Fantinel at Sopwell House
The One & Only prosecco, stunning and delicious food - welcome to the Italian gourmet dinner at Sopwell House!
Sopwell House is a place that many people in Hertfordshire seem to know, but when you start talking, it turns out that their knowledge is sketchy. The reason? Well, it’s a hotel, and if you live in Hertfordshire, it’s not that often that you go and stay in a hotel in your own county and if you’re thinking about where to eat, a hotel isn’t necessarily your first port of call. Sopwell House is just outside St Albans, probably about 20 minutes if you’re walking, and its 12 acres and Georgian Grade I listed elegance make it feel very country house, but at same time it’s very close to London. It was once home to Lord Mountbatten and Arsène Wenger lived here when he first came to England. I was invited to the Sopwell House party last summer and it was great fun. This year I was invited to the Italian gourmet wine dinner. Sounds interesting. I accept.
The evening is hosted by Fantinel, a family vineyard in north east Italy, famous for its premium Fantinel DOC single vineyard vintage prosecco, the One & Only. The evening starts standing up, as our group mingles, a glass of One & Only in hand as we enjoy yummy and beautifully presented canapés. Everyone is extremely friendly. I’m waiting for my friend Natasha, who is making an impressive effort by travelling from Walthamstow, and I get chatting to some of the other guests.
Things start to feel ambrosial quite quickly. We all agree that the One & Only is delicious. Our group is small and we’re in the main dining room, which is huge and would benefit from being full of people. But that’s not the point. This is a special evening, and we are special, so we have the whole dining room to ourselves. There’s also a brasserie where I imagine the hotel guests and other visitors are eating.
Our first course is roast quail. There are sharp intakes of breath all round and for several reasons. The first is that a quail’s leg is tiny. The second is that we love the colours on the plate, and the third is because it’s seriously delicious. Natatasha has arrived and she and I literally start rolling our eyes around and exclaiming, as do our fellow diners. It’s worth saying here that the restaurant at Sopwell House has 2 AA Rosettes. Our wine guide is Aleksandar Vuckovski, sommelier and brand ambassador from Fantinel. Alexsandar is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. He talks about the region and climate in the north east of Italy and why this area, close to the border with Slovenia, is conducive to happy and tasty grapes: it’s warm during the day and chilly at night. He’s a natural storyteller and we’re eager to learn.
The sea bass is another show stopper with stunningly vibrant colours. And it’s cooked to perfection: crispy skin and tender inside. The red pepper sauce and courgette puree have an exquisite intensity. The fennel is silky and slightly charred. The flavours crackle, and looking at my fellow guests, everyone seems to be enjoying every mouthful. We drink Collio Friulano, Tenuta Sant’ Helena wine.
Cheese! It’s taleggio. We love this course. Pretty to look at and again just a brilliant combo of flavours and textures. We’ve moved on to red, Collio Rosso, Venko, and the talk moves to strawberry jam and mashed blueberries as some of us attempt to sound as if we know what we’re talking about. But jamminess definitely lends itself to figs and cheese. It does! Perhaps I should add that this food deserves time and the evening unfolds in a delightful way. Our Fantinel host gets up between courses to talk us through the next wine. We get to experiment with what doesn’t work and why. It all makes sense when someone is explaining it.
Oh, hello. Panna cotta. One of my all time faves. The pudding is actually called Olive oil Breton. And it’s one of the best puddings I’ve had in a long while. What a stunner! We all take our time admiring the artistry. Please can we get stuck in? The panna cotta is just the right side of wibbly wobbly: it gives a gentle shudder as your approaches. The granita wakes us all up from our night of indulgence with its freshness and slight crunchiness. The shortbread is delicate and delicious. Hallelujah!
Our pudding is paired with sauvignon and most of us say that it’s not an obvious choice but as we taste both together we realise that yes, if the pudding is made with olive oil and pistachios it works. I always feel that I’m pre-GCSE when it comes to wine tasting but that’s what’s so good about this experience – you’re learning but it all feels quite light and enjoyable rather than a crash course. It also makes you eat slowly and be more conscious about what’s going on. The piano playing enhances the whole process. I think you need something soft and gentle for this kind of eating, otherwise music can compete for your senses and the flavours start to blur. It goes without saying that at this stage of the evening we are all razor sharp – we’ve only had five glasses of wine after all. Petits fours arrive and everyone jumps in for the truffles. Some of the group repair to the bar. We applaud the winning team at Sopwell House. Natasha goes back to London and I head off for my mews room.
For someone who has spent a lifetime trying to escape suburbia, perhaps I’m not the best person to go for a mews room. You need to use your card to access the mews area, and it felt a bit like a gated community. And of course some people love a gated community. Perhaps if you live in London and want to get away from it all for a night the mews rooms are probably just what the doctor ordered. There’s a hot tub outside – an added bonus. The room and bed were very comfortable and the bathroom fantastic. The next morning, I skipped breakfast but I did have a good look around. Sopwell House won the Muddy award last year for Best Spa which is about to undergo a major refurbishment – I had a look at the drawings and mood board and it looks pretty amazing – the restaurant will also be closed during August.
Before then, the next event is the English Wine Dinner with the Sussex sparkling winemaker Nyetimber, Thurs 21 June. £75 per person. One thing people do talk about with gooey eyes is the Sopwell House afternoon tea. I did experience the cakes here at last year’s garden party and they were incredible. I’d love to try the Wimbledon afternoon tea, with tennis themed cakes, Pimms and cucumber jelly and strawberries and cream. Wimbledon Afternoon Tea, available from 2 July until 15 July 2018. £44.95, includes a glass of Taittinger Rosé.