Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham

It seems that the older we get, the more our holidays revolve around food – much to our waistlines’ detriment! After two fantastic Michelin-listed restaurants in Alsace we decided to use one of our days in Cheltenham to book lunch at Le Champignon Sauvage, a two starred restaurant since 2008. The head chef is David Everitt-Matthias, who has released several cookbooks, although I hadn’t heard of him or the books until we looked up the restaurant.

We walked across town from our glamorous Holiday Inn accommodation and I changed out of my grotty trainers into my heels just around the corner from the restaurant. I’d bought a new handbag to hide them in and Luke had had a haircut and shave that morning – we were looking our best! I only wish I’d asked them to take a photo of us out of our normal jeans and T-shirt ensembles.

As is my habit, I misread the time and we arrived half an hour early, so we had a drink in the pub just down the road and relaxed before arriving at the restaurant right on 12:30.

The restaurant is quite understated but very comfortable.

Double-covered tables, good spacing and comfortable chairs. The staff were very welcoming and I was very happy to be seated near a bright window so I could be one of those awful people who take photos of every course.

The menu had several options but we chose three courses from the £35 set menu.

Before we had ordered we were brought a small plate of savory bites that looked like truffles and biscuits.

We have our order taken and then were presented with a warm celery amuse-bouche.

Delicious! I have never had a celery soup and would never think to order one but this was creamy and refreshing. It also had a pretty mix of spices floating on top, including rose petals, I think.

We both decided to start with the breast of wood pigeon (warning – may contain lead shot).

Neither of us had tried pigeon before and both thought it was delicious. The whole flavour effect reminded me of an autumn forest (if I can dare to be so pretentious about it). Nutty granola, sweet blackberry and mango, green flavour of saxifrage and earthy pigeon with a hint of Christmas in the vegetables and chutney. Possibly my favourite course as it was so evocative! We shared a half bottle of a fairly heavy red that was exceptionally plummy and matched well.

Next up, I chose the Cornish ray (like sole) and Luke chose the beef blade. I had quite a bit of food envy as his dish looked incredible and tasted great. Mine was less powerful but the mushroom flavours were lovely and very well matched by the wine. I’d asked the waitress to choose a wine pairing and it was a Brescou viognier that reminded me strongly of the very unusual white we’d had with our mushroom dish at l’Agneau.

With the savory courses we had a choice of bread. Luke once again made a great choice with a brioche, while I chose a white roll that had an outer consistency of rock and shattered everywhere as I hacked into it. When I was given a second choice I went for the onion brioche. It was the lightest, crispiest bread roll I’ve ever had!

I didn’t need to eat two bread rolls with three courses but I did anyway.

Dessert!

We both chose the lemon verbena and strawberry sorbet. I grow lemon verbena in my garden and have clearly not been using it to its full potential.

Gorgeous! The strawberry sorbet was the prime flavour but the verbena was a delightful citrus note. The combination of textures was a pleasure to experience.

We decided to have a fortified wine with our dessert. I chose the champagne ratafia because the characters in Georgette Heyer books are always drinking it and I’ve never tried it. Luke chose the Pedro Ximenez and once again he made the best choice because it was quite the richest liquor I’ve ever tasted – and we’ve tried quite a few. My ratafia was also lovely with burnt toffee and raisin flavours.

I’d had quite enough by that stage but Luke had a coffee to finish and it came with petit fours.

We left a bit after 3 and I was full to bursting. Even though fancy restaurants do serve small quantities, there are lots of little extras that fill you up. The bill came to £132.60, which is about $260 AUD. It was almost twice as much as our lunches in Alsace and about $200 more than we’d spend on a pub lunch but well worth it for the experience.

A Day In The Cotswolds

Luke signed us up for a ‘Secret Cottage’ tour of the Cotswolds and so we arrived at Oxford station ready to catch a train to meet our group, only to find that, for the second time in a week, someone had been hit by a train and thrown the network into disarray. After hanging about for a bit a delayed train was rerouted and we jumped on and actually got to the meeting point a bit early.

We were met by two black vans and two drivers – ours was a local man named Jeremy who turned out to be an almost inexhaustible font of knowledge with a perfect BBC accent. He was the first (and probably the last) person I will ever hear using ‘one’ as an entirely unselfconscious personal pronoun.

Along with two girls from California who had arrived by the same train, we jumped in and were driven to a tiny village called Chastleton. There we admired a Jacobean manor which, up until quite recently, housed a lady who own 21 cats. Apparently the smell was quite something.

