Saturday, 14 May 2016

Maison Bleue and The Ickworth, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Someone said to me recently that, unless blogs were about the bad things that happened to people on their travels, they weren't very interesting. I sort of know what she means, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint this time...

I recently had the exceptional good fortune to stay at a place I've been in love with for a very long time. Ickworth House, near Bury St Edmunds, is beautiful. Once the home of the Hervey family, it was passed to the National Trust back in the 1990s and now, for the very good fortune of all those who wish they'd been born with a silver spoon in their mouths, the East Wing has been turned into an extremely comfortable hotel by the Luxury Family Hotels group. It's been done with a light touch, though, so a stay here feels as if you've gone to visit some very well-heeled chums. The library is stocked with books floor to ceiling, with some unusual family artifacts – we noticed a pair of ancient, obviously many-times worn soft shoes in a glass case; there were some framed newspaper articles about various Hervey family members and a box of toys had been left by a sofa. The sitting room has much the same feel, with groups of exceedingly deep, comfy sofas and armchairs, with tables placed at just the right distance to hold your aperitif or digestif, and through this you can take yourself to the elegant dining room – probably the only child-free room in the place (have I mentioned children are positively welcomed at The Ickworth?).

At the end of the corridor is a large, airy, conservatory-style dining room where guests can eat all three meals a day en famille – including a children's high tea, served from 5-6pm – and downstairs, along the stone-floored passage, various intriguing rooms lead off. For instance, you might want to have some fun in the games room, where there's air hockey, table football, Wii, PlayStations and ping pong. Or there's the Four Bears Den, where you can drop in with your little ones or let Mary Poppins types look after them (from ages 3 months to 8 years) for two hours per day per child for free (but do book this in advance). Why would you want to be parted from your precious darlings? Why, to go to the spa, of course, which is just a skip further down the passage. There are various treatments on offer, but you won't go wrong with a back, shoulder and neck massage... Finally, there's also a cinema room down here, with a nightly family-friendly film, followed by a more grown-up one. It makes a good spot to play board games or cards during the day.

Rooms come in all sorts of configurations to suit various family groups or couples, so you can have a cot or extra bed brought in to your room for your child(ren), get interconnecting rooms or take a suite. Best of all is that out of the windows are far-reaching views across the estate, where the tenant farmer grazes his sheep, as his father did before him.

Outdoors there's a swimming pool – again, open to families at all times – a playground, formal gardens, acres and acres of grounds to roam – and there's free bicycle borrowing – a National Trust tea room and shop, plant sales and free entry to hotel guests to the Rotunda, where well-informed guides can talk you through each room or simply answer any questions you might have. A visit here is a real glimpse into how the other half– OK, the upper echelon – live, but because you can skip next door to the 'house', it all feels a bit yours.

We had dinner at The Ickworth one night (very delish, definitely book in for this) and one evening, took ourselves in to nearby Bury St Edmunds to eat at Maison Bleue.

What a surprise! Forget the image you might have of a quaint old market town. Maybe because it's the site of the signing of the Magna Carta, maybe it's because it's always done quite well through the local brewery, but this place feels sophisticated. And, fittingly, it has an extraordinarily good French restaurant serving a modern take on this cuisine.

Owned and run by a French couple, chef Pascal and front-of-house Karine, the decor is all French grey, white tablecloths and touches of dark wood – very grown-up and soothing. Except for two facts – all the staff speak English with lovely French accents and the produce is mostly sourced from the British Isles – you could be eating in France. Every detail has been considered, from colour to taste to texture and we very quickly realised that Pascal must be something of a chemist. Flavours were juxtaposed just so, to bring out the essence of each ingredient. For instance, our amuse bouche was a cauliflower tartare with parsnip crisp. Slightly more than a mouthful, it was exquisite and definitely had us sitting up, excited for what was to come.

We went for the astonishingly well-priced three-course set menu, which costs just £36.50 including VAT. Rather than limiting us, we had a fantastic choice from four starters, four main courses and six desserts – but more about that last course in a minute. To keep us occupied, we ordered the bread – three kinds, all artisan made and served with Brittany butter. This was almost a mistake, because they're so good it's impossible not to eat them all....

I relied entirely on the sommelier, who paired just the right glass of wine with each course, and recommend you do this as well, to get the full experience.

Our starters were spring vegetables with English green asparagus, baby heritage carrot, feta, zucchini, garden pea, smoked eel, gnocchi and Parmigiano for me; cream of fennel soup, smoked haddock, moooli and toast for my companion. I want to rhapsodise about how good these were – all the vegetables were cooked just to the point of being easy to eat without losing any of their flavour – but it's worth keeping in mind that the menu changes daily. Yes, daily. This means Pascal must be endlessly creative and imaginative, because he uses only what's fresh each day and, since the menu is seafood-centric, it obviously relies on what's been caught.

For mains, I had the filet of Isle of Gigha halibut, celery, shallot confit, soft meringue; my companion filet of Devon coast line-caught turbot, buttermilk, lemon confit, samphire grass, grilled spring onion. Suffice to say, they tasted as good as they sound. The fish was cooked to perfection – never dry or tough, always moist and full of flavour. For our sides, we chose crushed purée of Hall Farm potato and a dish of the vegetables of the day.

A word here about small things: the potatoes, like the bread, were simple but, equally, simply delicious and could have been a meal in themselves.

At this point we were seduced by the cheese trolley. The only word to describe it is heaving and part of the pleasure is having each one described by a pretty voice overlaid with that French accent.... There are blues, creamy ones, soft ones, hard, goat, sheep, cow, strong, mild... You get five, which are served with grapes, caramelized red onion chutney, red onion with sage in chilli jelly, honey and fig biscuits.

We were more than full and definitely satisfied, but as a wise person once said to me, there's always room for desert. So yes, we managed to fit them in: a café crème of coffee and azelia Grand Cru chocolate soft ganache, buckwheat ice cream, brioche and caramelised cashew nuts for my companion; poached Williams pear, beetroot caramel, vanilla ice cream, milk espuma and sesame seeds for me. The sesame seeds were somehow the star, bringing out the flavour of the pear and I enjoyed every mouthful.

Do you remember the start of this entry? About how only bad experiences are interesting? Well, if you hold with that, then you may take some schadenfreude from reading this: I was almost too full. Yes, my eyes had been bigger than my stomach. The trouble is, I can't tell you what I wish I hadn't eaten, because it was all so good.

How wonderful then, to waddle out into the night and head back to our stately home. Ah, yes, how the lucky ones – us this time, you next? – get to live...

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