A quick glance at my Formex watch confirms it's 8.15 in the morning as I approach the Beaumont Hotel in Mayfair, London. Six new Bentley Continental GT's shimmer in the morning sun lined up in a perfect row on the pavement. It's going to be a pretty cool two days driving these over the Cotswolds on this extraordinary Bentley gastronomic luxury tour.
After a quick breakfast and catch up with old friends I slide into the oh so comfortable driving seat of the dark blue Bentley Continental GT and set off through the construction site that is central London nowadays. My driving companion is Lucy, charming, erudite, well informed and great company. In fact, we chat so much I miss our first turn off on the A road, but the Bentley makes short work of this minor delay and we arrive at the Cotswolds Distillery in a timely fashion.
Our first stop on the tour, this thriving distillery produces its own Cotswold Single Malt Whisky, a Cotswold Dry Gin and numerous other liquors including its own Cotswold Absinthe. Be reassured our tasting did include a spittoon (lovely word) so we remained sober for the next drive. They use local lavender in the gin and base many of their recipes on original gin making techniques, employing traditional copper pot stills. The range and flavours were superb and I look forward to trying the whisky again in a few years when it reaches that magic six, which really is the minimum for a fine whiskey, though it showed terrific promise at three years.
Our next stop was Daylesford Organic Farm, a favourite with the Chipping Norton set for its organic produce, market, designer kitchenware and spa. The head gardener Jez showed us around Lady Bamford’s vegetable patch and flower garden, Princess Alexander of Kent Roses lined up alongside practical herbs and salads. Jez is charming and witty so the tour is fascinating and fun, in fact, I would not be surprised to see him presenting his own gardening show on television pretty soon.
Lunch is a superb summer picnic buffet laid out in the Orangery, an open-air folly of muted wood and stone, the Daylesford’s Chelsea Flower Show display from 2008, set amongst flowering bushes and ornamental sculptures. The salmon and cucumber hit the height of perfection, accompanied by various salads and side dishes all sourced from the beautiful garden. It was heavenly, the sun beat down on the ornate landscape before us with the lined-up multihued Bentleys scintillating in the background. Marvellous food, good company and a location that felt like the South of France rather than the Cotswolds.
Our next jaunt was a mere mile along the road to the Wild Rabbit, a gastropub with an impeccable garden cubby hole where we supped cordials while waiting for our next guest, Alex James from Blur, to saunter in. Alex is an unusual mixture of shy introvert and explosive extrovert, keen to chat on every subject, whilst he turns and whirls, looking up, down and sideways, constantly running his hands through his long dark hair. He is an engaging raconteur, sharing stories of excess and chaos from his days in the band. He is funny and self-aware, yes these are stories he's told before, but they get you on side. He gleefully recounts his last days of fame in Cannes partying on a free yacht with Ewan McGregor, waking up as he is forcibly dragged from the best hotel on the strip in only his shorts and t-shirt without a bean to his name. His evolution from pop star to writer, to producer of fine cheeses, is absorbing and joyful. Plus Steven Fry always said he was a good bloke, can't get a better recommendation than that.
We taste a selection of cheeses and they are quite the best I have ever eaten in England. The cheddar is salty, creamy and a savoury blend of acid and creamy milk. The blue is tangy, soft, creamy yet still milky fresh. The Sheep's cheese is just the right texture, firm, with again this strong creamy milk flavour. The Brie melts in the mouth, cream and milk oozing over the tongue. The firm Goddess cheese is subtle and tangy, made with Guernsey milk washed with Somerset cider brandy made by Alice Temperley’s father. They all convey a quintessential fresh milk taste but as a solid cheese. I have never rated English cheese compared to French, pasteurisation ruins them, but these are award winners. You don't even need bread (certainly not biscuits - fatal error biscuits) as these are best eaten straight for maximum flavour. And yes Alex James is still passionate about cheese, even after all these years of making it, as he is the first to tuck into the cheddar.
So we bid Alex a fond farewell and saunter back to the Bentleys, Lucy and I still in the dark blue, and head off for the Thyme Hotel on the Southrop Manor Estate. This Idyllic country house again reminds me of the south of France, with its barns, imposing wooden doors and beams, tastefully decorated in an Anglo-French style by the lady of the house, Caryn Hibbert. The Thyme is a haven of comfort and elegance in a rural paradise. However, horror of horrors, they also do a cooking class for which I am signed up. The head chef is Charlie Hibbert and he intends to teach me to make lemon curd and prepare a giant crab. Little does he know quite what a task this may prove in my case. My cooking skills are legendary and easily eclipsed by any slothful student with a pot noodle. I almost duck out as the bar (called The Baa) is so relaxing, convivial, well-stocked and impeccably decorated, but fortunately, guilt kicks in and I don an apron just in time, as the class provides many laughs and jollity. Charlie and his sous chef Dylan are both accomplished chefs, charming and great fun. The lesson turns from nightmare to one of the best experiences on the tour.
The Thyme’s kitchen is located in a long barn with a large fronted glass wall to one side that opens on to the vegetable garden. It looks like a chef’s dream of a kitchen, wood and metal jostle together in sublime harmony, creating a working kitchen that is also a pleasure to be in, matching aesthetics and function. We start by making the lemon curd, zesting the lemons, stirring the cream whilst the banter flows effortlessly. Charlie and Dylan make even the incompetent (me) feel completely at ease. This is great fun and we have yet to get to the giant crabs.
First you have to kill the crab, some just drop them in the pot, but the humane method is to hammer a large metal tube straight into its cranium. Once that's done you tear off the legs, making sure to break at the base of the knuckle. Then, you crack open the entire shell using both thumbs, as these crabs are just under a foot wide, and remove the bits you don't want, scooping out the soft brown and white meat into a bowl. You have to check every bit of meat three times to check for shell fragments, you really don't want to have a guest lose a tooth over dinner, and then lay out the results in a pleasing manner back in the half shell, adding lemon and parsley.
Dinner was held at the traditional village pub opposite, The Swan, also owned by the hotel, where we dined on said crab, delicious and shell-free, with fine wines in the snug room. The conversation flowed and we repaired to the exquisite Baa at the Thyme after for a little whisky tasting or two. The barman excelled in looking after us all and amongst many things we discussed the merits of gin versus whisky and the impressive kickboxing skills of one of our lady companions.
Breakfast was held in the main hall, over the long table, Viking style and we departed for Daws Hill Vineyard. This south-facing vineyard was small but had managed to produce a genuinely fine brut and a very decent sparkling cider. The current owner is the daughter of the founder who took over on her return from Ibiza just under a year ago. The distillery is small, but this boutique vineyard is producing great quality and they sell everything they produce with ease. They run it with the help of friends and the local village, everyone helping out when needed. They clearly make the picking process a friendly and entertaining affair, supplying the help with free food and wine long into the night.
My driving companion for this leg of our journey was Adam, a car expert and raconteur, and the miles flew by without a pause in conversation as we made our way onto the last stop of the tour, the Sir Charles Napier pub and garden in Oxfordshire. Our table nestled under a flowery laden pergola in the garden and lunch was excellent, a fine end to a whistle-stop luxury tour of the Cotswolds. It only remained for me to have one last drive home in the new Bentley Continental GT before waving it a fond goodbye, I could have happily crossed up to John O’Groats and down to Lands End in this ultimate of grand tourers.
See the in-depth Bentley Continental GT review in the link below.