A menu from glory days of Little Wymondley's Blakemore Hotel puts French to the fore - and lots of lobster, too
PUBLISHED: 14:00 31 January 2016
The long-gone and unlamented days when dining out was a stuffy, special occasion and you needed a working knowledge of French to order a meal have been conjured up by the discovery of a fading menu.
The four page bill of fare was once served up at the Blakemore Hotel in Little Wymondley, which in years gone by was one of the top dining destinations in the area.
The hotel was favoured by well-off travellers and regularly catered for legendary Hollywood comedian Bob Hope when he returned to his English roots and visited family members in nearby Hitchin.
But as tastes changed its fortunes faded, and after being rebranded as a Travelodge hotel it eventually shut its doors three years ago.
The menu came to light as workers stripped out the buildings to transform the site into a new boutique hotel and spa, which officially opens in March.
Needham House is named in honour of the 16th century architect and surveyor James Needham, who was granted Wymondley Priory by Henry VIII for his services to the crown and whose descendants lived there for generations.
It’s not clear exactly when the menu dates from but – judging by the prices stated in decimal currency but still created using an old-fashioned typewriter – it’s probably what diners in the late 1970s were offered.
Every section, and every dish, is described first in French. Classics of the period to start the meal included l’avocat au crevettes (avocado pear and prawns, £1.20), les blanchailles a la diable (whitebait, £1) and les mais au beurre (corn on the cob with melted butter, 75p).
Diners could choose from nine different types of ‘potage’ including real turtle soup with sherry and oyster soup with Guinness before moving on to a fish selection heavy on sole, trout and salmon – but with no mention of 21st century favourites like sea bream, monkfish or scallops.
There were six variations of lobster on offer, though, for those with deep pockets – £4 per pound raw weight was the warning in the margin if you fancied ‘le homard thermidor’ or other options. Game – or ‘gibier’ to give it the Gallic name the menu preferred – was available in season, including pheasant, venison, partridge and grouse.
Main courses included some still familiar today. There was ‘le poulet Indien’ – chicken curry with rice, but no mention about what style of curry it might be aiming to be – and ‘le supreme de volaille a la Kieff’ which these days is more simply expressed as chicken Kiev, together with all manner of steaks including the priciest thing on offer, the £7.50 Chateaubriand Flambée – ‘double fillet steak gently grilled, finished with wine sauce. sliced and flambéed with brandy in the restaurant’ – and a hearty mixed grill for a less eye-watering £3.
Specialities of the house included steak Diane and three different dishes with scampi at their heart.
Veg was extra, of course, and the menu stuck to the French format whether you wanted haricots verts, ‘les choux de Bruxelles’ – sprouts, of course – or le celeri braise (braised celery, which has certainly fallen out of favour).
If you still had room for dessert, not even a firm English favourite like sherry trifle escaped the translators – charlotte de Savoie au Xeres, 70p to you – and there was more flambée action on offer for pancakes, bananas or peaches.
You could top it all off with a selection of cheese and biscuits for only 65p – cheaper than the desserts, which isn’t the case these days, although if you wanted celery with it there was a 15p supplement.
The hotel’s head chef Ivor Morgan, who lives in Hitchin and is now working closer to home after a spell in charge of the kitchen at the top-rated Sheene Mill in Melbourn, remembers when such menus were commonplace but has no intention of being so formal in his bill of fare.
His menu is more refined, both in the number of dishes on offer and in the way they are presented.
“We’re all about doing something different, using seasonal ingredients which are sourced locally as much as possible,” he said.
“We want to create a relaxing and fun place to eat, and eat well, and we’re really looking forward to showing people what we can do.”
And that means you certainly won’t need GCSE French to order good food.
Although Needham House doesn’t officially open for another few weeks, it is open for business – visit www.needhamhouse.co.uk if you’d like to find out more.