“Hi Holly, would you like to review a gastro weekend including pies, cheese and beer?”
“Erm, let me think…”
I reckon it took all of half a second, maybe a quarter, to say a huge yes please.
We (that’s me and the boyfriend – he of the photography skills to be seen later in this review – the good pictures, not the bad iPhone ones by yours truly – if you want to work with him then take a look at his site here) chose a #stayplayexplore weekend staying at The Sysonby Knoll hotel in Melton Mowbray.
Now if Melton Mowbray sounds familiar to you, that’s because it is. The home of pork pie and and stilton cheese, it’s a veritable foodie’s dream. Melton is pretty local to me. It’s about a 35 minute drive from my home and is where I used to drink in my late teens. I even lived there for a summer with a friend. My mother was a police officer there back in the late 70s and well, I guess you could say I have a bit of a soft spot for it.
Melton is a pretty little market town. It has a stunning church, a lovely park, rolling countryside every which way you look and an impressive foodie heritage. It’s nice. It’s the place that time forgot, in a good way. People still say hello to each other and smile. There are lots of flat caps and waxed jackets. And dogs. Lots of dogs.
The way it works with #stayplayexplore is that you first off choose whether you want a couples or family break. Well. It was a weekend where I don’t have the kids, so we chose a couples break in Melton, purely because of the gluttonous possibilities. There are a few hotels to choose from but the Sysonby Knoll had lovely reviews and seemed old fashioned which is exactly what we were craving.
Activities wise, three things are included in the price of £149 (for two). Gah! This was tricky. We considered afternoon tea. We thought about a little trip to the cinema. We were excited by the prospect of learning more about Richard III at the visitor centre. (Total and unashamed geeks). But in the end we let our stomachs lead us to a lesson and demonstration of how to make a traditional pork pie at Dickinson & Morris, a tasting at The Melton Cheeseboard and lastly, a tour, tasting and lunch at the Belvoir Brewery. Yes, pie, cheese and beer. Perfect, no?
We started at 10am at Dickenson & Morris with a plate of thickly sliced pork pie. Breakfast of champions. Then our friendly baker arrived to take us through the process of making the pork pie and the history.
Now I have only made a pork pie (or rather 12 small pork pies) once and that was on the Great British Bake Off. It was a nightmare. The hot water crust pastry was nigh on impossible to work with. The liquid jelly poured into the top spilled messily over the sides. My jelly managed to escape completely and I left that technical challenge lucky to still be in the game. Well, I wish I’d visited Dickinson & Morris before hand to find out that their pastry is rested for a WHOLE DAY before even attempting to form it.
D & M make a lot of their pork pies (the ones supplied to supermarkets across the land) at a factory these days (20,000 made this way are sold in the week preceding Christmas) but still a good amount, by hand, in store. In fact 3000 of these handmade pies are sold in that same week before Christmas Day. You can tell the difference between the two by the sides. Handmade ones look kind of collapsed.
Watching a professional making a pork pie by hand is mesmerising. The deftness with which the pastry is handled, the pushing of the dolly into the pastry base. The manipulation of it up the sides. The pork is almost thrown in. But then it’s not thrown at all, it’s placed with force, but so perfectly there was never a chance it might miss the mark. The pastry lid is pushed into the top and crimped with speed and accuracy. It’s a thing of beauty.
The pork – well, yes it’s fatty, but it needs to be. Belly and shoulder go into a pork pie and are coarsely chopped, never minced. And white pepper. Nothing else. This is simplicity. No gilding of the lily. The jelly is homemade using pigs trotters. It’s injected after baking and left to solidify. The jelly is polarising tells out baker. I am not a jelly lover. My boyfriend is. But then he’s half Spanish and seeks out the fat on ham as a treat.
I ask about the jug and funnel method used on GBBO to add the non trotter jelly. Our man shakes his head. This is wrong. All wrong. And making a pork pie is a minimum 3 day process so attempting to make it in under 2 hours (I think – hazy memories now) was foolish. Oh well. I suggest some things are best left to the professionals and he nods his head.
