I made it one of my resolutions at the start of the year to visit a few places in the UK which are new to me. I haven’t actually been very good at this, but did manage to co-opt a few friends into joining me on a trip to Bath, which we selected after a five-minute discussion almost at random.
Bath is a smallish spa town, distinguished for its Georgian architecture and the extensive use of Bath stone, which gives the buildings a tawny, yellowed look (I’m sure you’re not meant to think this, but it actually reminded me a little of smokers’ fingers…forgive me) and has contributed to the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since, on a more charitable note, the colour of Bath stone also recalls sepia and aged newspapers, it contributes to an overall sense of genteel eighteenth-century elegance. The town’s history as a fashionable, expensive, buzzing Georgian town (name-checked by Jane Austen, Bath is the setting of Persuasion, her romance of longing and second chances) is both reinforced and challenged by the hordes of tourists from every part of the globe who throng the streets and the many tea rooms made to look like period pieces (or at least our televisual idea of such). The many people tramping about the city centre give it a sense of real vibrancy, recalling it as the bustling epicentre of fashionable life, and also generates the impetus to preserve the look and feel of Georgian Bath. However, tourism inherently engenders a range of tensions and contradictions: it leads to competing claims over space and geography, and to the sometimes artificial preservation of the old at the expense of the evolution of the new; and of course the need to build the kind of infrastructure to accommodate all those out-of-town visitors can sometimes undercut the supposed authenticity offered up to the tourist. In the case of Bath, one minute you can be looking at a lace-curtained tea room with its (female) staff in long skirts, shawls, and bonnets; the next moment you’ll see a row of bins, each printed in a different language – French, Chinese, Spanish – with instructions to avoid feeding pigeons and mind the seagulls.
In addition, Bath is a university town, with the campuses of the University of Bath and Bath Spa University a short drive away, which means that in addition to elegant and/or touristy places to eat and drink (both types of place are found in my which my reviews below!) you can find some very good, hearty, decently-priced food
The trip to Bath was a bit disorganised and we didn’t plan out things as well as we could have, resulting in a few things being missed – if we went again I would like to visit the Roman baths, for example – but we did see a lot of the city, including the famous Royal Crescent of posh Georgian houses overlooking the parks, which were also soothing to walk in. I also enjoyed wandering round the cathedral, gazing up at the scallop-shaped ceiling and reading the many memorial plaques, some of them very touching. All in all, it’s a good place for a quick weekend away if you fancy.
On the first day, we had lunch at The Circus, which my friend Juliet arranged for us (you will need to make advance reservations, especially for dinner). The restaurant serves a seasonal menu with beautiful British produce – it describes its food as ‘modern European’ but I thought the food was in many ways very British, in the best way: fresh, eclectic, driven by European technique for sure but with an adventurous, internationalist outlook rather than one excessively hide-bound by tradition. As the menu changes regularly with the seasons you wouldn’t be served the exact same food, but all was delicious and exquisitely prepared and I’d be fully confident in going back.
We shared a starter of a Parma (or at least Parma-style, since I think it was British) ham, nectarine and tomato and mozzarella salad. Such composed salads are not necessarily about originality but about delicious ingredients who are respected by allowing their quality to shine…and this salad hit the mark. The tomatoes were bursting with ripe, juicy flavour; the nectarines were the perfect ripeness to serve in a salad, still firm and crisp but juicy and honeyed, not underripe; the ham was excellent, with that silk-stocking texture you get from good-quality fat from a pig that has eaten a nourishing diet and a mouth-filling, nutty flavour of its own that isn’t just saltiness. The mozzarella was the necessary third element, all soft milk and cream. It was a wonder with the Bertinet bakery sourdough we were served to start.
After some hemming and hawing, I ordered the merguez sausage served with bulgar wheat and tomato sauce, my friend Ariadne had the steak with cafe de Paris butter and Juliet had a game bird with quinoa salad (I have honestly forgotten what it was – perhaps guinea fowl?). I really enjoyed my merguez dish – the spicing was good, the tomato sauce well-balanced (‘balanced’ and ‘harmonious’ are perhaps the most characteristic adjectives to describe the meal); the bulgar wheat was actually a revelation, as I usually find this grain quite claggy and dense: this was light and fluffy. Juliet’s dish was also very good: the guinea fowl was grilled to sticky, smoke-infused perfection, and the quinoa was as light and fluffy as the bulgar wheat. Of her classic steak, chips and watercress, Ariadne offered that while it was very good, she would have preferred the steak even more rare – it is cooked medium-rare according to the menu, and while it was perfectly done for my taste, Ariadne prefers her steak blue (also known as extra-rare, this is when the outside is seared but the inside is still red and very soft, virtually raw. According to my father, who also enjoyed blue beef, the challenge in cooking it this way is in ensuring the steak is not stone-cold at the centre despite the very short cooking team).
The wines they serve are from small producers; I had an English white (despite eating merguez; I just don’t like red wine all that much) from Sharpham Estate, made from Madeleine Angevine grapes grown in Devon. I got it mostly because I was curious to try a British-grown wine and it was truly beautiful: crisp, light, delicate with backnotes of citrus and really lovely to drink with food. It’s one of those wines that is quite ‘appetite opening’ in that its crispness refreshed the palate between bites, making every mouthful feel new. My friend Ariadne, who loves a Portuguese wine, had a red from the Quinta do Val da Figueira Reserva. I don’t like a lot of reds because I find them overwhelming to the palate and often tannic to the point of bitterness, but this was rich but very well-balanced. I still couldn’t drink a whole glass myself but certainly a good choice for red wine lovers.
