The peppery taste of nasturtium leaves takes me back decades when, throughout the summer, the plant’s big flat leaves and vivid coloured flowers tumbled over the walls in my childhood garden. They were always covered with yellow and black writhing caterpillars. I can remember the smell of the leaves and the insects so clearly.
I remember too walks over Box Hill, that to my child-sized legs seemed like marathons. The family setting out on a Sunday, leaving the car at Box Hill station and walking for hours and miles through leafy dells, past chalk lined escarpments and through musty woodland.
Box Hill takes its name from the ancient box woodland found on its steep chalky flanks above the River Mole, and is the summit of the North Downs, approximately 19 miles south west of London.
A taste-bud-busting amuse-bouche, eaten in `The Emlyn Restaurant’ at the foot of Box Hill instantly took me back over forty years. Served in a delicate glass dish, the parsnip panna cotta, parsnip and pickled apple remoulade, burnt apple puree and honey comb was dotted with tiny nasturtium leaves.
`Emlyn’ is the main dining area within the 4* Mercure Box Hill Burford Bridge Hotel which recently benefitted from extensive refurbishment following a flood that led to guests being rescued by boat from waist high water on Christmas Eve, 2013. A month’s-worth of rain water fell on the saturated slopes of Box Hill in just 24 hours.
Despite my local knowledge I couldn’t place the relevance of restaurant’s name until a Google search came up with details of an ancient, 35 page cloth-bound book, published privately in 1839 to raise funds `for building national schools at Lethrede’. The full title of Mary D. Bethuen’s poem is “The River Mole, or Emlyn Stream”, and the 19th work follows the course of the river, or stream, as it winds through the Mole Valley.
This link with the past has inspired the soft, muted colours that were used within the refurbishment and complements the historic heritage of the hotel. While the black and white exterior remains constant to my childhood memories, inside the hotel soft, sage greens, natural tones, a hand crafted sculpture of a horse’s head, a replica Ordnance Survey map of the area and precisely placed, subtly-lit ornaments were brand new. They evoked a feeling of calm and precision; sometimes to the point of feeling like a witness to a photo-shoot for a glossy interiors magazine.
The earliest mentions of rooms at Burford Bridge was recorded in 1254, when the `Fox and Hounds’ opened its doors. Since then, guests have included John Keats, who completed his epic poem `Endymion’ in a garden room on 28th November 1817. Other visitors have included Queen Victoria, Jane Austen, Wordsworth, Sheridan and Robert Louis Stevenson. Lord Admiral Nelson also spent hours with his love, Emma Hamilton, before vanquishing Napoleon’s fleet at Trafalgar before meeting his untimely death.
Today the hotel is both comfortable and corporate. The bedrooms are in line with a top class hotel, with corporate purple, beige and brown, an exceptionally comfortable bed, crisp and clean white linen and spotless bathrooms. We could have been anywhere, in any 4* Mercure Hotel, until we stepped into the restaurant.
Emlyn is an anomaly. It punches at a high level, above the weight of any hotel chain. Food-lover Chef Nick Sinclair has returned to his childhood county with a team of 8 chefs and maitre d’ Lesley Mentink who hails from Holland and shares Nick’s absolute passion for food and for perfection.
No boring brown British plates for Emlyn. Colour and texture are added to inspirational contemporary British dishes by pansies, leaves and seeds, variety is given in the multitude of carefully chosen serving dishes. Tastes and flavours are expertly blended to the extreme by a man and his team who are passionate about food. And as if childhood memories weren’t already flooding back fast enough, love it or hate it, a blended Marmite butter was one of three imaginative accompaniments to the freshly baked bread that followed the amuse-bouche.
Soft runny duck’s egg in a truffle risotto was served on fluted white porcelain. Entrecote grilled to taste and served on studio pottery came with finely pulled beef and marrow were in a ceramic bone shaped dish. Tiny meringues dotted a dessert that resembled a Picasso masterpiece.
Each dish rivalled its predecessor for imagination, care and skill in understanding food, sourcing it from local producers and preparing it with expertise.
Emlyn is both a shock and a surprise, as was the top quality, prize-winning Denbies wine that accompanied it. My only regret was that I wasn’t prepared for the gourmet onslaught that my companion and I enjoyed that evening, though by the second morning we were raring to get back into the dining room for another exceptional breakfast.
Mercure Box Hill Burford Bridge Hotel
At the Foot of Box Hill