We also had a look in the church next door before heading around the corner to the ‘secret cottage’. The family who organise the tours live in the cottage and provide morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea throughout the day. Before eating we had a tour of the cottage.

Those mushroom shaped objects are ‘straddle stones’ used to elevate storage sheds so mice and rats couldn’t climb up.

It was originally three living spaces with families of up to 15 in each two room space. One room downstairs and one upstairs, reachable by a ladder. In winter the family pig and chickens would live inside too. These days it’s much nicer, with just four people living in the cottage rather than 45!

Morning tea was a delicious selection of biscuits and cakes.

On each excursion out we visited different villages in the Cotswolds and admired many thatched cottages and learned a great deal from Jeremy about the area’s history, geography, language, animals and social goings-on. For example, did you know that Patrick Stewart lives in the Cotswolds and writes many peeved letters to his local council about the shooting range near his property?

We visited Upper and Lower Slaughter – two gorgeous villages with rather dramatic names. However ‘slaugh’ meant ‘marsh’ in an old language, which makes it all less sinister. One of the villages is one of Britain’s ‘doubly thankful’ villages. This means that not one person was killed in either world war. Jeremy explained that the wars had quite devastating effects on some villages as all the young men would want to join the same regiment and so, if that regiment was in serious action, they could lose a generation in one blow.

We learned that while thatched roofs may be beautiful, they are also expensive. They cost about forty thousand pounds to restore (for a medium sized cottage) and a thatch last about 50 years. Some thatchers make signature animals along the roof line – often birds but sometimes cats, dogs and foxes.

Lunch!

The name ‘Cotswolds’ come from ‘cot’ meaning a fenced or enclosed space (from all the sheep pens) and ‘wold’ meaning ‘hills’.

A newly thatched cottage.

We saw a village named Great Tew that had been abandoned last century then revitalised when an heir to the estate had been found. It was a beautiful village filled with gorgeous buildings.

And a very cute pub!

Jeremy had worked as a geologist and as we walked through the village he found a brachiopod fossil!

It doesn’t look like much here but I could tell it was a shell, I promise!

He also had a little wallet of things he’d found while walking around the area, including a Roman coin. It’s the tiny blackened one.

Afternoon tea!

It was a lovely day. Not cheap, at £95, but it didn’t feel at all rushed and we had a very nice group of people to chat to, in fact four others from our group caught the same train back towards Oxford so we chatted the whole way. Lovely!

Oxford: Authors, Ancient History, and Artifacts.

We caught the bus from Cambridge to Oxford via Milton Keynes. There was a man on the bus who smelled so strongly of cigarette smoke that we had to move away from him. Still, at least he wasn’t cutting his toenails like the guy on the bus we caught to Heathrow a while back.

We arrived in Oxford around 1:30 and paid to leave our bags at the Oxford Backpackers. Four pounds per bag wasn’t a bad deal and the staff let us use the toilets too, which was nice of them.

We set off for a wander around town. Obviously I had to take a photo of this pub, almost next door to the school Ronnie Barker attended and named after one of the most famous Two Ronnies comedy sketches. We would’ve stopped in for a drink but it’s a Wetherspoons – urgh.

First stop was lunch at the Eagle and Child, the pub frequented by the illustrious Inklings, who included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

It’s a smallish, dark and pokey pub that was heated to a startling temperature, but at the very back was a room that was less like a Saharan midday and had enough light to read the menu. We shared a chicken and chorizo pie that wasn’t half bad and left feeling fairly satisfied.

Next was a walk around the Natural History Museum. It looked a lot like the one in London but on a much smaller scale and was also free to enter.

There are a lot of interesting things to see. One of the exhibits that grabbed my attention were a gigantic wasp nest that was grown deliberately by some psychopath.

They had a good insect display with a few cases of live bugs including giant cockroaches. Another good section was a history of British culture with some great graphs showing immigration patterns across the centuries and one showed how different languages affected place names.

Our last stop was a Tolkien exhibition in the library that is opposite the Radcliffe Camera. Although it wasn’t large it did have a good number of original items on display and I thought the artwork was most interesting. Tolkien designed the dust jackets and illustrations for early editions – and drew all the maps of course. I had not known that he was born in South Africa, although his family moved back to England when he was three. Sadly photography wasn’t allowed so here’s a photo of the Radcliffe Camera instead.

We had a short walk through town before picking up our bags and heading to our Airbnb. As we booked this trip quite late we’d decided on just a room in an apartment. When we arrived the owners told us we’d have a continental breakfast provided every day – a nice surprise!

Next: Blenheim Palace.