We learnt so much from our friendly baker. Did you know the Melton Mowbray pork pie was originally hunt food? The men popped the pork pie in their pocket and at lunch time broke the pastry away and threw it to the dogs to eat. They chowed down on the pork inside. Did you know for a Melton Mowbray pork pie to be deemed as such, the location they’re baked in must be within a day’s horse ride of Melton itself? Did you also know that wedding pork pie stacks are very popular these days? One huge pork pie can feed up to 80 people so our lovely baker tends to recommend a base of pork pie with a wheel of Stilton and a block of Red Leicester. Keeping it local is all.
We left with a hand raised pork pie and a belly full of pastry, pork (and in Scott’s case) jelly. And as part of the #stayplayexplore deal you get £16.50 per couple to spend in the shop. That’s a lot of pie. Though there are also sausages, chutneys, sandwiches, crackers and all manner of other delights.
Next up we popped to The Melton Cheeseboard, just around the corner, to taste and chat about cheese (obviously) with Lynn.
Lynn is one of those women who really should be Prime Minister. She’s a formidable force who used to work in a desk job at a local university but had always had a dream of owning a cheese shop with her husband, who is an ex Milk Board man. So, instead of always wondering, they did it. And the shop is a raging success. Lynn runs the cheese shop, has a small holding, is a bee keeper and also has twin baby grandsons who she helps to look after. Lynn could sort this country out, probably in her lunchtime.
We arrived to be greeted with a plate of various blue cheeses – two Stiltons (one from Long Clawson and one from Cropwell Bishop) and one blue cheese called Beauvale. The Long Clawson Stilton was creamy and easy to eat, the Cropwell Bishop saltier and harder. It’s a great experience to eat different Stiltons one after another. You really appreciate the difference in the cheeses. A Stilton is not a Stilton is not a Stilton! Big love went to Beauvale though which is similar to a Dolcelatte in texture; creamy and light, though with a stronger Stilton style flavour. Can you tell I like my blue cheese?
Lynn explained that you can tell a well aged Stilton by the blue veining. If it runs all the way to the edge of the cheese then it has been aged for a longer time – if it’s only at the centre (or the very tip of the wedge once it’s cut) then it’s young which means it’s harsher and harder. Lynn asks her dairies to age the Stilton she sells for a little longer meaning it’s more flavoursome and less harsh.
We tried white Stilton, mango and ginger Stilton, Red Leicester, Black Bomber, Sparkenhoe and many more. We were almost cheesed out by the time we rolled ourselves out of the shop. And we learnt so much. Did you know you can pour port into a stilton and feed it like you would a Christmas cake? Apparently this is rather popular in certain gentleman’s clubs. I asked Lynn what it’s like and she replied that she loves her Stilton and loves her port, but separately thanks. I can’t help but think I will take her lead on this.
Christmas is of course the busiest time of year for The Melton Cheeseboard. And wedding cheese stacks are big too now. Lynn explained the queue goes down the street in the weeks before Christmas. Whilst we were there, we witnessed a steady stream of customers. They all seemed to know exactly what they wanted, but were also open to new ideas. It was a joy to watch them being served. This is a specialist cheese shop for people of taste. Yet bizzarely is not expensive. And of course they stock local beers, Belvoir Fruit Farms drinks, Burleigh’s gin, locally made pork pie and Hambleton Bakery breads and cakes.
And again, as part of the #stayplayexplore package we had £16.50 to spend in the shop. This really was my kind of weekend.
We decided to have a wander. We had a little look at the newly refurbed Regal cinema and lamented that it wasn’t open until the evening. I do love an independent cinema trip. We pottered around the market and later wished we’d invested in some chestnuts. We discussed the hopeful possibility of the hotel refridgerating our pie and cheese booty for us. (They did). We stopped for coffee, tea and the first mince pie of the season. It wasn’t my best mince pie (the pastry was a little salty) but we deemed it a good starting point and liked the thickly rolled pastry. Dainty pastry is not my thing.
We went for a little drink at The Anne of Cleaves, which was so relaxing and calm. I mean seriously, just look at the place.
And then it was time to check into The Sysonby Knoll hotel. About a 15 minute walk from the centre, with a gated car park and beautiful gardens, bees (seems everyone’s a bee keeper in Melton) and a sort of grand old house feeling that you only get in privately owned hotels.
The Sysonby Knoll is part of the Best Western group of hotels but has been in the same family since 1965. It has thick carpets, gold fittings, softly lit lamps and mints in a bowl at reception. It’s proper.
