Last night was a rare occasion.
For a start off, we were not at home, an event nearly as rare as a sighting of Halley’s comet. The last time we had an overnight stay away from Aspen House was way back in December 2004. Too long ago really. So we were determined to make the most of our one night away this week, especially as it involved drinking wine and eating, at an event organised by the Ludlow Slow Food convivium. A wine tasting based on matching wines with food, the event took place in the Shrewsbury cellars of Tanners Wine Merchants, an old and highly respected firm from whom we buy, amongst other things, Hereford gin.
As we came through the door, we were handed a glass of perfectly chilled white. One sip and we knew we were in for a very pleasant evening. Chardonnay as she is spoke! None of that over-oaked, in-yer-face, wotcha-blue-I’m-comin’-through stuff that fills miles of supermarket shelves. This was elegant and perfectly balanced. Poised, you might say. A glance at the notes for the evening revealed the contents of the glass to be a Mâcon-Village, Guillemot-Michel 2004. And biodynamic too – so no crap in this bottle!
Making a mental note to get an order in, we moved on to a pinot blanc from Domaine Weinbach-Faller in Alsace. Dryer than the Chardonnay, but still full-bodied and nicely balanced. Actually this might have been something to do with being 60% Auxerrois, a grape we have taken to of late. Although it went really well with the smoked salmon canapés, for my money, one of our local wines, the Reichensteiner from Broadfield Court, is better.
A small criticism, however, as all the wines at this Slow Food tasting were absolutely top-notch, including a fruity Côtes du Rhône-Villages and a velvety Australian Cabernet that proved how classy Australian wines can be once you get away from the bulk producers.
With each of the wines we had lovely morsels of food, prepared for us by a local catering company using local ingredients. The last two wines were white and served with cheese, starting with a Carmen Nativa Chilean Chardonnay, a rich buttery wine, this time with a touch of oak. It went very well with a couple of artisan English cheeses. To round the evening off, we were offered a couple of fully ripe cheeses (not English, sadly) a Roquefort and an Eppoises, teamed with a Gewűrztraminer from Domaine Weinbach-Faller – an extraordinary wine probably worth every penny of its £37.00 price tag, and such a brilliant foil for a stinky cheese!
Thus the evening came to a close, except for a tour of Tanners cellars, a pleasure in itself. The whole evening was a delight, made all the more enjoyable by listening to an expert on wine who was absolutely passionate about her subject, telling us about wine producers who are equally passionate about what they do.
Heading back to the B&B, we were on a high.
That feeling died instantly as we opened the front door and were hit by an overpowering smell of chemical air freshener. After the subtle tastes and aromas we had been immersed in for the previous few hours, this was nothing short of olfactory mugging. Holding our breath, we raced upstairs to our room, glad that we had had the foresight to turn off the air freshener in there before we went out for the evening. Thankfully, the atmosphere in our room was quite pleasant after the noxious, throat-gripping fumes in the main hall.
The bed was comfortable enough, however, and we slept well. We were almost cheery as we made our way downstairs, holding our breath again, to the dining room, though in some trepidation about the prospect of breakfast.
Our apprehension was justified. The owner seemed friendly enough as he entered the room, but his conversation was somewhat limited.
“Mornin’!” he said, “Menu’s on the table, cereals and juice are over there, whaddja want t’ drink – tea of coffee?”
Taking in at a glance the individual packets of Kellogg’s assorted cereal, the cash-and-carry individual jams and the flat, lifeless jug of orange juice, we knew that opting for coffee would be taking our life in our hands.
“Er, tea please,” we said.
“Have a look at the menu,” he prompted, “It’s all there – the full English . . . eggs done a million ways.”
Possibly still a little sleepy, I counted only three ways with eggs: fried, poached or scrambled. And the ‘full English’ was the only other option on there, under the grandiose title of Full House Special. No interesting alternatives, not even a Continental. In the absence of any choice, we ordered two cooked breakfasts.
Somewhat alarmingly, two plates appeared in less time than it takes to tell, coming through a serving hatch in the wall. How did they have time to cook it so quickly?
“Don’t touch the plates,” le Patron warned us.
We assumed he meant that they had just come out of the oven, but looking at what was on them, he might just have been trying to warn us about the risk of food poisoning.
It was, quite simply, dreadful.
To be sitting in the dining room of a 4-diamond establishment in such a lovely place as Shrewsbury, and to be given a breakfast that even a basic greasy spoon establishment might be embarrassed to serve, was thoroughly dispiriting. I can’t remember the last time I saw anything so bad. There were pools of cheap vegetable oil everywhere – Sal’s eggs were swimming in it. She had to use her napkin to mop it up. The sausage was inedible.
Leaving most of it, and having not touched the cereal, our only other option was the toast, which had been brought in just before the Full House Special and had now gone cold. We looked at the triangles of cheapo-cheap supermarket sliced white and decided that we just weren’t that hungry.
We left the dining room. Le Patron probably thought we were suffering from an over-indulgent evening at Tanners. We thought about having a little heart-to-heart with him, but it was too pleasant a day outside to get involved in fruitless discussions.
Call us unreasonable, but we think that a 4-diamond status should guarantee a certain level of service and food. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. All it guarantees is that the owners of a particular establishment have ticked all the right boxes (lined curtains in the room, pelmets, tea and coffee making facilities . . . yawn). Although quality of service or food is covered in the checklist, too many places seem to be able to fly under the radar, unless of course phrases like ‘well cooked and presented’ and ‘no excess grease on the plate’ mean something completely different to those who draw up the criteria of assessment.
So if anyone has wondered why Aspen House does not have an AA or ETC 4-diamond sign on display, it is because we would rather not hide behind such a misleading accolade. If staying at a 4-diamond B&B doesn’t guarantee you a decent breakfast, then there is something wrong with the accreditation system. We are not prepared to be judged by a system that is flawed. It is for our guests to judge us, and we are prepared to live or die by the reputation we create.