To explore this magnificent cathedral city, we chose The Winchester Hotel, just a 10-minute walk from the town centre. The 71-room hotel is a study in contrasts. Behind its rather plain exterior and large pay-as-you-go car park is a sophisticated, trendy interior, the result of a top-to-bottom remodel completed in the summer of 2006. Our “executive” room was large enough to get lost in and the bed a sumptuous sleep experience. The same level of excellence applied to the buffet breakfast, which even as the last guests wandered in was still hot and delicious. We also had the option of keeping our form in top shape with the coaching of a personal trainer in case we bulged after we indulged in Winchester’s culinary magic. The only negative was lack of a lift, but the staff was quick to help with luggage.
A short minute drive from the city is the simple little cottage where Jane Austen penned several novels and where she died at age 41. When Jane’s father, a vicar, retired from his parish, the family unexpectedly found themselves homeless as he had lost the “grace and favor” accommodations that were a perk of the job. Suddenly the Austens were in the rental market. Nearly penniless, they had to sell off everything they owned. On the landing to the second floor is probably one of the most poignant pieces of memorabilia in the house – a copy of the notice that ran in the local newspaper announcing the auction of all the family’s belongings. According to the guide, on hearing the news, Jane reportedly fainted.
Fortunately, Jane’s brother Edward was able to provide a haven for the family during the last eight years of her life. After he inherited the Knight’s Chawton estate, he gave the use of the cottage to his two sisters and his mother, now widowed, for the remainder of their lives. Her other brother Henry was Jane’s literary amanuensis who encouraged her to publish her work. But as women were just beginning to into their own as writers, he suggested she publish the first novel under the byline of “a lady author.”
Note in particular the door leading from the ground floor sitting room to the hall landing. Called the “squeaking door,” it served as Jane’s “alarm bell” signaling the arrival of guests from who she would immediately secret away her writings.
The Hotel du Vin & Bistro
Having garnered all sorts of accolades for food and hospitality (winner of the Hampshire Hospitality Superior Quality Assured Local Produce Award and voted the third best UK hotel for Accommodation in the Condé Nast Traveller Gold List for 2006), we were sure dinner would be an experience extraordinaire. From the moment we entered the restaurant and were seated in our garden-view table in a cozy corner of this 50 cover bistro, the staff focused all their attention on making us comfortable. The Hotel du Vin takes service seriously, and we noticed, goes out of their way to be especially welcoming to women on their own.
That same woman-friendly attitude appears reflected in their staffing and promotional philosophy. When we dinned there, both the assistant sommelier and the wine waiter were female, as were several of the cooks. When we remarked at seeing women gain positions normally held by men, one of the staff explained that in 2006, the restaurant’s sommelier became the first woman to win the coveted Sommelier of the Year award. And two of the company’s general managers are women. .
We decided to sample the menu’s more unusual items. Gratin of Stinking Bishop, Richard’s starter, was layered with aromatic cheeses baked with potatoes to cut the bite. The dish’s history was no less intriguing. From 800 A.D. to 1500 A.D. the Bishops of Winchester were in charge of English prisons, the most infamous of which was in London on Clink Street, and from which the phrase in clink or “in prison” is derived. Perhaps the dish itself came by its name in an equally provocative manner – the result of the regard (or the lack of it) that inmates held for their jailers? Gastronomic history aside, the dish was simply superb.
In order to become more educated about balancing the delicate flavors of fish as well as strong cheeses with an appropriate wine, we decided to leave the pairings to the sommelier. Because the Stinking Bishop was so flavorful, she selected a wine robust enough to stand up to the cheese – a full-bodied chardonnay (Limoux, les Caves du Sieur d’Arques, Hotel du Vin Selection, France, 2002). Its freshness and fruity character balanced the richness of the gratin.
We have always found it challenging to find the right wine to bring out the best in a complex salmon dish. Richard’s roasted pavé of salmon baked in a parmesan crust and served with a side-order of haricot verts confit shallots and pine nuts was a show stopper paired with Peter Lehmann’s Australian Semillon, a complement to the rich flavor and texture of the parmesan crust and the oiliness of the fish.
The food was so outstanding we were astonished that Winchester’s Hotel du Vin & Bistro is one of several in England. However, it has the distinction of being the original of the group, a well-deserved honor.
If You Go
You can find details of The Winchester Hotel, part of the Pedersen group, at www.pedersenhotels.com.
For information about The Hotel du Vin & Bistro, visit www.hotelduvin.com.
Discover Jane Austen’s House at www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk.
Learn more about other Winchester attractions, hotels and restaurants at www.visitwinchester.co.uk.
all photos are by Richard N. Every
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