I regularly stay in boutique hotels. I’m lying. I used to semi regularly stay in boutique hotels. And on the whole they’re not that great. They always look amazing, but are often a case of all fur coat and no knickers. The hot water doesn’t work, there’s no kettle, the curtains don’t pull together completely, there are gaps in the window frames, the doors click and slam without a soft release, there’s no wardrobe, just a thick branch to dangle a dress or shirt from. There’s often a mini bar with a tempting Twix for £352.67. The bathroom always, but always has a box of tissues in it, with just TWO tissues, folded perfectly and peeking out the top.
But this review is not about crap boutique hotels and all their lies. It’s about #stayplayexplore and The Sysonby Knoll. It had none of the above annoyances. It was just beyond cosy and calm and happy. I had the best night’s sleep. I had a lovely hot, long, uninterrupted shower. We drank an afternoon G & T in bed that was just perfect. We marvelled at just how lovely it all was. To be clear, it is a 3 star hotel – so no, it wasn’t Conran designed, but it was lovely.
And the thing about hotels that I always think is most pertinent is how they deal with problems. When we arrived we were allocated a lovely large room which was above a rather noisy family who were staying to enjoy the local fireworks. Now I love my kids, I really do. But I do not love hearing other people’s kids. Not when my kids are 20 miles away. We sat and listened to their shrieking and decided in about a millisecond that being woken by that noise at 5.52am would send at the very least me, (and possibly my boyfriend) into a sleep stealing induced rage. So we called reception and they just dealt with it. They were nice about it. We explained why we wanted to move and we weren’t made to feel like child haters. It was fine.
So after gin and lazing about and listening to Radio 6 and a hot, no dinosaurs around the bath shower, we put on our glad rags and set off into two. We went to The Vines which is probably the oddest place I have ever drank in. The lighting was so harsh we had to leave. The gin was nice though. And an excellent selection.
The Gas Tap was our kind of place. Owned by ale lovers, full of casks, sells interesting beer to people who want to sit and chat without any music and enjoy a packet of Scampi Fries. What’s not to like? I am a simple creature it seems.
Next up was The Crown. A pub I used to drink in as a teenager when I gauged the success of a night out on whether a certain young man had stared at me for a little longer than was comfortable. Goodness I wasted years of my life on him. Anyway, I digress.
We had booked a table at Amici, a tiny little Italian place on the main drag that we’d had a little look at earlier in the day. The décor was nothing to write home about, the restaurant space long and thin, arguably lit a little harshly. I am telling you all this because if you go, which you should, I want you to be prepared for it. It will underwhelm you. You might wonder if you’re in the right place. But you are.
The food was frankly unbelievable. Simple Italian food made by the friendliest, happiest Italian owner I have ever met. She was joy personified. We both wanted to be adopted by her. She smiled with her mouth, her eyes and her food. Ah the food! So we had already spotted another table plunging spoons into chocolate fondants so we went small on the starters with olives and cheesy garlic ciabatta. Both were spot on. Simple but great. Pillowy soft bread, not a dash of harsh acrid garlic which is so common with garlic butter. And melted cheese. Five large slices to fight over.
Next up was a mix and match main course. One plate of mushroom and truffle penne in a creamy sauce and another of very tomatey lasagne. They were good. We ate every last morsel. I may have used my finger to mop up more sauce. I have no shame.
And so we arrived at the pudding menu, which is a verbal menu because the owner explained she makes the puddings each morning, depending on how she feels. Puddings are her thing. She is passionate about them. There are only a few portions of each. So we were offered ice cream balls (homemade) dipped in chocolate, a pastry type affair filled with ricotta and candied peel, pistachio mousse or chocolate and orange fondant with candied Sicilian orange peel and salted caramel ice cream.
Of course we had the fondant and the mousse. And of course we wished we had room for more. They were just perfect. The mousse was salty and nutty and still smooth and sweet. The fondant was as close to a perfect pudding as I think I’ve gotten near to. The crunch of the candied peel (which I usually hate for the record), the salty ice cream, the hot, orangey chocolate fondant. We ate in silence. This was serious stuff.
Did I mention the house red was really good? Did I mention the owner packaged up two ricotta pastries for us to enjoy at home with strict instructions of how to warm them and serve them? (They were GOOD). Did I mention there were only 4 tables busy on a Saturday night? Did I mention we paid £53 including service?
