Discovering the food and drink producers of Herefordshire
- Credit: Candia McKormack
Candia McKormack embarks on a whistle-stop foodie tour of Herefordshire
I’m a Gloucestershire gal, through and through, but I could be tempted to jump borders.
It may sound a little rash, but Herefordshire really does have an awful lot going for it. Its world-famous ciders and world-class beef need no introduction, but my two-night break in our neighbouring county revealed so much more about its ample charms and gastronomic delights.
In just over an hour, driving through the Forest of Dean’s pretty villages and on into Herefordshire’s working farmland, I arrived at Bridge Farmhouse in Michaelchurch Escley, owned by Glyn and Gisela Bufton of nearby Bridge Inn, and home to Black Mountains Distillery. Blowed if I can think of a better base for a foodie break in this neck of the woods.
Fit for a king
The first evening, I took to the lanes for a pleasant half-hour drive to the city of Hereford and the majestic Castle House Hotel. Consisting a pair of Regency-period townhouses, this Grade II-listed boutique hotel is owned and run by a local farming family and has enjoyed a recent refurbishment.
On a balmy late-summer evening, dinner on the terrace beside the ancient moat was a relaxed affair, with unfussy dishes featuring local produce – including vegetables from the Watkins’ family’s kitchen garden – and washed down with local beers and ciders. The location is just two or three minutes’ walk from the Cathedral, but you could be forgiven for feeling as though you were far from the city.
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Breakfast of champions
Starting each day with a ‘farmer-sized’ portion of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, served on sourdough toast and washed down with Black Mountain coffee from the farm’s on-site roastery, I perused the day’s eating itinerary and could tell this trip was going to be a labour of love. A mid-repast calorie-burning walk was in order, so I explored the lanes and fields of Michaelchurch Escley, spending a very pleasant hour or so exploring the parish church of St Michael’s, with its squat tower and medieval wall paintings.
Michelin stars and local makers
It’s lunchtime, day two, and I’ve been looking forward to this one.
Call me old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a Michelin-starred restaurant in the depths of the Herefordshire countryside. Pensons is just such a place, and it has everything you’d expect from an eatery with those credentials, and absolutely oodles of goodies that you probably wouldn’t.
The restaurant is part of the 1,200-acre Netherwood Estate, privately owned by the Darnley family and dating back to before the Domesday Book. The ever-expanding kitchen gardens wrap around the glass-fronted agricultural building like a lover’s embrace, assisting head chef Chris Simpson with creating menus that reflect the changing seasons and fertility of the land. Other produce on the menu is sourced either directly from the Estate or within a stone’s throw of the kitchens, and a must-try for cider-lovers is a fine drink crafted by nearby Little Pomona using apples picked from the Estate’s trees.
Feeling replete and relaxed following my Pensons experience, I drove south to Hereford to explore its ancient lanes and buildings before dinner.
The Cathedral City of Hereford’s origins lie in the seventh century and, due to its strategic position on the River Wye, it was important to the Saxons and Normans for being on the borderland between England and Wales. Highlights of the city include the Mappa Mundi, housed in the 12th-century Cathedral; the Black and White House Museum; Buttermarket; Edward Elgar’s trail; the Museum of Cider; and full-sized bronze Hereford bull statue.
The last on that list set me up very nicely for dinner that evening, courtesy Beefy Boys – an award-winning restaurant established by ‘four backyard amateur cooks sharing a passion for local produce and dirty American-style burgers’. After a long afternoon walking around the city, my ‘Bacon Boy’ and local cider was just the ticket.
A taste of the Black Mountains
Day three, and time to head back to Gloucestershire... if she’ll still have me.
Before leaving the farmhouse, though, Glyn offered to show me the distillery he and friend Lloyd set up in a series of outbuildings on the farm. The dream of Black Mountains Distillery came into being nearly ten years ago when the pair met in the Bridge Inn at a New Year’s Eve party, and before you could say ‘mother’s ruin’ Lloyd had designed and made two stills – called ‘Twmpa’ and ‘Blorenge’ after his favourite mountains – and Hill Billy Gin was born (my tip: try their Toffee Apple Liquer... moreish!).
I swung by Gwatkins Cider – just down the road from the farm – to stock up on some of their finest – before heading on to Much Marcle, home to the famous Westons Cider Mill and historic Hellens Manor...
Homecooked at Hellens
Hellens, built by French monks in the 11th century, is an astonishing property... and worthy of so much more than the few words I have room for here.
This romantically dilapidated and rambling pile is owned by the Pennington Mellor Munthe Charity Trust, and is still lived in by the family’s descendants. The house and grounds have experienced more action and adventure than any house should – from the coronation and deposition of Edward II to the bloody battles of the English Civil War – and is well worth a visit.
The extensive grounds are home to various gardens, a Great Barn, vintage tearoom serving home-cooked treats, and even their own standing stones. It really is quite remarkable... and at the time of writing this, they’re planning their seasonal ‘Big Apple’ menu. Wild blackberry and apple bars, anyone?
- Bridge Farmhouse, Michaelchurch Escley
- The Bridge Inn, Michaelchurch Escley, thebridgeinnmichaelchurch.co.uk
- Black Mountains Distillery, blackmountainsbotanicals.co.uk
- Black Mountain Roast, blackmountainroast.com
- Pensons, Tenbury Wells, netherwoodestate.co.uk/restaurant
- Little Pomona, Bromyard, littlepomona.com
- Castle House, Hereford, castlehse.co.uk
- Hereford Guild of Guides, herefordguidedwalks.org.uk
- The Beefy Boys, Hereford, thebeefyboys.com
- Hellens Manor, Much Marcle, hellensmanor.com
- Gwatkins Cider, Abbey Dore, gwatkincider.co.uk
- Westons Cider, Much Marcle, westons-cider.co.uk