Canterbury is a city that has long held a position of not just importance but also affection in the nation’s consciousness. From its early days as a Roman town through to its seminal position as a place of pilgrimage even today, it has remained one of the most influential and significant of English destinations. To the visitor it offers a wealth of historical insights and revelations, as well as a host of decent places to eat for keeping body and soul together between visits to attractions.
A visit to Canterbury Cathedral – famously, where Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights aiming to curry favour with King Henry II, is a must – both for the historical magnitude of the building, and also for its architectural joys. Not having been in the Cathedral since my early childhood, I was struck by its hugely impressive sense of space – both loftier and also more austere than I had recalled or envisaged. Whilst the numerous side chapels are dark and oppressive, with a rather uneasy and gloomy ambience, the crypt is wonderfully atmospheric – with a far more peaceful and joyful air – and of course the candle, kept burning always in memory of Thomas Becket in the chancel, is most moving.
I must also highly recommend two further, striking places to visit: the English Heritage-owned Abbey of Saint Augustine on the East side of the city – an extensive site of ecclesiastical ruins to wander and explore; and the Roman Museum. Although its entrance down a cobbled side street is tiny and unassuming, the museum is actually deceptively large, spread out as it is in the basement. It offers a range of fascinating artefacts to view – such as an amazingly complete and rare helmet and carpenters’ and builders’ tools, including a trowel, shovel and set square as recognisable as those you’d see in Axminster Tools – and concludes with a set of corridors complete with mosaics; unmoved (except by the warping of the ground) and thus exactly as they were laid out in someone’s house in the first century AD, complete with hypocaust, visible in the previous room.
Other attractions include the absorbing and rather charming Eastbridge Hospital, the ancient (and multi-functional) Castle which guards the city walls, the walls themselves (around which one may walk), and The Canterbury Tales – the latter more aimed at children and tourists, rather than the cultural visitor. A mixture of wax figures, historical re-enactors, mechanical figures and film, sound and light effects, it presents several of the more famous of the tales in an amusing and light-weight manner. I don’t know if I was the more offended, or the guide (clearly expecting a blank look from me) was the more nonplussed when, having been asked if I’d heard of Thomas Becket and what it was, then, that I knew about him, I proceeded to launch into a lecture on the life of the former Archbishop of Canterbury and his treatment in literature since….
With a variety of other museums, galleries and attractions on offer as well, it’s worth viewing the Visit Kent website (www.visitkent.co.uk) to enable one to fully plan one’s trip – but if you’re at the south end of town, after visiting the castle, Eastbridge Hospital or The Canterbury Tales, do treat yourself to lunch at The Ambrette, a highly impressive and polished Indian restaurant with the most superb food, and an extremely pleasant place to while away a lunchtime.
One enters into a spacious room, which immediately gives the impression of feeling clean and uncluttered; a large area by the front door has been kept clear to help maintain this sense. The floor throughout is wooden, and here it is decorated with rather beautiful tiles set into the wood. The walls have tongue and groove panelling painted in duck egg blue, with bold and vibrant floral and seed wallpaper in dark green, reds and golds on a few sections of the wall. There is some booth seating; the rest of the seating – including on a mezzanine floor by the window – is at handsome wooden tables with old fashioned, nicely carved wooden chairs. A long dark wood bar runs along one wall, with numerous old tobacconists drawers inset behind (a lovely, traditional touch); this bar area also exceptionally clean and uncluttered. The service is more smart and professional than warm and friendly – from the English chaps at least, as the Indians are more friendly whilst being at the same time no less smart and professional; baby Tristan was welcomed and immediately befriended by one of the Indian waitresses. Tables are left bare but with water glasses, wine glasses, and a selection of cutlery tucked into a pristine linen napkin. With gentle saxophone jazzy music (not particularly inspiring, but an awful lot better than the dreadful noise in most restaurants), the general atmosphere is relaxed, making for unpretentious, yet nevertheless smart dining with traditional values.
The lunch menu is short – just five starters and main courses and four desserts, but all of these are interesting and unusual – a combination of local Kentish ingredients, traditional dishes and an intriguing Indian twist. The wine list is also good, but doesn’t indicate countries, which I found rather disorientating. There is a smallish but good range of reds, whites, roses and sparkling – I went for a glass of the Auction House Shiraz, which was served at the perfect temperature. It started out tasting a little bland but grew in flavour with the meal, seeming to react and intensify with the slight spiciness of the dishes. The nose was of black berry fruits and leather and tar – quite black; the colour was dark also and the taste of blackberries but with hints of red fruits too – raspberries and cherries. A creamy wine and very dry (the dryness imparting tones of ash even); it worked extremely well with this type of cuisine and had clearly been carefully auditioned for its place on the list.
Amuse bouches of lentil dumplings soon appeared. These were gently spicy, with an absolutely perfect amount of heat, giving the dish a little kick but not burning the mouth. With a lovely crunchy exterior and crumbly interior, these were really delicious; and an excellent start to the meal.
I began the meal itself with the poussin, served coated in spices on a bed of mango chutney, which worked well to temper said spices. Alongside the slices of poussin breast were a chicken ballotine and a type of chicken mousse with crunchy nuts adding an extra textural dimension and saffron colouring it yellow and adding its subtle but distinctive flavour. All three morsels were interesting, flavoursome and worked well together, making an excellent dish all round.
A lentil, ginger and lemon soup served in a porcelain teacup followed as a palate-cleanser (who could ever wish for sorbet after trying this?) – a gorgeously hot, creamy, spicy soup that I had to fight over with Tristan, who, when I offered him a tiny taste, attempted to gulp the whole cup down with relish!
I opted for the lamb pie for my main course (a good choice). This was based on the traditional shepherd’s pie, yet with the mince meat flavoured with singing spices, a thin layer of mashed potato on top, and mango chutney above that. The meat was quite dark tasting and salty – the chanteney carrots provided a burst of intense sweetness which was the perfect foil for the saltiness of the mince – as were also the other two accompaniments provided – sweet, fresh white bread and steamed rice – the latter quite bland with, again, a touch of sweetness. I was extremely impressed by what was clearly a well-thought-through dish, with all elements very closely considered in terms of flavour, texture and how well they complement each other. On its own, the lamb would have been too salty, or the carrots, rice or bread far too sweet, but the combinations offered insights into the chemistry of cuisine that were nothing short of revelatory.
The desserts presented me with choice dilemmas as all sounded rather wonderful but in the end I was unable to resist the lure of the intriguing chocolate samosas, which I accompanied with a glass of montbazzilac. This was more lemon than golden in colour, with a nose of grapefruit and light honey; it rather tasted of the nectar of flowers – floral, sweet and light, yet with a tart citrus bite at the finish. The samosas presented crunchy pastry filled with a hot chocolate sauce. Personally, I would have preferred a lighter pastry (as this was fairly heavy and dense) and an even darker chocolate to intensify the richness – yet it was nevertheless very good. The samosas were accompanied by tea and cardamom jelly which was wonderful – rich, creamy and intensely cardamom-y, and chocolate ice-cream. Normally chocolate ice cream wouldn’t tempt me, but this was full of the flavours of orange and ginger – absolutely delicious. Needless to say, it went down well all too well with Tristan!
By the end of the meal I felt relaxed, happy and extremely well- (but, importantly, not over-) fed, and with the excitement of having experienced a culinary adventure. There was very little indeed that I could fault in what was overall a superb dining experience; and one that I recommend to anyone with the treat of a visit to Canterbury lined up.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s restaurant and wine critic