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The Auberge du Lac at Brocket Hall

Clifford Mould joined the rat pack for the launch of
Jean-Christophe Novelli's latest culinary adventure

You must have observed the phenomenon: brilliant teachers promoted to heads, then they become frustrated administrators; caring nurses elevated to the ranks of hospital managers. There's a similar danger lurking here for chefs as well. Make a success of one restaurant, and the pressure is on to roll out more of the same, and it's out of the kitchen and into the office you go. In the late 1990s there seemed no stopping Jean Christophe Novelli. From the first base of his eponymous restaurants in Clerkenwell EC1, he opened Novelli W8. Hot on its heels was an auberge in Normandy, Le Moulin de Jean, and the smart Curzon Street establishment Les Saveurs de Jean-Christophe Novelli. Sandwiched in between all this was his makeover of the grub on the SeaFrance Ferries' Dover-Calais route (not greatly appreciated by white van fans of the beer run) and his collaboration with the Cellars Hohenhort in Cape Town. 

Not a great deal of time for cooking then - mind you, he had some very talented chefs working for him. But now he's found an idyllic setting by a lake in a grand estate that's part of an elegant stately home, Brocket Hall. "Isn't that where Lord B?", I hear you mutter - yes, so we draw a veil over the financial scandal that forced Lord B into that other, equally exclusive country retreat near Arundel where one is a house guest at Her Majesty's pleasure.

The good thing, and there's always a silver lining, is that the Hall has been leased to a company that operates it as a venue for grand corporate bashes. You can't stay there in the normal hotel sense, you have to book the whole place lock stock and barrel. But what a fabulous time you'd have there. It's staffed by real English Butlers, proper gentlemen's gentlemen, so treat them with respect - they deserve it. Apart from being an endangered species and a national treasure, they have the knack of making their guests feel as though they too, humble sales managers though they be, are to the manner born. The great rooms are stuffed with portraits, antiques, objects of vertu, and best of all, black and white photographs of the Brockets at play, mainly involving horses, dogs and fast cars. You really do feel like one of those privileged guests in Gosford Park.  The bedrooms are the epitome of comfort. We luxuriated in the thickest and softest of bath wraps after showering away the tensions of the M1 Motorway. Naturally there was a bottle of Champagne and a couple of glasses ready to ensure that the remains of the day passed as blissfully as possible. If your boss is planning an upmarket beano, this is definitely the place to go. I wouldn't turn down a wedding invitation there, either!

auberge du lacThe Auberge du Lac is a charming old house on the very edge of the lake where dining al fresco in more clement weather would be a great attraction. Should you need to stay overnight, there is the converted stable block, Melbourne Lodge, for the use of  diners and also golf club members. There are two golf courses and there is the Nick Faldo golf school. Other sporting activities can be arranged for corporate guests.

The menu is large and impressive, but immediately familiar to those who have eaten chez Novelli in the past. At the heart of Jean Christophe's cooking is a respect for the rural culinary traditions of France. Looking back at my 1999 review of Novelli EC1, I was reminded then of those evocative descriptions of farmhouse kitchens in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking: "those carefully composed, slowly cooked dishes which are the domain of French housewives" (she was writing nearly 40 years ago!).

Amongst the grands projets de la haute cuisine, you can still expect to find pig's trotter, black pudding, potatoes that are bashed rather than mashed, and slow cooked meats. I notice Jean Christophe continues to incorporate liquorice stick into his stews to render them even darker and slicker. For our grand gastronomic tasting dinner we commenced with a substantial amuse bouche of grilled scallops and black pudding. The scallop coral had been made into a powder, there was a wee topping of caviar, a wafer thin slice of apple ( to cut the black pudding?) and a bed of crushed potatoes Belle de Fontanoy.  Next came the starter, a "steamed symphonie of Wood Mushrooms as a "soft gateau en robe d'hiver de Crepe", winter Sariette, Port Madeira reduction, infused mi-cuit Foie Gras and vieux Parmesan Crackelin (sic)". It was very rich, and for a tasting portion, quite generous. In case you're wondering, sariette is the herb Savory, and mi-cuit foie gras is normally cooked gently en terrine immersed a bain-marie. My little lobe of liver looked more as if it had been given a slight suggestion of the saute pan. These two courses came with the most delicious Austrian wine from that eccentric genius  Willi Opitz.  It was a late picked, though fairly dry Pinot Gris, complex and multi-layered, and it clung to the mouth - ecstacy!

As if all this were not enough, along came the Intermediare course: roast turbot "des Cotes" topped with melted Beaufort Dauphinoise, green garlic essence, Cep jus and home fed mussels. The fishes were all excellent, and by now I was tiring a little of mushrooms, but the topping of slicey potatoes was most comforting. And so to the main course, five hours braised ox cheek with the magic addition of liquorice. At this point I wished I hadn't eaten quite so much already (there had been wonderful canapes at 7.30pm when the appetite is at its keenest!). A perfect match for this tender meat with its dark, unctuous sauce was Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon from California's Alexander Valley. The wines are all supplied by T&W Wines, whose list is well worth sending for. This gastronomic marathon ended with a sweet little individual tarte tatin, accompanied by Willi Opitz's legendary late harvested Goldackerl. 

The cost of your meal:
Lunch would be a good bet, with hearty starters like the ham hock and foie gras terrine, followed by roast leg of lamb a la Provencale and some chocolate tart. (There are lighter options too!) Coffee or tea is included, as is a half bottle of wine per diner. For 28.00 that's excellent value. 

A la carte prices are around 6 to 8 for starters and from 14.50 (slow cooked oxtail with liquorice) to 16.50 for the braised pig's trotter, or 22.00 for the turbot we had. There  is a six course tasting menu every day for 85.00. The wine list is terrific, and the young sommelier is a real enthusiast who gives sensible advice when asked. 

The Auberge du Lac is already packing them in, particularly at the weekends. There are some beautiful private rooms, furnished with antiques; what a place to entertain a few very close friends who appreciate good food and wine!

Clifford Mould, February 2003  Click here for the Summer 2003 Menu

Auberge du Lac, Brocket Hall, Welwyn, Hertfordshire. AL8 7XG
Tel: +44(0)1707 368888 fax 368889 email: auberge@brocket-hall.co.uk 
http://www.brocket-hall.co.uk

T&W Wines, 51 King Street, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 2AU email: contact@tw-wines.com    www.tw-wines.com


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