West Dorset has tingled foodies’ tastebuds for years. French gourmet Nathalie explains why Beaminster, with its restaurants and surrounding countryside, is the perfect short break destination
You know that warm feeling somewhere between your heart and your stomach when you travel abroad and you find a place where you feel at home? Imagine it the other way around. I originally come from France but I remember some twenty years ago, driving through the tunnel that cuts into the ridge surrounding the town of Beaminster and opening my eyes a bit wider. After a fair few miles up and down winding roads in the hilly Dorset countryside, there was this pretty town sitting in a green bowl with its edges all shades of green.
Back then, as a year ago when my family moved here, nobody had heard of Beaminster. Relaxed although not sleepy, it has a market square in the middle, over 200 listed buildings, many built using hamstone, and small streets leading you back into the surrounding hills. This is where I felt at home all these years ago. As a busy Londoner stuck with weekly shopping nightmares, walking from the butchers to the greengrocers, topping my basket with a fresh loaf and strolling back to my mother-in-law’s was one of these simple pleasures that we enjoy when we travel to Normandy and often forget when we come back home.
If you’re a foodie, you may remember the winner of the 2009 amateur Masterchef. The guy who loved cooking simple food with a twist, definitely local, possibly foraged, maybe even hand-caught: Mat Follas. So let’s get back to our town square because that’s where his new restaurant is, The Wild Garlic. Bang in the middle of West Dorset. It’s not very big but it’s perfectly formed. Chunky square wooden table with words carved around the edges. A welcoming mix of down to earth with a bit of spice. Yes, that goes for his food too, but it also sums up West Dorset rather well.
Food, glorious food
It is no coincidence that the area attracts gourmets who won’t eat battery chickens, prefer organic when they can afford it, salivate at the thought of a freshly picked apple and enjoy the sights of a food market. Our neighbour Bridport was home to the first farmers' market twenty years ago. Chef Lesley Waters discovered Bridport back then on market day, fell in love with the area and its array of fresh flavoursome produce and now has her ‘little house on the prairie’ - her own words! - in West Dorset near her cookery school in Minterne Magna.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall started his River Cottage journey down the road near Bridport and again, his type of food reflects the area. It’s not about fuss, it’s about wholesomeness and diversity. Now, remember the French Lieutenant’s Woman looking out to sea from the blustering Cobb in Lyme Regis? Well, it can get rather windy around here but the sheep don’t mind and Portland sheep with their twisted horns graze happily on our hills to produce some fine meat full of flavour. Same with the cows. Sturminster Newton, slightly to the east, is home to the Blue Vinney cheese; a far smoother taste-bud experience than a Stilton but not so creamy that it melts like a Gorgonzola. A hit on the cheeseboard.
If you are vegetarian you won’t be impressed. But even if you are vegan, despair not. At the seaside, the village of West Bexington grows a chilli so hot that it blows the head off the Scoville scale. At over one million SHU, the Dorset Naga is one of the hottest chillies in the world. So you see, West Dorset is not all farmers, hills and the amazing Jurassic Coast; it does have plenty of little surprises tucked away. The villages around Beaminster such as Netherbury or Stoke Abbott with their hamstone cottages - particularly pretty on a sunny day when they turn a warm golden colour - are perfect destinations for walks, rambles and rides. Just make sure you pack some sturdy shoes because the views from the ridge around the town towards the English Channel are a joy.
Whether you head east towards Hooke and its peaceful woods - bluebell heaven in the spring - or any other direction, the far reaching views that the ridge affords will make you understand why this is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Thanks to a climate warmer than most of the British Isles, 80 per cent of mammal, bird and butterfly species are represented here. Without being a bird watcher or a spotter of any kind, coming across a deer in the distance or surprising a pheasant or three and see them take off with squeaks and surprisingly loud wing flapping is a treasured memory.
Where to stay
And when you come back from your walk, looking forward to comfort, friendliness, warmth and good food, you have plenty to choose from. You can head to the Bridge House Hotel Beaminster, where bedrooms, bar, restaurant and brasserie have been brought into the 21st century while keeping the atmosphere akin to a 13th century priest house. The fine restaurant is white linen and tall wine glasses without the fuss, the brasserie offers a good selection of French-inspired seasonal produce where Lyme Bay crab or Dorset Down mushrooms can be served al fresco under a gazova. If you get chilly on a summer evening - this is England after all - shawls are draped on the back of the chairs so you can enjoy your meal all the way to the lavender crème brulée (from the garden; the lavender that is, not the cream). As for the rooms, they are tastefully furnished and comfortable and even Kelvin MacKenzie (ex-Sun editor) recommends it. Or you may prefer a more approachable and friendly face like Joanna Lumley, who thought it was a fabulous place. Prices start at £126 per room and they have a family suite (and a child-friendly attitude).
If you prefer a more down-to-earth and simple type of accommodation in a stay on a working farm kind of way, you can try North Buckham Farm, where Trish will let your children feed the chicken (and the lambs in the summer) or collect the eggs; they can even get a pony ride. Badgers Cottage sleeps up to seven and prices start at £400.
For smaller parties, Stable Cottage at Meerhay Manor (sleeps 2 to 3) opens onto a courtyard with Portland sheep and horses in the surrounding fields and a tennis court (by arrangement). The friendly owners have a soft spot for the art and also organise writing courses. Both North Buckham Farm and Meerhay Manor also have B&B rooms for the couples who enjoy home cooked food; with local produce, it goes without saying.
Admittedly, it’s a bit dangerous to visit our friendly bowl. Once smitten… ask the Kiwi who chose it for his gastronomic venture (that would be Mat), the celebrity who lends his horses to a local children’s charity (that’s Martin Clunes who lives with his family in Beaminster) or little me. Outsiders in the middle of rural West Dorset, yet at home.
The Wild Garlic Restaurant: 4 The Square, Beaminster, DT8 3AS. 01308 861446. www.thewildgarlic.co.uk
The restaurant is really busy so you must book ahead. Prices for main £12-£18, starters and puds £6-£7.