It’s a peculiar start to Thanksgiving, to be sitting here on the coast of north Cornwall, looking through my window at the choppy whitecaps of the Camel estuary. Ominous white clouds scud across the blustery blue of the sky, but I heard a local say this morning that it is too breezy for rain. In the distance tiny windmills crank over and over, hypnotic and soothing, collecting energy sanely and peacefully. What a concept.
I love England. We lived here for a year in the mid-eighties, and though we don’t get back often anymore it always feels to me like the travel equivalent of comfort food – undemanding, familiar, and deeply soul satisfying. When we needed to go somewhere distant to keep up our mileage status on our airline of choice (don’t even ask, okay? It buys me out of the claustrophobia of the back of the plane and that’s worth it to me) I first booked a trip to Singapore, via Honolulu, which would have kept us safely in Platinum. But we had less than a week for the trip and Singapore seemed exciting and exotic and way too much work. I craved home, but home with miles. Round trip to Gatwick would at least put us in Gold, and so I switched the tickets over and here we are.
We skipped London altogether – spent a night near East Grinstead at Gravety Manor, an Elizabethan mansion with huge fireplaces, low doorways, and phenomenal smoked salmon. In the summer the gardens are stunning beyond belief, the rhododendrons monstrous and beautiful, and the dinner plates full of the bounty yielded by the walled kitchen garden up the hill. In the fall the leaves are still sharply brilliant, a few floral hangers on grace the trimmed back beds, and the river outside the window promises some sport for those who are so inclined.
I am not. While my husband plays golf at Royal Ashdown Forest, I curl up by the fire with a book and dream myself back in time. I always feel here like I am near a portal to a world I barely remember (or have mostly forgotten), full of comings and goings just outside the range of my vision. It should give me the creeps, but it never does.
Gravetye doesn’t just feed my imagination – it also caters to my more substantive needs. The kitchen is first rate, a one star Michelin with a commitment to fresh local foods. The house-smoked salmon is so good I have it for lunch, with some salad and cheese, and again for breakfast the next day, piled high with creamy scrambled eggs. In between is dinner: butternut squash soup with lots of cream and truffle oil and some parmesan cheese melted in it. Little chunks of squash, too, I think. Then langoustines on potato blini and seared scallops on melted leeks, all in a langoustine cappuccino. Finished with a pineapple tart tatin with pineapple chili ice cream. Really good! Caramel sweet, edged with the heat of the chilies. Jerry had a rabbit terrine, a duo of duck and pork belly in a five spice reduction, and something-or-other with chocolate fondant and blueberries. I was too preoccupied with the chili pineapple combo to pay attention.
From East Grinstead we headed southwest to Torquay, just because we’d never been there, and because it is home to a restaurant, The Elephant, about which I’d heard great things. Torquay was fine in a crowded, cliffy, seaside-tourist-town kind of way. Ate the best fish and chips I have ever had –crispy, light beer battered, fresh as fresh plaice, with gorgeous homemade tarter sauce full of capers — at Orestone Manor, another Michelin starred restaurant. Not as inclined to stick with the comfort food, my husband had risotto Nero, black as pitch, with sautéed calamari, and a galantine of wild duck, filled with duck mousse and pistachios and pan-seared, served with a Madiera jus. We split a cheese plate for afters – some wonderful local cheeses with a house made beetroot marmalade. Wow.
For lunch the next day we had some outstanding roasted cauliflower soup, a delicious fishcake (salmon and cod, with chopped gherkins and some other good stuff, topped with a poached egg), and some excellent sticky toffee pudding at The Chasers, a tiny furbished up pub in Stokeinteignhead, run by the former chef of the Orestone. Then I threw out my back, possibly from the effort of hauling all the excess food weight around, and had to cancel our booking at the Elephant. Tell me life has no sense of humor.
So now we are almost as far west as we can be. Not quite, but close. Merlin’s cave is not far up the coast and King Arthur’s spirit hovers nearby. There are lovely links golf courses to keep one of us happy, and a link to the internet to please the other, some good blustery walks to be had if the mood takes us, and a good in-house restaurant here at the St. Enodoc Hotel, where we’ve eaten pappardelle with arugula pesto and SunBlush tomatoes (a preserved tomato with which I have fallen totally in love), risotto with sweet potatoes, feta and cilantro, a kerala seafood curry chock full of good local fish and mussels, and a ginger toffee pudding with orange caramel sauce and clotted cream.
Only a couple of days left of the trip – one more here, one more at Gravetye, and then off to earn the miles back home. A traditional Thanksgiving it is not, but the good food, fresh air and absolute absence of deadlines and alarm clocks is just what we’ve needed and tradition is not far away, after all. At home a heritage turkey awaits, from Humphrey Farms, which we will ice up and take down to the Apalachicola house, for Christmas. Not exactly over the river and through the woods, but grandmother’s house will be full of the smells and sounds of the holiday, as soon as grandmother can get her act together to get down there and cook.
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And people say England has no cuisine. Fools! I’d just about banned England from my travel list because Heathrow is so miserable in terms of interrogation (“You’re going to a wedding outside of London? Will there be terrorists at this wedding?” said an overly cautious immigration agent to me) but perhaps I should try flying into Gatwick.
I hear you on the frequent-flier mileage front–it’s an addiction–charging everything to get miles, making those unnecessary extra stops just to keep your ranking. That said, when you get all those free trips to Europe, South America or Asia, it’s all worthwhile.
Gatwick was far less cautious, but much more incompetent. One of the more trying travel experiences I’ve had lately — I think security is run by chimpanzees. We had a great time though. Wonderful, wonderful country.
Life is just not fair. I went to Iowa for Thanksgiving.
Glad yours was enjoyable!