A foodlover’s day at Pennyhill Park Hotel

For the launch of The Bakery, the new baking quarters at luxury country house Pennyhill Park Hotel, I was cordially invited to participate in a baking session with Head Pastry Chef Denis Drame and Head Baker Stèphane Gliniewicz. These two gentlemen are as close to baking royalty as you can get; Denis has worked at both Pierre Hermé and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and Stèphane most recently held the position as Senior Baker at The Connaught. If anyone could teach me how to a perfect a brioche or bake a baguette,  I assumed it was them.

A lunch at the Michelin-starred Latymer might have been part of the appeal too…

The day began with tea and cakes, and a quick brief of what we could expect of the baking class. Julian Tomlin, General Manager at Pennyhill Park, told us that this wasn’t a day to start a diet, which I had no intention of doing anyway. With the run-up to Christmas the general rule is to eat or be eaten. I prefer the former. Especially when a restaurant with four AA Rosettes is involved.

We started out in the newly opened Bakery where the Baking Team now can supply the hotel guests (and locals) with buckwheat bread, rosemary and sea salt focaccias, wholemeal bread, sourdough and baguettes. With the large viewing window guests can take a peek at what the chefs are up to, and possibly pick up a skill or two. Judging by how hard it was to roll a baguette, I would rather suggest signing up to a full 3-hour cookery class that The Bakery will be holding throughout the year.

With our apron firmly tied around our waists, we listened to Denis giving us pointers and tips on how to delicately handle the dough to preserve as much flavour as possible. You don’t want to over-work it, the key is to be gentle; a skill that Stèphane later demonstrated to perfection. Well, what else would you expect from someone who trained under Christophe Michalak at Plaza Athénée in Paris? After we had watched the process from fresh yeasts to the rising of the dough,  it was time to get our hands floured and start rolling baguettes.

When we had mastered making baguettes, we went on to mini baguettes and then rolls. You would thinking rolling a dough ball would be the easiest thing in the world, but mine were quite a disaster. Stèphane looked at me with pity in his friendly French eyes, and assured that it takes time. At the back of my head I crossed out Master Baker as a future career.

A pear and almond tart was our next challenge, with Denis in his element, showing us how it’s done. We rolled out the pastry making sure the surface was smooth, then filled a metal tin form with our labour of love; this is not as easy as it seems and I got over-excited with the rolling pin and nearly made the pastry too thin. Piping the almond cream proved a challenge too,  but I produced a rather nice coil. Lastly, we sliced the poached pears and decorated the tin – I imagine I looked pretty smug as I handed over my tart. The satisfaction of making your own pudding is over-powering.

After 2 hours of hard, but fun, work, we heard Latymer call on us (or that might’ve just been me). The tasting menu was presented in front of us as soon as we were seated, and we were ready to be wowed by Head Chef Michael Wignall’s  fine dining skills. 3 hours later, we had consumed:

Ballottine of marinated foie gras from Langres, autumn truffles, duck and beetroot consommé, Manchego, sour dough crisp and Pedro Ximenez jelly…

Poached rainbow trout, hand dived scallops, slow cooked octopus, anchovy beignets, pickled seaweed, warm seaweed tea…

Calves sweetbreads, poached langoustine, Jerusalem artichoke purée, tart fine of confit onion, Jerusalem artichoke jus…

Cassoulet of razor clams, baby squid, poached quail’s egg, squid ink gnocchi, clam velouté…

Next up was a splendid dish of pigeon, but for this I completely blanked out, devoured the whole thing and forgot to take any notes.

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Coconut parfait, rhubarb, shortbread crumble, rum espuma…

Bitter chocolate délice, pistachio marzipan, coffee tagliatelle, caramel powder, almond foam…

The dabs of foam here, mousse there and and other intriguing flavour-bomb dollops had to be dissected, and I fear I wasn’t great company as all my palate wanted to do was analyse the different components in my mouth, dish after dish.

My favourite was the cassoulet of razor clams, which, apart from having the creamiest and smoothest flavour, was served in porcelain pods, adding an extra touch to the already impressive presentation. The calves sweetbread, which I always have a week spot for, was a real tender treat. The coconut parfait too had me in a steady grip of pleasure and finger-licking joy.

I can’t fault any of the dishes, although some were more or less to my liking, which is to be expected when you taste everything from pigeon to rhubarb. However, it remains a mystery to me why waiters and waitresses talk you through the dishes like they’re on speed. Slow down, articulate and let the guests understand what they’re being served, especially when it’s a complex plate of 7 different ingredients.

You would expect I was full for the day after this feast, but as I stood in the kitchen later that evening I couldn’t help but indulge in one of the mini-baguettes we had helped making. My flatmate picked up a brioche from my goodie bag and seemed pleased too. The pear and almond tart was devoured by my colleagues the next day.

The cookery classes at Pennyhill Park Hotel kick off next year with Bread Making being the first of many. Afternoon Tea Treats is another session I would keep my eye on, considering Denis Drame recently won The Tea Guild’s Award of Excellence 2010. Classes will last 3 hours and will cost £80pp, which includes tuition, recipes, food samples and an apron to take home.

If you’re more in the mood for relaxing, Pennyhill Park boasts a pretty impressive spa (the British rugby team paid a visit when we were there) with eight indoor and outdoor pools, a fitness suite and five-star treatment rooms. And there’s always that 10-course tasting menu at Latymer to try…

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