Two Days On The Essex Way

As Luke’s aunt and uncle live in Dedham we decided to incorporate a visit with a leg of the Essex Way, a long distance walking trail that stretches from the English Channel to the eastern edge of London.

Dedham sits close to the middle of the Way. We decided to walk from Great Horkesley to Dedham on the first day, stay the night then walk from Dedham to Manningtree the next as it would be easy to catch the train back to Cambridge. Also the part around Dedham is considered one of the prettiest on the Way as it’s an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

We left Cambridge mid morning and caught the bus from Bar Hill into town then a train from Cambridge to Ipswich then another train from Ipswich to Colchester. The train to Colchester was supposed to go on to London but due to a fatality on the track it was delayed in Colchester indefinitely.

From Colchester we caught a bus to Great Horkesley where we shared a steak and ale pie at the amusingly-named Half Butt Inn.

I had about a quarter and Luke had the rest, primarily because I’d weighed myself at Andrew’s and been mightily displeased with the results.

Anyhow, a little bit of pie was just as delicious as a lot and it’s good not to set out with a bursting stomach.

We set off up the road looking for the Way markers and were soon on the right track.

The Essex Way turned out to be much, much better marked than the Cumbria Way. Almost every time there was a turn it was clearly signposted. We only missed one marker and took two wrong turns, each of which only cost us a few extra minutes. I wouldn’t recommend doing it without a map but we coped quite well with a combination of a printout from from the website and google maps. On the Cumbria Way I would recommend the full OS maps but they weren’t necessary here.

A lot of the Essex Way seemed to be through fields.

A lot of them weren’t particularly scenic.

Maybe it wasn’t the best time of year to do it? We saw a lot of onions and beets, anyhow.

Essex is also very, very flat. We only walked up and down perhaps three small slopes in the two days of walking. This would make it an excellent walk for people with little experience doing long walks, plus you’re always within sight or sound of a road so it would feel a lot less daunting than being out on the moors or up a mountain. The trade off, off course, is that it’s nowhere near as beautiful. If the Lake District was a ten then most of what we saw on this trail (which admittedly wasn’t much) rates about a two. There are some pretty vistas across gently undulating fields with church spires in the distance but half the trail is between hedges and you can’t actually see anything.

Also not great if you’re a bit nervous of cars. Good for snacking on blackberries though, of which there was an abundance!

The little villages are very picturesque and if you like that he’s cottages you’ll be in heaven.

I particularly like all the churches and their fancy lych gates. Lych gates originated in the medieval period as a place for mourners to bring the corpse (litch) to be accepted by the priest. The lych gate was a covered place for them to wait.

This part of England is known for horse breeding and racing so we saw a few horses along the way too.

As we neared Dedham our feet were aching so we stopped for a drink at Milsom’s, the fancy restaurant that we’d visited on our previous visit to Mark and Sue. They didn’t bat an eyelid at our sweaty clothes and red faces, which was awfully good of them.

After a half pint and a rest we felt slightly refreshed and didn’t find the last kilometre too taxing. We walked nearly 19 kilometres on our first day, a good effort after a number of weeks of slacking off. We also managed to get in just before the clouds opened. Lucky!

The following day we had a delicious cafe breakfast that was as good as anything you’d get in Melbourne and had another look at the renovations of Mark and Sue’s place. It’s really come along since we were last there! It’s all going to look amazing when it’s done and there’s lots of neat little aspects, like windows that close automatically when it starts raining.

I took a few photos of Luke with his cousins Alice and Isabel. Luke is the oldest of his generation of cousins as his mother is the eldest of nine Dempsey children. Luke’s uncle Mark is the youngest of the nine (and only four years older than me!) so his children are the youngest of that generation of cousins. Does that make sense?

It was lovely to see them all again!

Our second day of walking was from Dedham to Manningtree. It wasn’t anywhere near as far as the first day but that was probably just as well as we were a bit stiff. The views on day two were a bit better and we only went off track once right at the end. It did mean climbing a fence and crouching through some trees but we emerged on the footpath only a couple of hundred metres from Manningtree station.

We stopped off at the surprisingly nice Station Hotel in Ipswich for lunch (surprising because hotels that are next to train stations are often rubbish) and then continued on the Cambridge.

All in all, a good walk for our level of fitness and experience but not terribly scenic. Perhaps it would be better in Spring? It did seem like a walk that wouldn’t get too muddy (unlike the CW) and is much more accessible. That being said we only saw one other walker in the whole two days and he was also doing the Essex Way. We stopped for a moment to chat and he expressed surprise as well that we were the first people he’d seen and he’d been walking all day. I’m glad we saw at least one other walker so Luke could have a small taste of what I’d experience on an hourly basis in Cumbria. Often chatting to other walkers took up several hours of my day! How strange that, this close to London, we only saw one person.

