When’s the best time to drink champagne? Well the answer is all the time of course! Why save that bottle in the fridge for a special occasion? Just pop it open and celebrate the little things in life. Good food, friends and fun times.
And that’s exactly what we did last weekend. My favourite champagne, Laurent-Perrier, had organised a small press trip to the country and by coincidence the other bloggers on the trip were all people that I’ve got to know really well over the past few years. Laura, Suze, Lauren and I joined Alexandra from Laurent-Perrier on Sunday afternoon and we hurtled down the M4 to Bel & the Dragon in the quiet and beautiful village of Kingsclere in Hampshire.
Bel & The Dragon are a collection of countryside inns in the South of England all with a different look and a unique story. Bel & The Dragon at The Swan in Kingsclere is actually a beautifully restored 15th Century building and the seventh in the group of restaurants owned by Joel Cadbury.
Our small group was greeted with a warm welcome and it wasn’t long before a glass of Cuvée Rosé Champagne Laurent-Perrier was pressed into my hand.
Bel & The Dragon is so much more than your average country pub not only owing to warm service and hospitabitality but the cosy decor makes it feel like a home away from home.
With comfy sofas, exposed brick walls, a welcoming fireplace and shelves packed with books, we all agreed that we wouldn’t mind moving in! And if not I’d definitely get designer Nicola Hodding to style my flat into an amazing haven of #interiorgoals.
Actually, I could potentially relocate here as the inn also boasts nine bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms. I was surprised to see that my room was super spacious and I loved the snuggly throw and pretty scatter cushions, it even had the original beams exposed behind the bed, adding to the rustic charm.
A desk piled with books, a retro Roberts radio and fresh water is another welcoming touch and there’s even a bottle of Sipsmith Sloe Gin if you fancy a tipple before dinner.
The all white bathroom had a beautifully fresh and clean look with gorgeous lemongrass scented products from Bramley, a beautiful range handmade in the Southwest of England.
I quickly freshened up and popped next door to take a peek at Lauren’s room. Lauren and I have become really good friends since we met through our blogs and we were excited to go on our first trip together, and we’ve decided it’ll definitely be the first of many.
Never ones to say no we were keen to have our first try of the food at the Bel & the Dragon.
Rather more substantial than the promised ‘snacks’ we absolutely feasted on crisp bread with a huge clove of garlic to rub, smoked mackerel pate, devilled Cornish crab and deliciously crunchy whitebait. Blessed with a sunny day and beautiful blue skies, we took our food and champagne outside to the terrace to enjoy the last few days of summer.
The delicious homemade pizza is well known locally and prepared in the outside wood-fired oven so guests can inhale that fresh baked aroma. I’m 100% coming back next summer for al fresco pizza here especially as I think Mr S would love the ‘Full English’ with bacon, egg, chorizo, jalapeno pepper and tomato ketchup. They don’t do things by halves at Bel & The Dragon.
Nestled in the beautiful chalk hills, the village of Kingsclere has a few other claims to fame. Andrew Balding, brother of Claire Balding, is the custodian of Kingsclere Parkhouse Stables just down the road from Bel & The Dragon. The Balding family were kind enough to give a tour of their estate which is renowned as one of the best equipped and beautiful horse training facilities in the UK. It’s so lovely that even the Queen herself visits twice a year.
First established in the 1860s, the yard has flourished ever since. There are vast stables, extensive fields and plenty of modern amenities such an equine swimming pool and a treadmill. It’s no surprise that the dedication of the Balding family has resulted in over 2,000 winners.
The most famous previous resident is Mill Reef who trained here in the 1970’s and won the Epsom Derby as well as other key races. He has gone down in history as one of the UK’s best ever champions.
The Baldings’ kind hospitality extended to inviting us in to their home for a cup of tea and cake, all beautifully presented to us and pretty hard to resist despite our earlier snack.
Kingsclere’s other claim to fame is being the home of Watership Down, the setting of the novel by Richard Adams that was later the inspiration for an animated film.
I never read the book that follows the journey of a group of rabbits escaping their dangerous warren and searching for safety but my sister and I always found the film rather harrowing!
