Food has become something of a national obsession, and for Londoners in particular – who tend to be critical shoppers and seasoned diners-out – food is a key part of a weekend break. The following are our ten current favourites close to London.
Back to foodie basics
Abbey Home Farm (Burford Road, Cirencester, 01285 640 441) is a working farm that is perfect for a one-stop rural, foodie break. It’s entirely organic and is owned by Hillary and Will Chester-Master; they run cheesemaking courses, half-day cookery workshops – where you can learn to make cheese, pastry and cakes – and workshops for children. There’s also a farm shop and a café, plus tractor farm tours.
The farm produces its own dairy, vegetables, fruit, meat and bread (made from its own wheat). So you can either buy ingredients to create your own locavore feast, opt for the farm-made ready meals, or just eat in the café. There is even a tiny museum with local archeological finds.
From Easter to October turn up unannounced (during shop hours) to camp out in the Green Field or Magical Glade. This is a place with strong eco-credentials, so expect compost loos and heat-your-own shower water over braziers.
If you’re seeking a few more home comforts and year-round accommodation, the Shepherd’s Hut and Hut by the Pond (each sleeping two) have wood-burning stoves and hot showers. There is also a holiday cottage that sleeps four.
Trains run from Paddington to Kemble station (via Swindon) and take about one and a half hours.
Perry is an alcoholic drink similar to cider but made from pears. Two perry pear varieties sum up the possible imbibing effects well: Mumblehead and Merrylegs. For some, the thought of perry and cider conjures up sickly memories of teenage inebriation that are best forgotten. For others, the gentle fizz brings to mind happy thoughts of crisp countryside and evenings of mellow fruitfulness. If you fall into the latter category, a trip to the source might appeal.
There are three main perry producing counties: Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. The circular Herefordshire Cider Route takes in a variety of museums, pubs, cider mills and perry producers, from Ross-on-Wye to Leominster. Exploring on two wheels (be warned, this is hilly country) works up a thirst and avoids the legalities of operating machinery while under the influence. There are two recommended routes, starting out from Ledbury or Pembridge, depending on your level of commitment.
The Wilton Court Hotel (Wilton Lane, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, 01989 562 569) is a smart option. Hire bikes to explore at Pedal a Bike Away (01594 860 065), five miles away over the Gloucestershire border.
Wheely Wonderful Cycling (01568 770 755) has exploration packages (from two days, £175) that include cycle hire and accommodation.
Trains run from Paddington to Hereford and take about three hours.
Flirt with farming
Londoners often dream of upping sticks and moving to a countryside farm. Fortunately, you can test the experience before flogging your flat. My Farm is a National Trust experiment near Cambridge on the Wimpole Estate (Old Wimpole Road, Royston, Cambridgeshire, 01223 206 000), where subscribing online ‘farmers’ play a role in the management of a working farm. It is Farmville come to life with live webcams, but more than that, it is a chance for 10,000 people (and more visitors) to learn how a real farm works and reconnect with farming methods.
Subscribers pay £30 to be able to vote monthly on the way the farm is run and influence decisions about livestock and crops. Visitors get the benefits without having to offer opinions. On a day out at the farm, stride through the fields to inspect crops, and eye-up rare breed pigs, poultry and cattle.
After exploring the farm, eat at the tearoom, or retreat to the luxury of Michelin-starred Midsummer House in central Cambridge (Midsummer Common, 01223 369299).
Hotel Du Vin (15-19 Trumpington Street, 01223 227330) is within walking distance of Midsummer House and has some of the best rooms in the city.
Trains run from King’s Cross to Cambridge and take about 45 minutes; a slower stopping service runs to Royston.
Go for the glutton
The Thameside village of Bray was originally put on the culinary map in 1972 by the Roux brothers when they opened the Waterside Inn. An exquisitely refined anglo-french experience, the Waterside Inn has the record for the longest-held three Michelin Stars of any restaurant in Britain. The 11 bedrooms upstairs mean that impeccable service and elegant hospitality can continue throughout the night and into breakfast the following morning.
In 1995, a very different type of chef came to Bray. Heston Blumenthal opened the Fat Duck and garnered the town another three Michelin Stars with his distinctive dining experience. If you want a taste of Heston’s expertise but without the wait for a reservation or quite such a hefty bill, try the Crown or the Hind’s Head. Both are historic village pubs, serving polished British fare.
