Monday, 24 November 2014

Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham

Cheltenham, on the western edge of the Cotswolds, is full of historic Georgian buildings which make it an interesting place to visit if you are readily bored by the now characterless towns that have had their hearts ripped out in the interest of modernisation.  Although it has all the major chain stores there are still very many smaller, independent shops which help to make the centre busy and vibrant.  There are, however, plenty of opportunities to escape the throng of shoppers by relaxing in its parks and green spaces which are close to hand and beautifully maintained.  With so many positive attributes, it is not surprising to find that there are also numerous cafes, bistros and restaurants – great news if, like me, you prefer your relaxation to revolve around food and drink.
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One street that incorporates all of the above elements is The Promenade, a wide tree-lined boulevard.  We made our way to the top end of it, walking past the splendid Town Hall with its fountains, to reach Brasserie Blanc where we had booked a table for a Saturday lunch.  Set in a delightful Georgian townhouse, it has very recently been completely refurbished and, judging by the number of diners there, has retained its loyal clientele.
Cheltenham (4)   copyright
Any culinary venture that has Raymond Blanc’s name attached to it is bound to be a good choice and Brasserie Blanc didn’t disappoint whether in its understated interior design, the friendliness and efficiency of the staff and, most important of all, the quality of the food.
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The huge arched windows and high ceilings give a feeling of space and natural light, both of which prevent the L-shaped marble bar, which runs almost the full length of the building, being too dominant.  It is visually impressive and imparts a delightfully informal atmosphere to the dining area.
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Our Italian waitress, Chiara, who was both charming and efficient, guided us through an extensive menu.  For the starter my partner selected the cheese soufflé with a rich cheese sauce which came with the most wonderful, crispy outer crust.  I went for the salt beef salad, chosen to test the chef’s expertise for, having a Jewish grandmother, I consider myself to be rather an expert when it comes to salt beef.  It didn’t disappoint, the combination of flavours being both subtle and mouth-watering.
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For our mains, I chose the slow-braised Scottish venison casserole.  I was impressed when Chiara advised me that it was both quite gamey and rich which wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste but was just perfect for me.  My partner had scallops with poached, smoked bacon.  In the interest of research, I insisted upon tasting and it was beautifully soft and tender.  Puddings also didn’t disappoint.  My pears with salted caramel would be worth a special trip to Cheltenham just for those and my partner’s meringues were just as they should be, soft and chewy.
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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is one of twenty mostly situated in London or the south of England.  This does, for me, create rather a problem: do I return to Cheltenham or do I try some of the other locations?  One thing is certain, I will definitely be returning!
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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is located at The Promenade, Cheltenham GL50 1NN
All photographs of Brasserie Blanc are taken from their website.  More information including booking details can be found here



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Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Scottish Pineapple


The statement “I have been living in a Pineapple” may give cause for surprise but is, in fact, quite true for I have just returned from a brief trip to Scotland.  To stay in a building that puts a smile on your face whenever you catch a glimpse of it ought to be on everyone’s ‘to do’ list – if it is, The Pineapple is the place to go. 

Originally part of the Dunsmore Estate, it was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1974 and leased to the Landmark Trust who undertook its restoration.  Neglected for very many years, the Pineapple proved to be in remarkably good condition for every ‘leaf’ was designed to prevent water collecting within it and damaging the stonework.  The remainder of the property was very unstable and derelict.
When the two walled gardens were enclosed at Dunsmore in the mid 1700’s there was no ‘big house’ attached.  They were purely used for producing a supply of fruit, vegetables and flowers to be sent to the Earl of Dunmore’s home in Argyll. It was some years later (it is thought) that the Pineapple was added as a folly and summerhouse, probably after the Earl’s return from Virginia and the Bahamas where he was Governor.
Why a pineapple?  In the eighteenth century, pineapples were a rare luxury that had become associated with wealth and hospitality.  They began to appear on pillars, railings and weather vanes and, indoors on fabrics and wall coverings.  The building of The Pineapple was, perhaps, the grandest of all grand gestures. 
 Although the building is of such high quality in both its materials, cratsmanship and design it was barely recorded in contemporary writing and its designer remains unknown.  One possible reason for this is that it may have been just a little too ‘over the top’ even for flamboyant Georgian taste.  The doorway of the undercroft is a very accurate timber carving of Ionic pillars beyond which stone steps lead to the raised northern lawn.  From this lawn there is level access to the summerhouse.

Either side of the Pineapple are two small cottages, formerly gardener’s bothys.  These have been fully restored by the Landmark Trust to create holiday accomodation with living room and kitchen in one and bedrooms in the other.  The north garden and the Pineapple room are for the private use of guests, the south lawn and gardens are open to the public.

To be able to grow pineapples required specialist knowledge and skills as well as additional warmth.  Glasshouses flanked the south wall and were heated by the use of specially constructed hollow walls.  At the foot of these, fires were lit and flues within the wall drew the heat upwards, warming the brickwork.  The four decorative urns to either side of the Pineapple conceal chimneys and because of there similarity to those at Casino Marino in Dublin (to read about this extraordinary building click here), it has been suggested that the designer could be Sir William Chambers although there is no documented evidence to suggest this.   At intervals on the southern side of the walls I found sliding stones which could be removed presumably to control the temperature by allowing the heat to escape.



 






























 
In 1820 William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery in London, designed a house in the Tudor Gothick style.  Dunsmore Park’s glory was, however, short-lived for by 1911 the family had left although it remained occupied until 1964 after which it was abandoned.  It is now a ruin visible across the fields from the Pineapple.  Another ruin, now very unstable, and also visible from the Pineapple, is the Elphinstone Tower.  Of earlier origin, built about 1510, it became the family vault of the Dunmore family in 1836 with a church built alongsidea few years later.  This was demolished in the 1960’s.  Their fascinating stories will be subjects of this blog in due course.

With so much history and beautiful scenery close by – Loch Lomond is only a short drive away – the Pineapple makes a great and intriguing place to use as a base for exploring the area.  The grounds are open free to the public all year but the building is at its best during the hours when you are alone to enjoy its eccentricity and splendid isolation.

The Pineapple at night


Links: 
The Landmark Trust
The National Trust for Scotland




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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Gwen Raverat


I have published on my website this review commissioned by the Raverat Achive:

A retrospective exhibition of Gwen Ravarat hosted by Winds of Change Art Gallery, Winchcombe.

The grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, Gwen Raverat's engravings are both fascinating and intricate.  I was completely enthralled by them.

Click on the link here to read about them and to see images of some of her work.

The River Darent 1939


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