Ah, Christmas. Treacherous frost dusting the streets. Crowded shops packed with anxious shoppers. End-of-year deadlines looming, Secret Santas creeping, cinnamon-scented everything. If, like us, you’re feeling a little… tense, head to Lucknam Park, our spa-wielding, glossy-horse toting, Michelin-star-flaunting Wiltshire retreat. With a festive offer of two free cookery classes worth £350 with two-night stays during the week until 13 February 2014, there’s no better time to taste a life less highly strung. Tamara Lohan, our original Mrs Smith, has just returned from sampling their stress-free gastronomic day courses and new muscle-unknotting treatments…
Start with a spot of sous-vide poaching. Rub down with a good glug of infused oil – sweet-smelling herbs and lavender, ideally – then place in a warm room to proof for 40 minutes. No, these are not instructions from the latest molecular gastronomy cookbook, but rather the gentle ministrations of Lucknam Park’s crack team of spa specialists.
Housed in a grand dame of a country-house boutique hotel, Lucknam’s spa is arguably one of Britain’s best and prettiest, its shelves stacked with high-tech Anne Semonin skincare from Paris and organic rose-steeped Ila products (Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan). Outside, hydrotherapy and saltwater pools blend seamlessly into acres of Wiltshire parkland: there’s a sunlounger here, an umbrella there, and rows of breeze-kissed trees everywhere. Head indoors for a host of thermal suites, treatment rooms and wellbeing studios that will leave even the most hardened of stressed-out Londoners (that would be Mr Smith and me) sighing with relief.
And what could be more relaxing than being slathered in goat butter, wrapped in cling film and left to float in warm water? I’ll admit I was a bit sceptical at first – the spa’s dry flotation therapy is not for the claustrophobic – but I was intent on trying the latest restorative treatments in the Wellbeing House, tucked away in a newly converted Cotswold stone house. Enveloped in a special blanket that kept me buoyant, my body relaxed into the feeling of weightlessness, cocooned by the comforting water. Meanwhile, a kundalini massage involving chakra alignment, hot poultices and incredible-smelling oils had Mr Smith snoring within minutes. Relaxed and refreshed, we stretched out in the Haslauer Reflective Sun Light Therapy room. I’m not going to lie: it’s no St Tropez, but 40 minutes of soaking up warmth and light did trigger a sort of euphoric first-day-of-holiday feeling. We indulged in an unusually late night and a few glasses of sunny, fragrant wine; the only thing missing was the sound of cicadas in the background.
Now… remember the sous-vide? As someone who manages to burn toast (this is no exaggeration) I was quite daunted by the prospect of testing Lucknam Park’s new cookery school. My fears of being ordered about, Gordon-style, by a Michelin-star brigade were quickly put to rest: I wish all my teachers at school had been as fun, patient and inspiring as Kesh and James, the two passionate kitchen residents who took us under their wing. We whipped up rich Christmas bread, Lancashire hot pot, two colourful salads, a moreish fish pie and an omelette Arnold Bennett (fluffy and laced with smoked haddock), all before lunch. Revived and equipped with tips for a great béchamel (the saucy secret, if you’re asking, is to take care when making the roux: the butter and flour paste should lift clean off the pan), we headed back to London with clear instructions for a happier life. Rest well, eat better, and, occasionally, wrap up warm in something creamy.