With its ten bedrooms and fine dining restaurant, Fallowfields is set in 12 acres of grounds in Kingston Bagpuize, near Abingdon, Oxfordshire. The owner for the last 21 years has been Anthony Lloyd who, refreshingly unlike the anonymous proprietors of similar establishments across the country, lives on site and is fully engaged in the operations of this boutique country house hotel. Chatting with him before dinner, his near romantic vision and infectious passion – an overused word in gastronomic circles but undoubtedly true in his case – are fully revealed. These are shared by Matt Weedon, head chef since February 2013, who was keen to widen his experience beyond Michelin rated cooking into animal husbandry and cultivating fruit and vegetables.
“From field to fork” encapsulates the joint philosophy underpinning their food offering. Anthony Lloyd’s favourite chef outside his own establishment is Tom Kitchin whose similar outlook – From Nature to Plate – mirrors his own. Whilst many chefs pay lip service to the much vaunted buzzwords of seasonality, regionality, and sustainability in food provenance, at Fallowfields they are a reality. Here, the farm, the 200 tree orchard and kitchen garden, along with a select group of local suppliers, provide much of their fine produce. Usually self-sufficient in rare breed pork, farmed quail, hen’s eggs and Dexter beef – any extra of this specialist breed coming from Lin Blackwell’s farm near Wantage – the menu proudly lists local artisan suppliers such as duck from Andy Busby’s Willow Farm Marcham, cheese from Well’s Store, Peach Croft farm, and game, eggs, eels and crayfish from Everleigh farm, Hampshire. The quality and traceability of the produce, combined with the skills shown in the kitchen, result in a cuisine of a very high standard indeed.
Matt Weedon’s modern British cookery has a fine pedigree. I first tasted his food at the Michelin starred L’Ortolan where he was head chef under Alan Murchison before moving Glenapp Castle in Ayrshire, where he gained a star in his own right. Unable to follow him there, I later enjoyed a particularly fine dinner at Lords of the Manor where he also gained star. These distinctions helped to rank him as one of the top 100 chefs in the country. Little wonder that in less than a year after joining Fallowfields his cooking was awarded three AA rosettes.
Showing skills rooted in a classical training with the addition of modern techniques, Matt’s accomplished cooking combines great clarity of taste, a harmonious balance of flavours and textures, and exquisite, sometimes playful, presentation. Quality produce is treated with the respect it deserves. The timing of well-seasoned fish and meat is precisely judged. Saucing is a particular strength, with purees, foams and gels used in moderation, enhancing rather than overwhelming the main ingredient. For the same reason, maximum use is made of the kitchen garden’s seasonal vegetables and herbs. Portions are generous and dishes are often multi component, although the main ingredient always takes centre stage.
The menu structure and realistic pricing allows accessibility without the need for a mortgage. The carte, the content of which gradually changes with the seasons, comprises six starters (£14-£19), five mains (£26-£34), four desserts (£9-£10), and a cheese option.(£11) The six course tasting menu (£65) includes a selection from the carte with a flight of wine option at £35. By concentrating on a relatively small number of dishes, Matt and his team of five are able to refine and perfect their offering.
Managing the restaurant is Matt’s wife Rachel whose experience in high end hotels and restaurants, including Hambleton Hall, Blantyre, L’Ortolan, Glenapp Castle and Lords of the Manor, has stood her in good stead for her latest role, which also includes being the sommelier. She oversees an efficient young team providing a welcoming, friendly and knowledgeable service. Her own presentation of the wines is enthusiastic without being effusive.
The long, wooden floored restaurant itself has a decidedly fawn look with elements of traditional (wall lighting, luxurious drapes, framed pictures, fine napery) and modern (spotlighting, blinds, narrow, high backed seating). The generous sized tables are well spaced, adding to the overall semi-formal but relaxed feel of the room.
Fine Dining Guide visited on a Wednesday evening in April.
Canapes comprised a light, velvety smooth wild garlic veloute and dainty Dexter beef cottage pies with crisp pastry. The clear flavours and attention to detail at this early stage of the meal augured well for the courses to come.
A fine selection of freshly home baked breads – white, granary, focaccia and brioche – showed exemplary crispness of crust and delicacy of crumb. It was pleasing also to see dripping offered in addition to olive oil and butter.
The first show stopper appeared as a box of Kitchen Garden Flavours: three amuse bouches showcasing home reared and grown products. Pig’s head croquette was at once soft and crisp, with a meltingly warm taste sensation and luxurious mouth feel. Apple puree and bacon marmalade helped to cut the richness. (My only regret was there was only one each, when I could have easily devoured a plateful.) Artichoke and pear – an unusual but compatible combination of savoury and sweet – came as a silky ice cream in a delicate tuile cone. Crunchy radish with lovage yogurt had a more rustic look but provided in its vibrant simplicity a good counterpoint. In conception, execution and presentation, Kitchen Garden Flavours was a tour de force of inspired creativity.