Though we didn’t see an fluffy bunnies scurrying around the hills, the landscape is really very beautiful. I do often forget to take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the English countryside. I’m rectifying that with a few more staycations before the end of the year, especially after I fell in love with Soho Farmhouse.
After a country walk we returned to Bel & The Dragon and after freshening up I came downstairs to find a magnum of Champagne Laurent-Perrier Brut on ice waiting for us…
We toasted to our wonderful girls weekend and settled back to talk to Group Head Chef, Ronnie Kimbugwe. A former sous chef at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, his past lies in fine dining but Ronnie has created a more rustic menu for The Bel & Dragon. We were later to discover what a talented chef he is but initially we were blown away by his love of food, passion for local produce and highly infectious personality.
Of course, I had to get a picture with him but my 5 foot 3 frame was dwarfed by Ronnie’s 6 foot 5 stature and I jumped on the bar to get us both in the picture.
And here’s the rest of the gang! I think I smiling faces say it all.
With the Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut on ice and a welcome message on the table, the hospitality of Bel & The Dragon was again evident. I couldn’t wait to get started especially as we would be drinking my favourite champagne, lower in calories as there is no added sugar.
Our starter of Cornish crab cocktail on a bed of avocado was an Instagrammers dream with the beautiful edible flowers as decorations.
Earlier Ronnie had explained his ‘Root to Table’ concept, that is knowing the source of all the produce in order to ensure the highest quality. Bel & The Dragon have strong relationships with local farmers and producers to ensure that they only work with those that use sustainable agricultural practices.
For example Ronnie sources his crab from The Real Crab Company, owned by Mark and Emma Rowse, a couple devoted to sustainable and traceable fishing practices. The Rowse’s fleet of crabbers provide two tonnes of live crab a week and the crab is guaranteed to be on your plates within 24 hours meaning it’s the freshest it can be.
The sweetness of the Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé means that it’s usually served with desserts, but everyone loves it so why not serve it all the time? The bubbly pink drink was poured to accompany our delicious main course.
Tender venison, so perfectly cooked on the Josper grill with roast potatoes that were just ridiculously crispy. The broccoli and other vegetables are grown in Bel & The Dragon’s own kitchen garden and what’s even lovelier is the spirit of community engendered in the care-taking of the garden. The children of Kingsclere Primary helped to design, build and maintain the garden, teaching them about the source of the food and encouraging heathy eating habits.
Throughout the meal Ronnie popped out from the kitchen to make sure that we were enjoying ourselves, telling us more about the food and his love of running a restaurant in the English countryside.
Rather than have the dessert with a final glass of champagne, Ronnie suggested that we try their signature cocktail, the Espresso Martini. Bel & The Dragon work with coffee experts Lavazza which is combined with Sipsmith Vodka to give the ultimate rich and creamy cocktail. I don’t usually drink coffee shots before bed but I couldn’t resist this perfect blend. Especially as it was served with my absolute favourite dessert; apple tarte tatin.
It was presented beautifully with a sugary shadow of a knife and fork on the board and so delicious I could have eaten one all to myself. But fortunately there were a few so I could share with my friends ;). Feeling full we headed up to the guest’s lounge to give our brains some exercise with a game of scrabble before turning back to our respective room to sleep off all that wonderful food and champagne.
Even breakfast foods at Bel & The Dragon are locally sourced and with the promise of ‘a proper bacon sandwich’, full English or childhood favourite boiled egg and soldiers you can definitely start the day properly.
Our trip to Bel & The Dragon with Champagne Laurent-Perrier was over all too quickly as we piled back in the car to head back to London. Exploring the English countryside is always so fun, especially when there’s good food, friends and champagne involved.
There are seven Bel & the Dragon Inns located through the south of England including Churt, Cookham, Windsor, Godalming, Odiham and Reading each with a focus on local produce and excellent quality.
Bel & The Dragon Kingsclere offers the perfect gourmet getaway for two. For £160 enjoy a stylish stay with a three-course dinner and a glass of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé. For an extra £63 a bottle of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé will be included in your room.
PIN FOR LATER:
Bel & The Dragon
01635 299 342
We were hosted by Bel & The Dragon and Laurent-Perrier as part of a press visit.