Some of the luxury country house hotels around Britain offer a rather different arrival from Whatley Manor. Walking through the door at Whatley, the sense of warmth of welcome, a disarming charm and relaxing feel pervade immediately. Gone is perhaps the stuffiness, the slightly intimidating sensation set within the context of hapless disorganisation which permeates through certain similar retreats of type.
Whatley Manor was originally built in the 18th century and for over a hundred years known as Twatley Farm. By 1987 the property was taking guests and Swiss couple, Marco and Alix Landolt (while their son was competing at the nearby Badminton Horse Trials) stayed at the property. So impressed were they, that in 2000 they acquired the property, restored and painstakingly brought it back to its former glory, opening as the Whatley Manor we know and love today on July 1st 2003. The manor house remains a Grade 2 listed building and is set in twelve acres of gardens.
So it is a deceptively young resort, having just celebrated its 11th birthday. This is at odds with the feel of a sense of history as well as those elusive sensations of peace and tranquility. One might suggest that the owners philosophy, including their shrewd choices in general manager (there have only been two) that must take a great deal of credit for the serene identity and prolonged success of Whatley Manor. Peter Egli (now departed for Switzerland) was at the helm for ten years and emphasized (at interview) the need for a ‘personal touch,’ like a home away from home. Peter also believed in empowering staff to develop in their chosen direction with the lightest touch of a guiding hand. This must have worked well as many staff display great length of stay with many celebrating five and ten year anniversaries of their own during 2014. Whatley Manor enjoys a combination of factors which, Peter argued, made an overall unique in the world – a beautiful spa, extensive gardens, award winning restaurant and in-house cinema, with guests in 23 rooms looked after by 65 staff.
Indeed on the restaurant side Whatley Manor boasts another shrewd acquisition: Martin Burge. Martin worked extensively for John Burton Race during the latter’s heyday at L’Ortolan and The Landmark. In fact, it was Martin that moved with John to set up the restaurant at The Landmark where they successfully retained the accolades and achieved two Michelin stars in just one year. After (quietly) arriving at Whatley Manor’s dining room, Martin Burge’s team was awarded one Michelin star in 2005 and a second in 2010. The ‘Dining Room’ remains at the forefront of British gastronomy and a leader in its field.
The new encumbent general manager is Gurval Durand: Formerly deputy general manager to (the great) Philip Newman-Hall at The Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Gurval has quickly begun to stamp his personality, energy and desire on Whatley Manor.
At interview Gurval (above left with Martin Burge and above right with restaurant manager Silviu Dinu) discussed some important aspects of the philosophy of Relais & Chateaux as well as his vision for the property moving forward.
How do you see the past present and future of Whatley Manor in the context of Relais & Chateaux. “This is a good question as appreciating the past, the history of Relais & Chateaux, is important to the present and future of any members participation in the association: The spirit of the original la route du bonheur and the ideals of the fledgling association must always be referenced, remembered and respected.
In the present you each have to add your personal touch, bring your uniqueness into play, all the while within the framework so well expressed by Relais & Chateaux. For the future, all members play a vital role and are offered to give something back – it is a pure two-way democracy. At Whatley Manor, along with all our colleagues, we share the values and passions of the association, which allows each member to bring something special and unique to our customers.”
What is your vision for Whatley Manor? “My vision for Whatley Manor is to build on a strong eleven years, which has been based upon the philosophy of inviting someone into a relaxing home away from home. Whatley Manor must continue to become a destination of choice for both national and international customers. There is also a mix of clientele coming, with different durations of stay, which we must adapt to on an on-going basis. While we may have been under the radar of a number of potential guests, awareness and profile will continue to improve as we explore mechanisms to achieve our goals.
People will retreat here to relax and dine with a gastronomic experience. The award winning spa, the cinema and garden offers the chance to relax completely. In addition, we have quintessentially English villages around us – Malmesbury, Tetbury and Cirencester. We must continue to strive to get the message of our world class offering to the appropriate audience as effectively as possible.”
So on the 7th June 2014, fine dining guide was invited to attend the Relais & Chateaux 60th Anniversary celebration dinner. A menu, especially prepared by Martin Burge and his team, expertly coupled with wine by Andrea Domenicucci proved a great success. To further mark the occasion, a cake was prepared by head pastry chef Lee Bamforth (see above).
Throughout the meal the common threads of depth of flavour, lightness of touch, deft timing and impeccable presentation pervaded. As a fresh approach to review writing, the analysis of each dish below has kindly been provided by Martin Burge, head chef at Whatley Manor. One hopes this provides a unique insight into a strong Michelin two star chef’s thinking when preparing and analysing his dishes.
Cannelloni of Mackerel served with Oyster Crème fraiche and compressed cucumber. The oyster crème fraiche, cucumber jelly and compressed cucumber provide a fresh approach whilst the mackerel adds depth.
English Asparagus Dressed with textures of mushrooms, hazelnut, warm parmesan and deep fried quails eggs. Our aim was to reverse the classic dish of asparagus, poached egg and hollandaise. We made the asparagus cold, poached quails eggs and deep fried them to get a crispy texture. The parmesan espuma replaces the classic hollandaise sauce and the chilled hazelnut sherbet adds another dimension in terms of temperature.
Native Lobster (2 persons) Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef Dinner 2013 topped with mango and coconut, served with a lightly Thai consommé. I wanted to bring this dish back for the 60th Relais & Châteaux anniversary having first served the dish at the Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef Dinner 2013. The theatre style presentation, at the table makes up for the initial simplicity of the dish on first glance.
By no means is this dish simple to make; for example the lobster is presented in various ways on the plate. There are two parts to making the consommé, there is also the wonton and a lobster mousse.
Squab Pigeon poached and roasted, Dressed with foie gras cassonade, pomme soufflé and Pedro Ximenez sauce. Making a foie gras cassonade gives this dish a lighter approach. Young turnips are introduced to give a bitter sweet combination to the Pedro Ximenez sauce and the Pedro Ximenez gel. The earthy flavour from the pigeon brings all the elements together.
Pre-dessert: Blackberry and apple espuma. When you combine the sharpness of the apple with the sweetness of the blackberry the end result is a refreshing, rounded flavour.
Banana Panna Cotta, Passionfruit Granite and Lycee Sorbet. The sharpness of the passionfruit cuts through the perfume of the lychee. The banana panna cotta bridges the gap between the two.
White Chocolate Sphere Filled with Pistachio kirsch mousse and compote of cherries. Each element is simple but when you put them together there is theatre. White chocolate was chosen because it works so well with the summer season for example summer berries. In this case I combined it with an initial layer of kirsch mousse and a second layer of pistachio and a very thin third layer of chocolate. The whole sphere is made of white chocolate which can tend to be quite sickly but we have adjusted the chocolate to give a lighter flavour and also an even thinner texture. Not one component dominates the other, yet they combine well together. A quenelle of pistachio ice cream adds another dimension.
In all a marvelous evening and a fitting tribute by a great team to a great institution. We left fully satisfied. Service was professional, efficient while unobtrusive. We were greeted upon arrival and waved off into the night by the very welcoming Eloise Gordon (Sales & Marketing Manager) and we will be sure to return!