In July, l enjoyed my usual cup of afternoon tea in an unusually bucolic setting. Seated at a simple wooden bench set in a walled vegetable garden bursting with summer’s produce, we gazed across the valley to the rolling Mendips hills. From the greenhouse behind us, superlative slices of cake were served. This is no ordinary greenhouse, but rather a former orangery now known as The Ethicurean - a restaurant whose reputation has crept along the grapevine to every food lover in Bristol, before spreading further afield courtesy of glowing national press.
With the cake every bit as beautiful as the setting, we vowed to return for a full meal.
That promise is kept on a bright November day when the low, autumn sunshine transforms the greenhouse into a sauna. The garden has advanced from tomatoes to squashes, from berries to apples. Inside, walls are adorned with dried herbs, tables dressed with fragrant fresh herbs and windowsills stacked with pumpkins and pickling jars. The seasonal decor is reflected in a menu based on locally sourced produce, elevated by clever cooking.
The meal begins with a stumble, but soon progresses to the sublime. The stumble comes with a leek and smoked potato soup, which is so suffused with smokiness that more subtle flavours - fermented leek, leek powder, nasturtium oil - are obscured. For somebody who takes half of the enjoyment of soup from the accompanying bread and butter, there was also a noticeable need for a hunk of homemade loaf to soak up those remnants that escape the spoon.
Quibbles about bread (or lack thereof) are immediately forgiven when the main course arrives. A perfect fillet of hake, quivering beneath a crisp skin and flanked by clams, is heightened by a tapenade of salty, piquant capers and sweet, creamy hazelnuts. The fish is brought firmly from sea to land by the earthiness from mushroom 'soil', chestnut puree and butter-bathed cabbage. Across the table, dishes of pork belly and duck appear equally well-balanced but, evidently, are so good that I am not offered a mouthful.
Then we are on to dessert. And, oh, what a dessert! Chunks of apple sink into a deep golden sponge, whose large, meltingly soft crumb is burnished dark brown by treacle and sugar. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel too gluttonous. That is, until it is gilded with a swirl of toffee sauce, a scoop of ice-cream and three veritable boulders of honeycomb. Now it is no longer a cake, but a gloriously squidgy, truly rib-sticking pudding, guaranteed to provide enough padding to warm you during a post-prandial stroll through the garden.