Peter Morrell stays in Thomas Hardy country at La Fosse Cranborne and finds good food, comfortable accommodation, a warm welcome and an ageless charm
It was time for my wife and I to get away from London for a short break, far enough away to make a difference but close enough to minimise travel time. I had heard good reports of La Fosse, a restaurant with rooms, in the picturesque village of Cranborne in Dorset, just over two hours from London but in the heart of the countryside.
As an added bonus I had been born in the area so it would give me an opportunity to show my wife the beauty of the area and some of the attractions in the towns and villages. Our first stop after leaving London was Salisbury. The city has a long history and is dominated by the cathedral which dates back to 1221. It was a Tuesday when we were there and the bi-weekly charter market was in full swing. The lively array of stalls included farmers selling fresh and seasonal local produce to the throng of shoppers.
Leaving Salisbury we passed through Wilton, of carpet fame, and also the location of Wilton House, home to the Earls of Pembroke for the last 500 years. Crossing the county border into Dorset far ranging views across rolling, sheep studded downland stretched to the horizon. We were heading for Shaftesbury, built on a 700 foot high hill it offers commanding views over the Blackmore Vale and towards Glastonbury Tor.
I can recommend a visit to the tourist office here, the friendly people there gave us a wealth of information about the 130+ attractions in the area. One of the town’s most fascinating landmarks is Gold Hill, a steep cobbled slope complete with a row of cottages. It was the location of Ridley Scott’s famous Hovis advert and also featured in the 1967 film, Far from the madding crowd. Standing at the top of the hill it didn’t take much imagination to see the enigmatic Bathsheba Everdene suddenly appear wrapped in a shawl. Before leaving the warm autumn day encourgaed us to sit on the terrace in front of the old abbey, enjoying the peace and the view over the timeless landscape.
Our final stop before booking in to La Fosse was Blandford Forum, a charming spot with well preserved Georgian architecture, built after a fire had devastated the town in 1731. Blandford is also home to the Hall and Woodhouse brewery founded in 1777 and famed for their Badger beers. Although time didn’t allow us to take it, a brewery tours is available, it lasts about two hours and you can book and read more details here…
The short drive to Cranborne took us past signposts to a range of ‘Tarrants’, Sixpenny Handley and another jewel in the area, Wimborne Minster. Arriving in Cranborne we discovery that it was as charming as we had been told. Mentioned in the Domesday book it has a long history, the local church was part of a Benedictine Abbey and Cranborne Manor, originally a hunting lodge has a notable garden which is open to the public.
La Fosse occupies a very attractive building with mellow red brickwork in The Square. We were greeted by chef proprietor Mark Hartstone, winner of the Best Chef at the Dorset Magazine Food, Drink & Farming Awards 2015. Mark has an impressive culinary CV which includes the Pebble Beach Restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quatre Saison and the Chewton Glen Hotel where he met his wife Emmanuelle who also runs La Fosse.
All six rooms are named after local cheeses, we were in Old Sarum, it was beautifully appointed, very roomy and had two windows overlooking the rear courtyard and garden.
Before dinner we had a drink in the cosy lounge while perusing the menu. There were a highly inventive selection of dishes on offer made from local ingredients. An amusing list of suppliers on the back of the menu showing the distance the food had travelled, it ranged from across the street to across the field and the furthest was 49 miles away, biltong from the Isle of Wight.
Being near coast and country there was a good selection of dishes, fish meat and vegetarian. We nibbled on rye and sour dough bread from the bakers which is about 20 yards from the restaurant, sprinkling it with dukkah a spice mix with sesame seeds.
My wife’s starter of beetroot bhaji with a pickled beet and watercress salad had a earthy excellence while my local charcuterie board of coppa, bresaola and salami showcased the quality of the area’s cured meats and its cheese, old Winchester from Lyburn Farm. Both of these dishes were well garnished and presented.
My wife had chosen the line caught Rockbourne trout as her main, this was a very attractive looking sesame coated fillet served with a side of greens, it was light and delicate. My Wiltshire lamb shank with root vegetables and crushed potato was delicious, the tender meat delivering a rich and profound flavour.
The wine list was a good selection from both the old and the new worlds. It offered examples of fashionable grapes and regions. For example an Argentinian Torrontes, a Marsanne/Viognier from the Languedoc and a Syrah from the Alentejo in Portugal. Our wine companion for the evening was the Kuki Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand. It was a good choice giving citrus and tropical aromas in the bouquet with powerful fruity flavours on the palate and a strong, fresh finish.
For dessert we were tempted by the award winning board of Dorset cheeses but ended up sharing a most delightful white chocolate and citrus bread and butter pudding with ice cream, a fitting end end to a very good dining experience.
La Fosse is popular for people who want to celebrate a special birthday or anniversary, a slightly different dining option is the BBQ Hut. This is a traditional Scandinavian building with a barbeque inside the hut. Mark prepares the food and then gives a short course on how to cook it. After that it’s over to you and is a unique and different way to cook, drink and socialise and have fun as a group.
Living in London with street lights, traffic and early departing aircraft you forget just how tranquil the country can be at night. After a perfect sleep we had to indulge in the ‘Full Cranborne’ of sausage, bacon. eggs and black pud before leaving.
La Fosse is only a short drive from the New Forest so instead of racing back home we went in search of the free-roaming ponies, cattle, donkeys, sheep and pigs that call this wooded wonderland home. The pigs were quite shy but all the other animals were there in abandance.
Our trip was exactly what we wanted, it was close to London but far enough away to be different, there was lots to see and do, the local cuisine was first-rate and we had enjoyed the warm welcome from Mark and Emmanuelle at La Fosse. It really was Far from the Madding Crowd.
For more about Dorset go to www.visit-dorset.com