Once a royal hunting ground for William the Conqueror, the New Forest covers an area of 220 square miles – I can’t believe I’ve not found my way to this lovely part of England before. Undulating heathland stretches to the horizon in one direction, free-roaming ponies grazing on its fertile abundance, while on the other side of the winding road, lush woodland looks like it would make the perfect movie set for yet another remake of Robin Hood. Despite the name, the New Forest feels ancient. It feels mystical, as if a band of elves may be holding a gathering behind a moss-covered rock, beams of light filtering through the trees.
Naturally, the wilderness and varying landscapes provide a plethora of options for adventure seekers – New Forest Activities offer all kinds of active pursuits, from kayaking to archery – but they also provide a different kind of inspiration. The foodies in the New Forest are happy for a reason, and it’s all to do with the abundance of high-quality local produce that’s reared, farmed and concocted in the area. This, implies Chris Wheeldon, Executive Chef at Beresfords Restaurant at the Balmer Lawn Hotel, is what pushes the level of gastronomy here to such impressive levels.
Balmer Lawn is one of those character-packed hotels that draws guests back, time and time again. Originally built as a hunting lodge in the mid-1800s, it’s now a classic country house hotel in the heart of the New Forest National Park. Ponies are often spotted grazing on the broad expanse of lawn across the driveway, a living reminder of the beauty at hand, but Chris’ spectacularly plated dishes are also a fine introduction to the bounty of the New Forest. Eating at Beresfords in like ingesting the locale.
The menu at Beresfords is tantalising, divided into bites from the garden, forest and sea, and starters, large plates and grilled dishes, before the sweet treats parade across the page. The hard part is making a decision, and after making a concerted effort to eat my way through the menu, I can confirm that every dish is packed with flavour, beautifully balanced, and cooked to perfection.
From light-as-air minted pea soup to home-smoked local trout and shoulder of pork, from tender ash-rolled beef to melt-in-the-mouth Creedy Carver duck breast, or tangy Native lobster and mussel risotto, Chris’ creativity is evident. It doesn’t end with the savoury selections, either. The desserts are also a delight, from passion fruit cheesecake with orange curd and maple ice cream to banana, peanut and white chocolate bread pudding or warm chocolate fondant with blood orange sorbet. Every morsel in every dish is carefully thought out, plated with precision, and packed with flavour and texture combinations guaranteed to make the mouth water.
Without a doubt, there’s something special about the New Forest. It’s in the air and the water, the forest and the land. And it’s most definitely in the food at Balmer Lawn. Don’t just admire the beauty of the area through the car window; get out amongst it, revel in it, and best of all, taste it.
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