Stately Homes have always held a fascination. Great houses set amongst manicured lawns, and trees often grown from seedlings collected by intrepid botanists a couple of centuries ago. But now we can enjoy not only a few hours at these magnificent estates but we can stay and play.
When it comes to chequered and fascinating histories, Brocket Hall has one of the most colourful of any of our stately homes. Indeed the scent of intrigue wafts down its very corridors and into bedrooms named for some of the most scandalous characters of British society.
The Brocket Hall as we see it today was built by renowned architect James Paine for Sir Mathew Lamb in 1760. However, the Hall stands on the site of two previous houses, the first of which was built in the 13th Century.
Sir Mathew’s son became the first Lord Melbourne, largely thanks to his notorious Elizabeth. She was a mistress of the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was, unsurprisingly, a frequent houseguest at Brocket Hall.
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, was a politician who served as Home Secretary and Prime Minister and was a mentor and close friend of the young Queen Victoria, who often stayed at Brocket Hall. His wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, had a liaison with the poet Lord Byron, whom she described as being “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Brocket Hall is filled with feminine anecdote of loves and lovers. Much more interesting than wars and warriors. On the death of Melbourne in 1848, the Hall passed to his sister, who was to marry Lord Palmerston, the man whose mistress she had been for many years.
In 1923 the 543-acre estate was purchased by Sir Charles Nall-Cain; he was created Baron Brocket in 1933. It was converted for use as a maternity hospital during World War II, and over 8000 babies were born there. These infants, now pensioners, are called the Brocket Babies.
The estate was inherited by his son Charles Ronald Nall-Cain, who developed the estate and turned the Hall into a conference centre for corporate events and governmental meetings. In 1992 he built the first of two golf courses, which was named after the second Lord Melbourne. An ideal setting for women who want to play golf and who expect impeccable sports facilities as well as a good lunch. The golf isn’t mandatory, though: the grounds are ideal for gentle rambles around all those acres.
Brocket Hall is available for private hire and boasts an impressive ballroom where Lady Caroline Lamb first introduced the Waltz – a daring dance which found partners locked in an embrace. It has the second-longest table in Britain (called ‘The Prime Minister’s Table’) which looks stunning when laid with fine china, sparkling glassware and flowers for wedding parties or banquets. Huge chandeliers add still further to the timeless elegance.
The thirty bedrooms (another sixteen at Melbourne Lodge are also available) are decorated in sumptuous style with superb linen, original oil paintings and antique furniture. The unspoilt views from the windows transport one back to another era of opulence and charm.
The fine-dining restaurant Auberge du Lac is set in the grounds of Brocket Hall. It was once a hunting lodge and dates back to 1760. It offers five unique dining rooms all with views across the championship golf-course. The furnishings and attention to detail are everything that you would expect from this Michelin-star restaurant.
Executive Chef Phil Thompson joined Auberge du Lac in 2002 as sous-chef, after working with celebrated chefs in leading London kitchens including the Lanesborough (Phil was only 17 when he worked for renowned chef Paul Gayler) and L’Escargot. He took over as Executive Chef in 2005 and now showcases the best of British ingredients, as well as those from further afield, with flair and dare. It’s no surprise that he has once again retained the coveted Michelin star. He comes from a family of chefs so his culinary success is evidently a combination of genetics and immense skill.
The restaurant is famed not only for its haute cuisine but also for its exceptional wine cellar of 750 bins. Auberge du Lac’s chief sommelier, Laurent Tavernier, who has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, is responsible for pairing the best of wine with the best of food. He gives advice to the timid taster and presents the connoisseur with intriguing quaffing opportunities.
The main dining room is cosy and cottagey, more elegant than rustic with low lights and candles to add a sense of romance. A three-course dinner can be had at a very affordable £55 but you will want to take advantage of that comprehensive wine list.
We sipped our 1998 Devaux Blanc de Blanc and pondered the menu. Half a dozen starters and the same of main courses. I chose Foie Gras marinated in Port and Armagnac with a garnish of gingerbread crumbs. A rich indulgence spread on a slice of toasted brioche. Laurent Tavernier suggested a pink Moscato called Innocent Bystander, from Australia. A quite exceptional lightly effervescent wine with a hint of melon, which I will be looking out for at the wine merchant’s.
My guest, a seafood lover, was tempted by the Mullet Ceviche but, reminded that American crayfish are now the scourge of British waterways, he was coaxed towards the poached crayfish. We couldn’t tell the nationality of the crustacean, but we hoped it was not native. Riesling Dreissigacker was the wine to accompany this starter – a good hit of citrus and a suspicion of apple.
My main course was a display of all things porcine. The fillet of pork was butter-tender and cooked to blushing medium rare; slow-roast belly was joined by black pudding and a sweet prune or two. It’s a popular liaison in France, but we in these islands have traditionally served apple with pork, so Phil Thompson coats his fillet with this fruit, creating an entente cordiale between the apple and dried plum. A glass of Syrah from New Zealand was fruity with a subtle spiciness.
The Hay-baked Lamb was always going to be the main course for my companion. The meat was first presented in its rustic terracotta pot with the still-glowing straw embers. The vessel was whisked away and the meat dusted off to return as a sophisticated plate of various cuts of lamb, a mound of couscous and a pithivier (flaky pastry pie) stuffed with goat’s cheese, anchovy and sweetbreads. The robust flavour of the little pie was contrasted by the sweetness of the lamb and complemented by a glass of Portuguese Romaneira, which was akin to port with full-on red berry flavour and of warm character. Ideal with any red meat.
The cheese cart at Auberge du Lac is legendary. It can muster around 25 diverse cheeses which are wheeled to one’s table on a sturdy, chunky, wooden trolley. I would recommend that you pace yourself, or regret, as we did, the lack of interior space to pack away a morsel or two of tangy blue or oozing Brie, but we couldn’t resist the desserts on offer.
My fellow diner once again chose an item cooked its own container. Honey-glazed Fig Tatin with Walnut Praline arrived in a miniature cast-iron casserole. Those little fruits still speak of warmer and more exotic climes, even though they are common in supermarkets these days. If one can’t pick figs warm from the tree then perhaps Phil Thompson’s confection comes a close second. Another Riesling was in order with this dessert. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut from Clare Valley, Australia had the sweetness of honey with ripe citrus notes.
Granny Smith Soufflé, Poached Blackberries and Condensed Milk was the title of my finishing dish. I could tell you how much I love grassy fresh apple desserts; I could mention that blackberries remind me of childhood in warm late summer. Truth is that anything with condensed milk has got to be a winner. All the flavours and textures of this combination married together to give a twist to that traditional favourite of apples-and-blackberries. A glass of amber Jurançon from Chateau Joly was a perfect choice and is even available in some supermarkets.
I am sometimes disappointed by Michelin-starred restaurants. Perhaps one has unrealistic expectations. Chefs are only human and there is only so much innovation and polish that a humble plate of food can stand. Phil Thompson and his team are serving some of the best dishes around, at realistic prices, in a location that will entice you back for those special occasions. I defy anyone who has a passion for food to leave disappointed. Auberge du Lac surpassed all expectations.
Brocket Hall is situated just 22 miles from the West End of London. Seven miles away, Luton International airport offers private jet facilities. Alternatively, helicopters may be landed on the front lawn by prior arrangement.
Brocket Hall, Welwyn, Hertfordshire, AL8 7XG
Phone: +44 (0) 1707 335241
Fax: +44 (0) 1707 375166
Hotel and restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018