Trains run from Paddington to Maidenhead and take 40 minutes; from there it’s a short taxi ride to Bray.
The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm (Brogdale Road, Faversham, 01795 536 250) has nearly 4,000 varieties of fruit in its orchards. The collection is beautiful at any time of the year, but check the events calendar for dates of fruit festivals and blossom walks. There are also regular courses on how to grow, prune and compost. The orchards can be explored with a guide, or by following one of the self-guided walks.
Read’s Restaurant With Rooms (Macknade Manor, Canterbury Road, Faversham, 01795 535 344) is based in a Georgian house, within walking distance of the fruit collection.
Trains run from St Pancras to Faversham and take just over an hour.
Meet Fishy Rob
These classes are available on beaches from Brighton to Dorset, depending on the season. Fishy Rob provides the tackle and the expertise for those who really want to know where their fish comes from.
Days out can take a variety of formats, depending on the group size (up to four), the tides and the species you’ll be targeting: perhaps with catching bait in rockpools, or mussel collecting before the rods come out.
Contact Fishy Rob via his website to find out what he recommends for your trip.
Trains run from London Bridge to Brighton and take about an hour by train; trains also run from St Pancras (and take slightly longer).
Go the whole hog
The New Forest’s mix of trees and woodland means that a wide variety of mushroom species can be found. Fungi forays have become so popular that some groups are booked up years in advance. Operators that are worth checking for availability include mycologist John Wright, who has written three handbooks for River Cottage on wild food and how to find it. He runs popular foraging courses in the New Forest (and Devon).
The Forestry Commission runs several foraging courses; New Forest keeper Maarten Ledeboer also introduces groups to the culinary aspects of deer management. New Forest Mushrooms supplies restaurants and home kitchens with mushrooms and takes groups out on fungi walks into the woods from Ringwood.
The Pig Hotel (Beaulieu Road, Brockenhurst, Hampshire, 01590 622 354) is a boutique hotel that prides itself on its local food, with both a forager and a kitchen gardener on the team.
Trains run from Waterloo to Brockenhurst and take about one and a half hours.
Forage for your supper
Fat Hen (01736 810 156) runs foraging courses around Land’s End that will take you through field, forest and shore in search of edible morsels. The courses run from a morning’s ramble and lunch to entire weekends revolving around found foodstuffs. Any of the options will change the way you look at the natural world and make you appreciate the snacking opportunities at your feet.
There are a variety of self-catering cottages (along with camping fields) at the Fat Hen headquarters (Gwenmenhir, Boscawen-noon Farm, St Buryan, Cornwall, 01736 810 156). The nearby Gurnard’s Head (near Zennor, 01736 796 928) restaurant and hotel at St Ives has a menu filled with locally produced food and comfortable beds.
Trains run from Paddington to Penzance and take about five and a half hours.
Daylesford Organics (near Kingham, Gloucestershire, 01608 731 703) has farm shop outlets in London but is based in the Cotswolds. On the organic farm, visitors can sign up to one or two-day cookery courses or learn about keeping bees and hens at the Farm School. Cookery school classes cover artisanal breads, head to tail butchery, fish, pastries and dairy. There are even classes for kids.
There are self-catering cottages on and near the farm. Or stay in nearby Bledington at the King’s Head Inn (The Green, Bledington, Oxfordshire, 01608 658 365), where meals are sourced as locally as possible.
Trains run from Paddington to Kingham and take about an hour and a half.
One way to get close to the source of your food is to stalk, shoot and prepare the animal for the table yourself. At Frilsham in Berkshire, game gourmet Mike Robinson runs the Pot Kiln, a pub where the lines between plate and field blur. Menus feature several varieties of locally dispatched game, the Game Cookery School teaches you how to cook it, and there are deer stalking courses for those who want to go the whole hog. If you’ve never held a gun before, the Royal County of Berkshire Shooting School (Pangbourne, 01491 672 900) can provide tuition and guns and clays to practise on.
The Royal Oak pub (01635 201 325) in picturesque Yattendon has rooms and prides itself on a locally sourced menu.
Trains run from Paddington to Theale (or Pangbourne with one change) and take from 45 minutes.