Last week, Mr & Mrs Smith’s production queen Jasmine (who sorts out the printing of our books and all the lovely pictures on our site and arranges hotel reviews and, ooh, about six million other things) and I headed into the darkest depths of the Metropolitan line to Amersham, Buckinghamshire. It’s a sleepy satellite market town on the fringes of the Chilterns; one of those places that you half-recognise at every turn because of the fact that it’s routinely called in to play the role of ‘sleepy satellite market town’ in film. A role, I should add, that it performs with aplomb.
I’ll confess now that mooching around the Home Counties commuter belt is not my preferred means of disporting myself on a Thursday night, but when there’s an Ilse Crawford-designed boutique hotel to check out and the promise of a roast duck dinner, I’d happily fly Ryanair to Tasmania.
The Crown Inn, Amersham, is a sister of the nearby-ish Olde Bell Inn (which we made its first appearance on the Smith Travel blog about in July last year) and, now that it too has undergone a Crawfordian makeover, it’s due to be joining its sibling in the Smith collection of best UK hotels within the next month or two. It’s come a long way since Hugh Grant first cosied up here with Andie McDowell in Four Weddings, a Funeral and Several Million in Richard Curtis’s Bank Account; now, we’re looking at rustic rush matting, Welsh wool throws, mismatched chairs set around chunky tables, and a proper old-school inn atmosphere.
We scurry up the uneven wooden stairwell to have a peek at some of the rooms, which manage to achieve that peculiar Ilse Crawford effect of being soothingly simple and subtle while being instantly recognisable as her work. Glancing into a gleaming white bathroom, I think ‘very Babington House’, then remember that, of course, the Somerset hotel’s interiors are Ilse’s work too…
We’re not here to admire the lodgings, however – that can wait (sorry Ilse). This evening, it’s all about the food. Which means its all about the chef, Rosie Sykes. As well as crafting the menu at the Olde Bell, Rosie – who some might remember in her previous incarnation as the Guardian’s food doctor – has brought her considerable country cooking talents to the Crown’s kitchen.
Rosie’s recently published The Kitchen Revolution, a compendium of home cooking recipes using seasonal ingredients that can turn one meal into a week-long banquet. Her cooking is hearty and traditional, with nary a foam, jus, coulis or remoulade in sight – ideal fare for a country inn, basically.
Today, she’s showcasing one of her recipes – what she calls a ‘Big Meal from Scratch’ – with a hands-on demonstration of how to combine ducks, oranges and deliciousness. Perching on the end of the mediaeval-esque oak table in the Inn’s atmospheric, beamed function room, Rosie produces each ingredient in turn, passing them reverently round the table and delivering a potted biography of each one; everything from the culinary potential of celeriac (which she memorably describes as ‘ET’s head’), to the historical vicissitudes of the pomegranate. It’s rare that anyone can make an orange sound so dramatic…
The meal, when it comes, is phenomenal. The duck is as tender and velvety as the best fillet steak, and is lent a pervasive sweetness from the (normally bitter) Seville oranges. The celeriac mash – which has had only the briefest flirtation with any potato – is smooth and minerally, and an unaffected watercress salad brings freshness and bite to the plate. We couldn’t be happier. (Well, we could, but it would involve keeping Rosie on a chain in the Smith kitchen.)
It’s all very well wittering on about how fabulous the food was (and if you do get the chance to dine at the Crown, then, well, do), but right now that’s probably just frustrating if you’ve even the faintest flicker of an appetite, but I managed to cajole Rosie into sharing her roast duck recipe (following in the blogsteps of Gidleigh Park‘s Michael Caines who shared a roast partridge creation with us last year), so look out on the blog in the very near future for how to turn our feathered friends into flavoursome fun. Oh, and, while I’m on the subject of meaty goodness, look out for an upcoming account of the Ginger Pig butchery class I attended last week. And of course, look out for the arrival of the Crown Inn in the Smith boutique hotel collection. In fact, generally, just look out.
If you fancy sampling Rosie’s cooking, she runs regular Big Meal from Scratch events – give The Crown a call on +44 (0) 1494 721 541 for details. You can buy her book too…