If this place were located in Leicester it would be full every night of the week. But it is in a small market town, so it has a loyal, small clientele. You should see the Trip Advisor reviews. Go, if you can.
We walked home for it was cold and taxis seemed to be all awol. We arrived at the hotel with brain freeze. We slept so well and cosily.
We enjoyed our breakfast, especially for the views. If I were being picky I would say the toast could have been cut into soldiers for my eggs (yes I am 3 years old) and I’d have preferred them spread with butter rather than margarine. I really enjoyed the retro music which included some Bread classic hits. (A favourite in my childhood home).
We left, with our pies and cheese, feeling refreshed and happy.
Next stop was The Belvoir Brewery (pronounced ‘beaver’, stop sniggering at the back). Craig, the manager was incredibly passionate about beer and the making of it. It was genuinely fascinating. Now here is where I need to apologise to any members of CAMRA for getting some of this information mixed up. Craig told me a lot of stuff. I took notes, but there was definitely room for a mix up.
We started by trying the malt, literally eating it. The varying colour of the malt is due to the roasting time, nothing else. So the darker the malt, the longer it’s been roasted and the more treacley and sugary it taste. Craig told us that it was not uncommon for staff to eat a bowl of malt with milk instead of cereal.
The brewing team arrive on site at 4.30am and begin to brew at 5am. Apparently this is just because that’s always how it’s been done. No other reason. The brew team are allocated 1 pint of beer per day. (Many years ago, it used to be a cup of beer a day – but I guess that all depends on how large your cup is).
Everything at The Belvoir Brewery is hand fed. The use only Burton Upon Trent water, as is the same with most breweries. (Apparently you can buy a special powder to add to water to make it Burton Upon Trent in flavour). The yeast Belvoir use has been with them for 4 decades and is kept under lock and key at 3 degrees. Only the master and head brewer have keys for the yeast store. Making beer is very serious.
The Belvoir Brewery make beer for lots of people as well as themselves. Notably they brew the beer for Tesco for their Finest range of steak and ale pies. They’ve won a CAMRA award for their oat beer. We also noticed a Stilton beer too but didn’t try it.
I learnt so much from Craig. Recipe development for new beer varieties, it turns out, is much like writing food recipes. At The Belvoir Brewery they start with an old recipe (up to 40 years old) of theirs and build from it. This is so similar to writing cake recipes. You often start with a skeleton recipe and tweak it until it’s almost nothing like the original. The base recipe ensures the science bit is right, which I gather is the same with brewing.
I learnt that beer is a bit of a diva. It does not like to be moved. So when it’s delivered to a pub it will be sat for 3 days before opening. But pubs, especially when it’s busy, aren’t always able to allow for this time, so the Brewery keep a few barrels ready which are for emergencies.
The barrels themselves were interesting. They hold 72 pints but the Brewery only pay duty on 68 because of the beer that sits in the ‘belly’ of the barrel and is not possible to sell. And every barrel is washed 3 times before it is deemed clean. It is checked by eye for blemishes and stuck hops. If it is anything less than perfect it will be failed and deep cleaned. They are the ultimate in recycling – every barrel is lent with a deposit (usually between £50 – 60) and then repaired as and when required. The coloured stripes across the middle signify the brewery.
Did you know beer is not vegetarian? Finings are added to beer to ensure it is crystal clear. Finings and a powder made from sturgeon’s bladder. They stick to any ‘bits’ in the beer and then settle at the bottom to reveal a clear beer. Removing those finings means the beer has been ‘brighted’. Once this is done it lasts about 24 hours before it’s past it’s best. All Belvoir beer has been fined because they feel it looks better and tastes cleaner. Irish moss can be used as a vegan alternative but the Belvoir Brewery don’t specialise in this and leave it to those who do.
Our tour was really interesting and as part of the package from #stayplayexplore a light lunch and beer tasting was included. Well, all I’ll say was there was nothing light about the lunch. Three courses and because it was a Sunday, one of those was a full roast. Oh and a pint and a half of beer each.
So, for £149 you can go away for a weekend, stay in a lovely hotel and experience three activities. I don’t know how they do it. But I do know I’ll be doing it again soon.
Thanks to #stayplayexplore for the opportunity to write this review. We enjoyed our weekend free of charge in return for an honest review.
You can book your own couples of family #stayplayexplore break here.
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