For dessert, we shared between us the gooseberry and elderflower creme brulee; the chilled dark fondant with caramel sauce; and a spin on Eton mess made with rose geranium meringues and roasted strawberries. The creme brulee was beautiful, with a silky custard and the surprise of the floral, elderflower infused gooseberries at the bottom. The fondant was really more of a chilled mousse, offset by a hazelnut praline and thick, stand-on-the-spoon Jersey cream; I associate the word ‘fondant’ with those melt-in-the-middle hot puddings, so although the dessert was delicious it wasn’t what was expected. It was also the most conventional of the desserts.
I can’t actually sing the praises of the third Eton-mess style dessert enough. It was one of the most lovely desserts I’ve ever had (high praise): unexpected, with layers of flavour built into what is usually a classic, familiar British dessert. The rose geranium-infused meringues hummed with a subtle floral-citrus flavour which was unmistakeable but hard to place (unless you regularly eat rose geranium, I guess, which I now desperately want to do). The combination of raw and roasted strawberries meant each mouthful was a mix of fresh, juicy fruit and the deeper, slightly caramelised taste of the cooked ones. No stone had been left unturned: even the blanket of cream was spiked with strawberry liqueur, making for an extraodinarily nuanced, layered flavour. I would eat this every day – although, of course, it’s deliciousness relies on the absolute ripe luscious of in-season strawberries.
Ariadne and I also gilded the lily by having dessert wine – I had a red wine because despite the aforementioned dislike of reds I have a real fondness for sticky, heavy red sweet wine. The one I had (Les Vignerons de Maury) was laid down 1928, which is pretty head-spinning: not just older than me, but older than all of my grandparents (albeit only by a year, in one case). It had all the sweet, rich, raisiny depth you would want from such a proud vintage.
All in all, a perfect place for an elegant, refined, and also delicious meal.
For dinner, pizza at The Stable, a smallish (17 locations) chain, but one which pays attention to provenance and uses local ingredients. I had the West Country porker, a pepperoni-type pizza with British chorizo subbed in for the pepperoni and topped with a rocket salad – I asked them to skip the house dressing as I really like plain salad leaves, so actually mine was just a pile of rocket. It was predictably delicious: good sweet-salty-spicy chorizo, good sweet-tangy tomato sauce, good milky-sweet mozzarella, very good (albeit not charred) bread base. My friend Juliet had the mushroom and ‘nduja-topped pizza: the ‘nduja (British again) was very fiery and worked well against the cheese and tomato sauce, but might be a bit much for those sensitive to chilli. (Ariadne had a salad which included butternut squash and feta – although she thought it was a bit heavy on the cheese, she enjoyed it overall).
For dessert, it was hard to choose between the caramelised apple and ginger cheesecake, the intriguing Nutella pizza pudding and the brownie, so we ordered all three. I was reluctant about the cheesecake because it just isn’t one of my favourite desserts but this was exceptional, with a creamy, yet not too dense, texture, blandness alleviated by the ginger and apples. My friends felt slightly underwhelmed by it but honestly for me it was a revelation that I could like cheesecake as much as I did that one. The biscuit base, too, was luscious – but usually I consider the base the only good part and in this cheesecake it was just one excellent part of a delicious whole. Am I being too overzealous about the cheesecake of a mid-priced pizza chain?!
The brownie was good, if predictably so: it was moist, it was gooey, it had a rich chocolatey taste and no cakiness. We were offered the choice of a clotted cream or ice cream topping – either would be lovely to be fair.
Finally, and most unusually, the Nutella pizza pudding. I’d had something slightly similar to a dessert pizza before, at Lokhandwala: a plain chapatti or naan (I honestly can’t remember) drizzled with dark chocolate sauce, a highly unusual dish that appears to have been taken off the menu now (but I would recommend their halva tart with cardamon creme anglaise over it anyway). I have also seen dessert pizza recipes, but they often have a biscuit or cookie base dressed up to look like a pizza. This delicious concoction had the ordinary savoury bread based, drizzled with generous helpings of Nutella and delicate, slightly lactic mascarpone before being baked. The texture of the baked Nutella was between unctuous and, where drizzled more thinly, slightly crisp, like a just-baked cap of meringue. The choice of a bread base was the perfect foil to the sweetness of the Nutella and rich, mouth-filling creaminess of the mascarpone. It was incredibly rich and delicious and compulsive: depsite being full to bursting we couldn’t stop eating it.
The next day, an indifferent high tea at Hands Georgian Tearoom, served by a kind but supremely flustered man. “It’s all a bit Fawlty Towers,” as I said at one point, as he practically tumbled head-first down the stairs to the kitchen in his haste. Indeed the impression of being in a slightly rundown postwar hotel was inescapable. The tea room itself lingered with the incongruous smell of deep-frying fat, and that plus the plastic tablecloths all made it somewhat far from the Georgian gentility the name alludes to. So, the food: dry, unbuttered sandwiches, stuffed with chunks, rather than thin slices, of gristly ham; slightly desiccated biscuits; perfectly pleasant cake; and very nice robust fluffy scones served with good thick clotted cream and Tiptree jam. Given how many tourists visit Bath I’m sure this place does just fine and that its quality is fairly representative across the piece (a lot of the tea rooms in the town centre looked pretty similar), but on the whole a disappointment, with very variable service, and expensive for what it was (and living in London as I do I thought I was immune to sticker shock). Incidentally, the tea room takes cash only, an archaism which is really the most Austen-like thing about it.