SOMETIMES you just need a treat. There are people who claim that they only “eat to live” and others whose attitude is more “live to eat.” Most of us, fortunately, come somewhere in between. But sometimes you need a treat and on those days there are few destinations that offer more than Summer Lodge, the country house hotel at Evershot, deep in the beautiful West Dorset countryside.
Whichever way you approach the hotel, which is part of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, you are immersed in Thomas Hardy. Dorset’s greatest writer has left his mark here, in words and stone.
In three of his novels Hardy refers to the handsome old Acorn Inn (the only pub owned by Red Carnation), most famously in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Deserted by her hypocritical husband, Angel Clare, Tess makes an ill-fated 15 mile journey from the bleak farm where she works to Emminster (Hardy’s name for Beaminster) to see his parents. Halfway on the weary road she stops in Evershed (Evershot), where she breakfasted… “not at the Sow and Acorn, for she avoided inns, but at a cottage by the church.”
He must have known the village well, as he had worked on the handsome Georgian country house that is now Summer Lodge, particularly designing the Drawing Room, during his career as an architect based in Dorchester.
Visitors can enjoy Thomas Hardy-themed escapes, with one night at Summer Lodge, one night at The Acorn Inn and tickets to Hardy’s Cottage and Max Gate, the house he designed and built in 1885, where he lived until his death in 1928.
The Evershot gardens are gorgeous – don’t miss the kitchen gardens – the spa is luxurious and the bar is atmospheric and indulgent, but it is the food that is the real star at Summer Lodge, where the award-winning team of executive chef Steve Titman and sommelier Eric Zwiebel preside over menus and comprehensive and inspiring wine lists that make you drool in anticipation.
Steve and Eric have both been at Summer Lodge for many years, building a relationship that must be rare in a world where ambitious talents often move on – frequently towards large metropolitan areas. Steve is renowned for his knowledge of and use of local produce, and Eric understands how important this is, helping him to guide guests to select the right wine for the dish.
Eric says: “It is also important for the chef to be involved with the wine experience, as this enables new ideas on how we can match food with wines. I am incredibly lucky to have worked so closely with our chef over many years – we have an intimate understanding of each other and our cuisine.”
Over the 15 years that he has been at Summer Lodge, Steve has developed collaborative relationships with many local food producers, fishermen, cheese makers, charcuterie producers, farmers and foragers. He wants to serve the best, and in Dorset he is lucky to have it – whether it’s diver-caught scallops from Lyme Bay or a chicken reared in woodland three miles down the road.
The menu changes regularly, reflecting the seasons and local availability. The style is loosely defined as modern British, but that is to underestimate Steve’s distinctive skill in taking the best of what is available.
We went to Summer Lodge for a summer lunch with a friend, Canadian chef and food writer Janelle Langford, who was staying in the west country for a month, visiting food producers and restaurants, and taking part in Great Taste Awards judging at Gillingham.
The Summer Lodge lunch was the finale of her trip. Janelle was thrilled: “Five stars! – from start to finish it was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination,” she said.
“When we arrived the gardener greeted us, and had a biscuit ready for Pippin – make the dog feel welcome and everyone’s happy!”
The comfortable bar, like a dream Scottish castle, is lined with 300 whiskies – the staff learn about the different whiskies from the distillers. Janelle compared it to “a library of alcohol – instead of finding The Canterbury Tales on the shelves you could pull off an 18-year-old Dalwhinnie single malt.”
General managers Jack and Alex Mackenzie talked with us as Janelle sampled a Pothecary’s gin, which she said was floral and delicious with notes of lavender and violets. She was also delighted to meet Steve Titman, who talked about locally-sourced cheeses, lamb, seasonal greens and other choices on the menu.
The themes of local and seasonal were reflected in our selections, starting with the delicate julienne asparagus from Red Barn Farm Shop near Yeovil, served with poached duck egg, cooked to perfection, said Janelle.
“My rump of Dorset Lamb, with wilted baby spinach, confit garlic mash and crumbled, fresh goats cheese, with aged balsamic, was scrumptious. It was an inspired pairing, with the robust Primitivo from Puglia a perfect complement.
“I ended with treacle tart and creme brulee garnished with fresh coriander. The pastry was perfect and the treacle filling not too sweet. I wasn’t prepared for the delightful surprise of the pairing of the ice-cream and coriander.
“The Turkish Delight and sour cherry truffles with our coffees were the final touch to a memorable meal.”
Eric and Steve host regular Wine Dinners featuring guest speakers, and wines from around the world. Check out the Summer Lodge website for dates – www.summerlodgehotel.co.uk