A few more photos to finish with – and could someone tell me what plant this is?

Crabapples?

Cycling around Colmar

Our main goal during our time in Colmar was to do some cycling through some scenic villages and Alsace vineyards as we’d not done any cycling on our previous travels. We also hoped we’d find a few nice restaurants and sample some local produce – wine being top of the list!

We hired two electric bikes from Lulu Cycles in Colmar. We’d originally planned to get normal bikes but a mother and her two daughters were returning some electric bikes when we went in and they strongly recommended them so we decided to give them a go.

Our first day of cycling followed a route that went through the villages of Turckheim, Katzenthal and Ammerschweir and ended up being a loop that was about 20kms.

I had problems on the first day with my bike as the pedals would lock if I tried to use the electric assistance going up hills – which is obviously when I most wanted it. Never having used an electric bike before and with neither of us being mechanically-minded we had no idea what was wrong and how we could fix it. I ended up having to push the bike up hills. Fortunately none of the hills were very big or very steep but it was quite annoying. It turned out, when we took it back, that I had the bike in the wrong gear, so on our second day I knew what to do and it was all fine.

Luke expresses his disapproval for my bike with a dirty look.

The villages around Colmar are all very picturesque. Some more so than others, of course. Each of the ones we visited on the first day was nice and we noticed that every church we came to had a shallow but large metal basket on the roof and in most of them were nesting storks. Andrew tells me that this solves the problem of storks nesting on chimneys and creating fire hazards!

We arrived in Kazenthal in time for lunch and the first restaurant we happened upon had a Michelin plate on the outside – a good sign!

A l’Agneau (don’t ask me to pronounce it) was delightful. They didn’t raise an eyebrow at our sweaty faces or rumpled cycling clothes, despite the fat that everyone else there looked like they had a special occasion happening. We choose a €28 three course lunch that also included an amuse bouche and petit fours. All the food was deliciously fresh and perfectly cooked with lovely presentation. The manner of the staff was also excellent – despite a low level of English they asked where we from and recommended other things to see in the area as well as recommending wines to match each course.

I don’t think I could pick my favourite course, every element was superb. After drinking and eating so much we both had a cappuccino before getting on the bikes to continue our ride. I rarely drink coffee but I have come to understand its value after a heavy meal!

Thankfully most of the remaining ride was downhill and fairly straightforward. One of the downsides of this sort of sight-seeing is having to stop frequently to check the map as we didn’t know the area. It would’ve been good to have some way of attaching my phone to the handlebars to use as a satnav. I also wouldn’t have minded a rear view mirror when we were on the roads so I could see cars and how far Luke was behind me.

Our second day of riding was even more successful. This time I had the gears+electrics worked out and after a brief attempt to use my headphones with google navigation so we wouldn’t have to stop so often, we were on our way, hurtling through corn fields and feeling the wind in our hair. Well.. except when google maps took us into muddy fields and knee-high grass.

Our second day took us through the villages of Herrlisheim-près-Colmar, Eguisheim, Wettolsheim and Wintzenheim. If you’re planning on visiting any villages around Colmar I strongly urge you to leave Eguisheim until last because anywhere you go after that looks a trifle dull.

Eguisheim is even prettier than Colmar and is made up of roads that are concentric circles.

It makes it a very pleasant place to wander around, even if it’s hard to know when to stop. It’s full of places to do wine tastings – we wished we had booked a night there so we could have taken advantage of it all.

We ended up eating at Au Vieux Porche, another Michelin-listed restaurant and almost, almost, as good as A l’Agneux. If anything was missing it was possibly the attentiveness of the service. There was no effort to engage us in any conversation and when we were ready to pay it took twenty minutes for the maitre d to come to our table. Otherwise the food was excellent and it was about the same price – nearly €90 for the two of us to have three courses each, wine pairings and coffee. My first ever espresso – predictably dreadful but with the desired effect of allowing me to continue riding without falling asleep on the bike.

Unfortunately the lighting was quite dim so my photos are a bit rubbish but believe me, it was all delicious! Well, except the coffee and that wasn’t their fault.

Although we hired the bikes for four days we only used them on two due to rain and hot weather and being lazy. We really enjoyed both days despite the few issues and it is definitely a lovely and accessible part of the world for riding if you’re not super experienced.

Here’s a few more photos from Eguisheim to finish off!