With restored cottages, pudding parties and stylish bakery-cafes, the rural Cotswolds in south-central England is upping its game as a food and lifestyle destination.
Friday nights at the Three Ways House hotel—a 48-room property located in the rural region of the Cotswolds—have a different kind of air. There is an underlying tension; an anticipation. The furniture in the lounge is pushed back to the walls to accommodate a group of 60 guests, who make small talk as they wait for their host to make the important announcement they have been waiting for: the seven puddings they will have for dinner. Once they have been revealed, applause breaks, and the staff take the puddings on a little parade from the kitchen to the restaurant.
The guests are members of The Pudding Club, a tradition started by the hotel’s previous owner, Jean Turner, in 1985, after she learned that there were many people who wanted to enjoy old-fashioned British puddings like Spotted Dick and Sticky Toffee but could not find them in restaurants. “Turner decided to have a meal with some friends, where they’d have a light main course and seven puddings,” says Jill Coombe, the current owner of the hotel. “The club has since grown, and the format remains the same. Our guests are excited about [having puddings] without someone telling them, ‘No, you should not eat this much’.”
There are rules, though. The host invites one table at a time to help themselves to a portion of a pudding. You aren’t allowed to come back for second helpings if you haven’t finished what you have in your bowl. The proof is indeed in the pudding.
“We don’t advertise [The Pudding Club], but people know about us. We have had visitors from Japan, too,” adds Coombe. “People come in pairs, and then return as a group of ten. We have also added some Saturday nights to satisfy demand.”
That foodies will make a pilgrimage to rural Gloucestershire—one of the five counties that make up the hilly Cotswolds—to join The Pudding Club is fascinating indeed. But for the locals, it is hardly surprising, given how its tourism economy has, over the decades, morphed from an emphasis on outdoor activities for day trippers from London, to dining choices that showcase the best of local produce. Cookery schools have sprouted up, food festivals occur throughout the year, and foodie tours are taking off.
Bringing Home the dough
The Cotswolds is what people imagine when they think of Old England: the cobbly towns are scenes straight out of an Enid Blyton book, the streets coloured in a gorgeous honey-golden hue, thanks to the local yellow limestone that is used to build the houses. In the old days, sheep farming was the cornerstone of the Cotswolds’ economy (in antiquated English, ‘cots’ meant ‘sheep pens’, while ‘wolds’ stood for ‘hills’), with the wool from their prized Cotswold Lion sheep bringing much wealth to the region during the 18th century. Then the industrial revolution arrived, the wool trade declined, and the town went to sleep—until tourism came along.
One of the benefits of rural tourism is the revitalisation of old villages. Caryn Hibbert, a former doctor, and her filmmaker husband, Jerry, bought Thyme, a hamlet in Gloucestershire’s bucolic Southrop Manor Estate, ten years ago. The property was in a derelict state, and the couple began restoring the historic buildings, some of which date back to the 12th century. Today, the former sheds, barns and cottages have been turned into a hotel, a kitchen garden and farm, a restaurant, and a cookery school.
At Thyme, guests can go on a foraging tour, where they’d find quintessentially local greens such as cucamelons, a quail egg-shaped melon that is delish in a salad; and medlars, a round, gnarly fruit also known unflatteringly as cul de chien (dog’s arse) in French, but is, thankfully, fragrant and sweet when pickled or turned into a jam. Guest chefs from all over England also conduct lessons at the cookery school.
One of the cookery school’s popular lessons is Sue Naismith’s baking class. Known affectionately as Thyme’s ‘fairy-cake godmother’, Naismith is a familiar face in the Cotswolds circuit, having made her name working in the region’s hotels and restaurants for decades before starting her own catering company. She does some fantastic Avoca scones, using eggs that come from the chicken coop just 20 yards away. We had a go at making those scones, which were trickier than we thought: Naismith’s pastries were perfectly rotund crowns of buttery, flaky delights. Mine ended up looking more like a cross between a pie and a muffin. (Note to self: work the butter into the flour evenly and gently. Don’t rush.)
Scones and clotted cream, the staple of English tea, can be found in tearooms and gastro-pubs throughout the region, fuelling many a pastry fiend or tired hiker. Some of the shops are local institutions; household names that are defended by their regulars with the brio of a football fan. One of these establishments is Huffkins, a bakery and cafe located in Stow-on-the-Wold, a medieval market town in Gloucestershire. Established in the 1890’s, the cosy eatery is known for its excellent scones—it also sells some at Fortnum & Mason—and another English teatime treat called the lardy cake.
As its name suggests, the lardy cake is a traditional tea bread made with lard, spices, sugar and dried fruit. It used to be a festival pastry, served only during celebrations or special occasions, before dropping its pomp over the years and turning into a weekend afternoon snack for the locals. Huffkins’ lardy cake resembles a cinnamon bun, without cinnamon. The dough is also soaked with less lard, creating a lighter but no less delicious version that appeals to today’s health-conscious diners.
“The lardy cake is a pastry that you can’t find in many places today. Huffkins makes only a thousand [lardy cakes] a week, so it’s very treasured in this area,” says Sally Graff, tourism and business support manager of Cotswolds District Council and our guide for Stow-on-the-Wold. “We are seeing less quintessential English pastries but more American- and French-style confections these days.”
There is a French-inspired patisserie (fortunately, not another overpriced macaron joint) in Stow-on-the-Wold, a sign that food trends are starting to find their way from London to this quiet corner of England. Tucked in the Faulkner House is Le Patissier Anglais, which is run by chef Carl Asimakopoulou, who has had tenures with Albert and Michel Roux of La Gavroche, and Gordon Ramsay in London. Asimakopoulou moved to Stow-on-the-Wold three years ago to set up his shop. Every day, he wakes up at 4am, making his selection of meringue tarts, egg custard tarts, quiches, tiramisus and mille-feuilles from scratch. So far, his creations have been a hit with the locals.
“You won’t typically find products like mine in the Cotswolds. I think I fit a niche market,” says Asimakopoulou. “After working for big restaurants for so many years, I decided I needed a change, so I came to the Cotswolds. Life is simple and pretty here.”
Where to stay in the Cotswolds:
The Lygon Arms
The 78-room hotel is one of the Cotswolds’ most famous landmarks, with a history that dates back to the 1300s. Some of England’s most important historical figures have stayed at the hotel: the controversial military leader, Oliver Cromwell, spent a night here before the Battle of Worcester in 1651. King Edward VII visited the property in his motorcar between 1905 and 1913. The hotel still retains its 17th century vaulted ceiling and wood panelling in its Great Hall.