Sandwich in Kent, one of the Cinque ports, has many things to recommend it, not least its own railway station which means you can hop on a train at St Pancras and be there barely an hour later. But its main charms lie within the town itself – ancient winding lanes lined with medieval buildings, a glorious Norman church with stumpy 12th century tower, views over the River Stour and plenty of tea and antique shops.
The town’s history is also stuffed with intriguing events: the first captive elephant to arrive in England landed in Sandwich in around AD43 (the second appeared in 1255, a pre-Bayoux tapestry gift from the French king to Henry III); and it’s the one-time residence of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, who invented the eponymous snack thus transforming a billion billion working lunches.
Not that you’ll be needing one of the Earl’s inventions on a visit today – Sandwich is now also home to The Salutation, a hotel and restaurant with Michelin starred chef set in an impressive Edwardian house designed by Lutyens, and three acres of gardens in which Gertrude Jekyll quite likely had a hand.
Even on a bleak January day, the silent lawns and frosted borders exude a sense of hopefulness underlined by head gardener Steve Edney, resplendent in tweedy weskit who is prepared to stand around in the chill explaining to the uninitiated what various plants are. Inside, however, winter disappears completely. The Salutation is owned by a hedgefund manager and a costume buyer, but luckily it’s the costume buyer, in the person of Dorothy Sarafoglou, who’s in charge of the décor and the food. Thus, the bar and upstairs dining room opening onto terraces exude a sense of light and colour and in the chef’s dining room downstairs in the old kitchens, any sense of underground eating has been firmly banished.
And that’s where we had our lunch, seated at a spacious table separated from the kitchens by a glass partition beyond which other people toiled on our behalf. Head Chef Shane Hughes (ex-Lanesborough, Connaught and Ynyshir Hall in Powys, Wales,) emerged to recommend the market tasting menu which began with a lightly curried cauliflower veloute with smoked ham hock and parsley oil. Small, compact and bursting with flavour, accompanied by a terrific homemade beer sourdough bread and smoked butter. This was followed by a bite-sized chunk of cured local mackerel enisled by a horseradish and cucumber consomme with caviar and pickled cucumber. Deliciously clean and light and the perfect reviving antidote to having greedily eaten almost the entire contents of the bread basket earlier. Next came a steamed paupiette of sole with chargrilled prawns and a vegetable spaghetti threesome in a fragrant green sauce of such delicacy and flavour that one was immediately whisked off to the calm seas and exotic beaches of Thailand.
After that it was a swift return to the English channel with local lamb confit in a pepper sauce and a thyme scented jus. The meat was ravishingly good, charred, smokey and tender all at once although eclipsed slightly on the plate by a singularly large, accompanying tomato. Pudding featured a pistachio cream – the Platonic ideal of pistachio-ness, decorating a sumptuous cherry bakewell and a bright, frosty sorbet made with fruit supplied by the Queen’s cherry growers. Had I been the chatelaine of this establishment I would have been up and down the stairs all evening polishing off any remaining Bakewell tart – as tarts go, this one went all too quickly.
Having stuffed ourselves with this delicious lunch, washed down by a very good, though unseasonal Rose, we went out to explore the rest of the gardens and visit the Salutation shop (soon to be a tea house as well) stocked by Dorothy during her theatrical travels. Altogether, it was a terrific day out. Next time, I’m going to stay in one of the Salutation’s 17 bedrooms and thus take full advantage of any left-over pudding… By Clare Russell
The Salutation, Knightrider Street, Sandwich, Kent CT13 9EW. Reservations: 01304 619 919, or email [email protected], the-salutation.com. The lunch-time Small Plate Menu (noon-2pm, Monday-Saturday) from £2-£16