Two starters were sampled.
Duck liver ballotine had all the smooth creaminess that came from the finely tuned marinating, rolling and poaching of this delectable piece of foie gras. Served with a buttery toasted brioche, the richness of these elements was balanced by a tart cherry gel and sweet Maury jelly. Pistachio and almond granola added the necessary contrasting texture and fragrance.
(Wine: Maury, Grenat, Grenache Noir, Els Pyreneus, Roussillon, France, 201)
Another starter featured roasted home reared quail. Enhanced by a well-judged light smoke, it had a depth of flavour unusual in this miniature game bird. Sprouting broccoli was chargrilled to preserve its inherent sweetness, and carrot puree spiked with star anise lifted the dish. This successful combination was bought together by an intense quail sauce.
(Wine: Chateau de St Cosme, Cotes de Rhone Blanc, Gigondas, 2012)
An intermediate dish saw a plump diver Orkney scallop, precisely timed to produce a caramelised crust over moist, delicate flesh. Braised chicken wing and bacon added more savoury flavours, with artichoke puree giving an earthy counterpoint to the surf and turf elements.
(Wine:Kung Fu girl Riesling, Charles Smith, Columbia Valley, Washington) State, 2012
The star of a main course of Dexter beef was the slow braised cheek, deeply flavoured, succulent and unctuous. Additional indulgence was provided by a cut of sirloin, firmer in texture but equally delicious. Soft pillows of horseradish gnocchi were a novel way of partnering beef with its traditional condiment as well as providing the necessary starch. A variety of garden vegetables including broad beans, peas, asparagus, onions, beetroot and crisp potato hoop offered a cornucopia of freshness to offset the rich meat. Cep puree added a fragrant, earthy element to the layers of flavour in this classical dish which was finished by a red wine sauce enriched with bone marrow spiked with tarragon.
(Wine: Chateau Bonnet reserve, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, France, 2009.)
Skill in fish cookery was seen in a fillet of pan fried Cornish line caught sea bass which was accurately timed with crisp skin and soft, meaty flesh. Scottish langoustine added a lively shellfish sweetness and braised fennel gave a gentle anisi lift which worked well with the seafood. Grilled artichokes provided an earthy balance. Finally, the plate was enveloped in a foaming langoustine and vanilla sauce and garnished with dots of roasted red pepper, both these elements singing with flavour.
(Wine: Vire-Clesse, Maison Albert Bichot, Cote Maconnais, Burgundy, 2012)
A pre dessert of pina colada foam and pineapple sorbet was zingy and refreshing
Desserts see the kitchen at its most original, with some spectacular results.
Warm blackcurrant soufflé, served in a copper pan, was a model of its kind: fruity, light, fluffy and well risen. Then the inventive accompaniment: a deconstructed lemon meringue pie – pastry crumb, soft lemon curd, and glazed piped meringue – served in a babycham glass; all this being crowned with an intense quenelle of blackcurrant sorbet. This playful interpretation of two retro classics also worked well in flavour and temperature combinations. My only gripe, and a minor one at that, is there needed to be little more crumb for textural contrast.
(Wine: Paul Cluver, Noble Late Harvest Riesling, South Africa, 2011)
A second dessert was even more creative. Marshmallow, shaped like a giant toadstool with a toasted cap, encased a smooth praline parfait and intensely astringent passion fruit curd. Passion fruit also came in the form of sorbet and gel, alongside dark chocolate custard, candied almonds, tiny meringues, cocoa nibs, praline tuile and chocolate soil. Again, taste, texture and temperature combinations in this multi component dish were well judged. Visually both desserts were stunning.
(Wine: Tokaji Aszu Blue 5 Puttonyos, Hungary, 2008.)
Even at the end of the meal, provenance and attention to detail are much in evidence. Wood roasted coffee from local artisan suppliers is the basis for the coffee menu, whilst 12 teas ranging from Assam to Mojito mint are also available. Both beverages have useful tasting notes to aid choice. Finally, ten varieties of chocolates and truffles are offered.
A meal at Fallowfields is a real joy and a memorable experience. A real team effort, both inside and outside the kitchen, the end product is something of which all those involved can feel proud. Far from being “unused”, “unseeded” and “undeveloped” – all dictionary synonyms for “fallow” – Fallowfields is a hive of activity, with the “seeds” being sown for future success. Michelin has yet to grant a star, but this can only be a matter of time given Matt Weedon’s previous record and his current achievement. Fine Dining Guide will follow Fallowfields’ progress with interest.