baked pizzas, or one could opt for a Babington choice- 3 courses to share, chefs choice changes daily. Couples who would rather not spend time making decisions could opt for a menu for 2 people to share – 3 choices of starter and main course and pudding on large white platters, a brilliant idea for both the kitchen and guests. Sadly, I had to whizz home next day but not before I’d had a delicious lunch at QV (Quartier Vert) in Bristol- a favourite restaurant of which I’ve written previously in this column. Aer Arann flies direct from Cork to Bristol daily. QV , White Ladies Rd, Bristol. Tel 0044 1179734482 Babington House, near Frome, Somerset. Tel 0044 1373812266. www.babingtonhouse.co.uk World travellers may be interested to know that Soho House New York opens in April. Soho House, 29-35 9th Avenue New York. Tel – 001 212 6279800.
Candied sweet potato soup
500g sweet potato
1 medium onion, chopped 1 clove garlic sprig of thyme 80g brown sugar 50g butter 1 pint beer ½ pint orange juice salt and pepper to taste Peel and cut the sweet potato to a large dice, sweat the onion, garlic, sweet potato and thyme in the butter for a few minutes. Add the brown sugar and increase the heat to caramelise the sweet potato and onion mixture. Once well coloured and sticky, deglaze the pan with the beer and boil to reduce. Add the orange juice and enough water to cover and gently simmer until the potato is soft. Remove the thyme and blend the soup to a fine puree. Adjust the seasoning and thickness if required with a little more water. Finish with freshly ground pepper.
Seared scallops, orange cardamom reduction
3 Large fresh scallops
Mache/ lambs lettuce 1 litre fresh orange juice 3 cardamom pods 1 orange cut to segments Place the juice and cardamom in a stainless steel pan, reduce over a medium heat until a thick syrup is formed. Place syrup in a glass jar and keep refrigerated. Clean and trim the scallops, heat a non stick pan and add a little clarified butter and oil. Heat until almost smoking and add the scallops seasoned with a little sea salt. Cook on one side until well coloured and then turn for another 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and keep in a warm place. To serve, toss a bunch of mache lettuce with 5 orange segments, olive oil, salt and pepper and a little lemon juice. Dress the salad in the centre of the plate, place the seared scallop around the salad and then drizzle the plate with the orange cardamom syrup. Finish with freshly ground pepper.
Rump of lamb, aubergine caviar, coriander yoghurt
200g trimmed lamb rumps
2 large aubergines olive oil 50ml natural yoghurt 1 tblsp chopped coriander handful of wild rocket lemon juice salt and pepper Split the aubergines length ways and score the flesh, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with olive oil. Chargrill on both sides to give a smoky flavour then sandwich the two sides back together, wrap in foil and roast in a hot oven until soft. Open the parcel and scrap out the pulp with a spoon. Place in a clean pan and cook to reduce, adjust the seasoning and add a little olive oil. Season the lamb rumps, sear in a hot pan and then roast in a medium hot oven for 10 to15 minutes. Remove from the heat and keep warm. Mix the yoghurt with a little lemon juice, salt and the chopped coriander. Place the warmed aubergine caviar on the plate, carve the lamb rump and place over the caviar. Finish the plate with a spoon of the yoghurt dressing around the plate, ground black pepper and a few rocket leaves.