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Joanne Goodwin gets a taste for a country house hotel that serves up some delicious surprises. Pictures by Shaun Thompson
This recession, so they say, isn't all bad... It has its advantages, it's made us analyse our lifestyles and spending, appreciate value for money, seek out quality.
It's also made experience - and grey hair - qualities to be admired rather than scorned. Just look at this summer's silver superstars - Sir Alan Sugar's quick-witted right hand woman Margaret Mountford (56), global superstar Susan Boyle (a mere stripling at 47)... and doyen of great English country house hotels Peter Marks (about to enter his eighth decade).
Peter who? That's Peter Marks currently presiding over the smoked salmon sandwiches at Herefordshire's Verzon House, a place he took on two years ago because retirement, after a career travelling the world in the textile industry and latterly running award-winning hotels, was too undemanding.
Mr Marks is just one of the many delights and surprises at what www.verzonhouse.com describes as "The Best Kept Secret In Herefordshire".
We've already established that appearances and age can be deceptive and so it is with Verzon House. Yes, there are all the prerequisites of a country hotel: the pretty building, the acres of glorious gardens, the fine service, sparkling glasses, pristine napery, copious flower arrangements, the attention to detail.
But this is a place where the ambience, the decor, the menu and wine list, even the flowers come with a twist.
Where else does the host greet you with a hollowed-out loaf filled with smoked salmon sandwiches? Where the interior design combines the best of old and new, the flower arrangements are cool as well as copious and the menu is good value, satisfying and imaginative?
On the night we dined at Verzon our fellow guests included a large group enjoying dinner and privacy in a separate dining room; a family of four including teenagers tucking into the Sirloin Steak and Triple Cooked Big Chips with relish; a pair of lovers whose lingering glances for each other were only distracted by the voluptuous Verzon chocolate fudge cake and guests in a hurry who ate in the bar and then dashed off for a night in Ledbury (chauffeured by the accommodating Mr Marks).
Our dinner started with drinks in the bar, olives, home-roasted nuts and those smoked salmon sandwiches: "Everything we serve is made on the premises", Peter Marks tells us in between answering questions about his years raising a family and working in Monte Carlo and his second career as a hotelier at Rookery Hall in Cheshire and then at Lower Slaughter Manor.
Dinner proper started with a complimentary taster of flavour-rich fish soup topped with a delicate pissaladire with olives, onion and anchovy - or as the charming young waiter described it: "a bit like an onion pizza".
Then we chose the divine and buttery Hampton Bishop asparagus with classic Sauce Hollandaise (8.50) and the tasty Terrine of Cornish crab and Wye Valley smoked salmon with toasted brioche ( a very big portion for 10).
Then two fantastic main courses from a chef who takes quality ingredients and creates dishes that are contemporary but comforting.
We shared the Free-range poussin cooked under a brick with Herbs de Provence, "Gone Wrong" potatoes and a dressed green salad and Rack of Peter's pork spare ribs roasted in his special sauce with pilaff rice with shrimp.
The poussin (18) was everything chicken should be but hardly ever is - a plate of this would surely make Colonel Sanders kick his bucket. The meat tasted like chicken used to taste, with a crunchy skin and complemented by the "Gone right for me" potatoes and the light salad.
And the ribs (19), a dish enjoyed by Peter Marks on his travels and recreated after much experimenting, were sensational.
The portions at Verzon House are plentiful but the desserts at 6.90 too good to ignore so we ordered the Mille feuilles of local rhubarb with Crme Anglaise and rhubarb sorbet - a taste of summer - and the Caramel sponge pudding with rosemary ice cream. We also tasted the house speciality chocolate fudge cake with vanilla cream but it was the Caramel sponge that took the pudding prize for us - a souffly, eggy, light as a feather, entrant in our Top Five Puddings Ever Tasted chart. We drank a bottle of Sancerre Les Baudrieres 2006 (29.50) from a wine list that cleverly combines quality, variety and good prices and finished off with coffee and petits fours at 3.75.
Peter Marks, his family and staff are taking on the recession by providing quality and value. The weekday lunch menu and Sunday lunches are similarly satisfying. So, if the credit crunch means you're dining out less frequently make sure that when you do, you choose somewhere that's special and surprising...
Verzon House, Hereford Road, Trumpet, Ledbury, Herefordshire, HR8 2PZ.
Tel: 01531 670381.