Food review: The Abbot’s Fireside
- Credit: Archant
Oozing history and character, The Abbot’s Fireside offers atmospheric accommodation, homely fare and a setting in beautiful countryside close to the Channel Crossing
New owners of The Abbot’s Fireside, Eric and Helen Gaskell, who reopened the 15th-century inn back in December 2015, are a very busy couple indeed. They also run The Duke of Cumberland in the neighbouring village of Barham, the newly opened Gatekeeper in Etchinghill and The Jackdaw in Denton.
Their latest acquisition lies in the heart of the Elham Valley, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and has seven individually styled bedrooms all named after well-known or local people relating to the history of this ancient building.
Rumour has it that the Duke of Wellington used the hotel as his headquarters while preparing for battle with Napoleon at Waterloo and that Charles II and his son the Duke of Richmond hid in the great chimney to avoid being captured by Cromwell’s Roundheads during the Civil War.
Built as an inn in 1451 and now Grade II listed, throughout Tudor and Stuart times it was known as The Smithies Arms and the cosy bar still bears that name.
While there is a terrace at the front of the building and a very pretty little courtyard garden tucked at the rear, this is a place made for winter, with its heavy antique furniture, open fireplaces and original leaded glass windows throughout public areas and bedrooms.
Both the lounge and restaurant feature huge medieval fireplaces which, like the hotel itself, are listed by the Historical Society; one hand-carved example was taken from the Abbey in Lyminge during the Reformation.
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My room for the night is up in the gods, a steep climb up narrow, creaky stairs during which ascent Julie (on her first day working here) and I manage to get spectacularly lost and I also miss the sign alerting me to low beams …
Was there anything else I needed, she asked, after we’d tracked down my atmospheric attic quarters, all angled beams, simple furnishings and a portrait of Lord Horatio and scenes from the Battle of Trafalgar above my comfy double bed just in case I forget I’m in the ‘Nelson’ room.
No, just scatter some crumbs for me to find my way back to the bar, I responded, not quite in jest. Later, bearings sorted, on my way back down again for dinner I spot some 16th-century wall paintings preserved behind glass and was able to better appreciate the layout of a building that has seen so many changes, including being converted into four cottages in the 1700s.
I was joined by the owners and their chocolate labrador Mollie in the tiny bar area and we were soon chatting with a couple of regulars who clearly love it here. It’s easy to see why; it’s very relaxed and welcoming, with the public areas extending unbroken across the width of the inn.
Soon people were taking their places in nooks and crannies, some up on different levels, and it was interesting to hear the different accents; being so close to the Channel Tunnel, it’s a popular stopover point.
The food here is good, honest fare and the menu changes regularly to keep in touch with the seasons. Water is by the carafe, bread is a plain white roll and from the short wine list I select a glass of Pato Torrente Sauvignon Blanc to accompany my largely fishy feast.
My starter of Parma ham-wrapped scallops with leeks and black pudding was slightly marred by an over-heavy hand with the pesto, which overwhelmed the subtle flavours.
However, the picture improved with a main course starring well-cooked sea bream on a generous bed of sea-bright samphire. Accompanying vegetables were homely carrots cut into chunks and mashed potato.
Pudding was a bit of a disappointment – lemon tart requires the crispest of thin pastries and the tartest of flavours, but mine lacked any zesty appeal and the pastry was thick and soggy. Summer fruits on the side proved a nice touch, but the dollop clotted cream was not really needed.
Service throughout the evening was almost entirely by new girl Julie, who was tireless, engaging and efficient.
And so up my ship’s ladder to bed on a hot summer’s night under the eaves with a tiny window. To my surprise, I slept soundly and encountered no ghosts, although I am sure there must be many in this ancient, atmospheric hostelry.
An American couple at breakfast (help yourself from a mini fridge to milk and juice, order what you fancy and Eric will cook it for you) were exclaiming over the quaintness and antiquity of their surroundings. Welcome to Ye Olde Englande; Abbots Fireside is a perfect example.
Where: Abbot’s Fireside Inn & Restaurant, High Street, Elham, Canterbury CT4 6TD. 01303 840566 or email@example.com
What: ancient inn in a pretty village
When: restaurant open Wed-Sun, lunch 12-3pm, dinner 6-9pm, Sun lunch 12-6pm
How much: smoked mackerel, spinach and pistachio fishcake £6.25, pork fillet roulade £17, chocolate ganache tartlet £6
Meet the chef
Head chef Mark Batchelor
Tell us a bit about you
I have been working in the catering industry for 16 years, having started as a kitchen porter and slowly working my way up to where I am today. Becoming head chef at the Abbotts Fireside is a relatively new experience for me but I have been working for Helen and Eric for the past five years in their other establishments.
Your main suppliers?
We like to keep all our produce Kent and locally based with our principal supplier being Aldington Fresh Foods, who supply local meats, dairy from the Romney Marshes and are also fresh fish specialists. We also have various locals who supply fresh produce daily.
Your signature dish?
The closest thing would probably be a dish I came up with over a challenge with a previous colleague during a late-night menu-writing session. The challenge involved developing a lamb dish each, which was later surveyed and the most-requested dish was mine. It later went on the menu and proved very successful. It’s pan-seared rump of lamb served on a roast fennel and ginger root salad finished with a smooth Amaretto jus and toasted almonds.
Your must-have gadget?
It’s not so much a gadget, but if I was to try working without my speaker and music, my focus would be straight out of the window! However, having a good-quality, multi-purpose food processor is a must for efficiency.
Who would you like to cook for?
I’d love to cook for the original cast of Dad’s Army, in full character, that would be a good day indeed.
Breakfast is the same everyday for me; a good, strong, black coffee.