Food review: Swinfen Hall wows in all aspects
The smartest football managers pick an owner, rather than a club.
They ply their services with chairmen – and it’s almost always men – who provide support and investment, who realise success isn’t an overnight phenomenon and who are prepared to be patient and nurturing.
In choosing an owner, rather than a club, they give themselves the opportunity to create something special by gradually building a team and employing the talents of those around them.
The smartest chefs ought to think like football managers, rather than chasing fashion and a quick buck.
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Star rating: 4.5/5
For finding an owner willing to invest time and effort into providing a platform is more important than all else.
Which brings us neatly to Swinfen Hall. Swinfen has exceptional owners. It was bought in 1987 by the Wiser family – Wise(r) by name and nature – who have redeveloped a property that had fallen into disrepair.
Back then, there were six acres of overgrown gardens and ponds choked with weeds. Now, Swinfen Hall sits on a beautiful 100-acre estate comprising formal gardens with ornamental ponds, a very productive, Victorian walled vegetable garden, a woodland trail, a 45-acre wild deer park and a small flock of rare-breed sheep and woodland.
The estate functions without pesticides or chemicals and has more recently introduced a small flock of rare-breed Manx Loagthan sheep to graze under the chestnut trees at the front of the hotel.
They are faring well and will provide estate-reared lamb and hogget for the kitchen in due course.
The walled garden is the acme of sustainability. Compost is made from grass cuttings, raw fruit and vegetable peelings from the kitchen and shredded cardboard.
Chemicals and pesticides are not used and the impressive brick walls keep the majority of rabbits at bay. It grows a wide variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs for the kitchen and last year introduced three hives so the hotel cou start producing our own honey.
Like football managers choosing great chairmen – chefs who find themselves in the kitchens at Swinfen can count themselves lucky.
It was the first restaurant in Staffordshire to attain three rosettes in 2015 and is a regular winner in both the Taste of Staffordshire Awards and the Staffordshire Tourism Awards.
A number of high calibre chefs have passed through its doors over the years, frequently moving onto bigger things or taking the opportunity to go it alone having served on the immaculate estate near Lichfield. Paul Proffitt, who moved to Denmark, and Ryan Shilton, who opened his own place, are two obvious names.
The venue’s Four Seasons Restaurant specialises in fine dining and is a memorable destination for special occasions.
However, it offers a wider range and my partner and I were delighted by our brief visit when we called in for a Saturday afternoon lunch.
We were shown into a palatial lounge for drinks before moving into The Dining Room. Sitting beside a roaring log fire on comfortable chairs, the lounge transported us to a Golden Era of hospitality. Front of house staff were exceptional; from the charming and confident restaurant manager who took our initial order to the slim waiter and bubbly waitress who ferried food and drinks to the table. All were first class.
Those eating at Four Seasons for supper can expect such high falutin’ dishes as Winterbourne Trout with golden turnip and blue meat radish smoked Manx loin carpaccio with pickled shimeji, onion emulsion and Jerusalem artichoke or blackened venison loin with crapaudine beetroot, endive and greengage. We, however, had opted for simpler affair: a lunch menu that offered a great steak, fish and chips and similar unprepossessing classics.
There’s much to be said about doing the basics well – and at Swinfen, they do.
My partner started with a platter of whitebait served with aioli and a wedge of lemon. Delicious. The batter was light – just a dusting, like frost on a winter’s morning – so that they tiny fish were still malleable and pliant, rather than tempura crisp.
My ham hock terrine was served with pleasantly dressed leaves, small pieces of toast so crisp that they may well have been made from glass and a delicate, perfectly acidulated piccalilli.
The mains were terrific. She ate a blade of beef that fell apart beneath the fork – she could easily have left her knife on the table, so tender was the cut. It was served with an intense jus and a buttery and sophisticated smoked mash. It’s hard to image a better plate of food on a cold winter’s day: it was like a hug on a plate.
I ate an 8oz sirloin with mushroom, tomato and the best fries I’ve eaten for six months. They had the taste of twice-cooked fries and were fabulously golden and broke with a perfect crunch. The steak was exceptional; it had been cooked hard in butter on each side, so that a delicious, umami-rich caramelised outer had formed. The inside was tender and still pink, yielding with ease beneath the knife.
Desserts were delightful. I ate exotic profiteroles while my partner ate a magnificent apple pie with salted caramel ice cream.
The pie had a cake-ey texture and was perfectly matched with the sweet, creamy, salty ice cream. It was a magnificent way to end our lunch.
Swinfen Hall has long led the line among Staffordshire’s best restaurants. In recent times, it’s stood firm as Lichfield has developed an ever-improving reputation for gastronomy. The arrival of Liam Dillon’s Boat Inn, nearby, and the emergence of the city’s centre’s exceptional Larder – run by highly skilled former Swinfen cook, chef patron Ryan Shilton – has given the city much to shout about. And yet it all began at Swinfen with the investment and vision of the Wiser family.
Staffordshire lags behind Shropshire and Birmingham when it comes to great food. But it is people like the Wisers – allied to their impressive team – that are making great strides in their quest to make the county a gourmet destination.
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