The Peacock at Rowsley
First impressions of this small boutique hotel in Rowsley, near Bakewell in the Peak District, are very favourable. Staff welcome one into a space that is at once cosy and smart; both the greeting and the rooms make one feel relaxed and at home. The latter are not huge (and our bathroom really was quite on the tiny side – but smart nevertheless, with marble tiles and a shower over the bath) but are immaculately clean and combine quirky touches both modern and old. In our room we found plenty of comfortable chairs – again a combination of traditional armchairs and more modern pieces (a pink velvet chair looking as it was out of the 1950s); whilst a beautiful old desk calls to one to sit down and write letters, and an antique oak Jacobean-style wardrobe lends further interest to the room. I also rather loved the old radiator and original leaded windows – behind, of course, a second layer of glass to keep out the noise from the road (and probably obligatory for ‘health-and-safety’ reasons). Lamps lend a warm glow to the room and a pot of orchids a touch of elegance. The four-postered bed is huge, high and extremely comfortable, and covered in soft and flawless cotton. Another feature of interest was the old iron fireplace – it was just a shame that the small pile of logs wasn’t blazing away! We were pleased that there was only one moderate-sized TV screen, and that not, hurrah – for once, dominating the room.
We ate dinner in the bar, seated in a little alcove with the low copper surface of the glorious old-fashioned bar behind my husband and tiles of a peacock behind Tristan and myself on the bench; an original stone wall to our right and rather gorgeous oak panelling to the left. Lamps are complemented by discreet and warm spotlighting; paintings hang on the walls and old furniture abounds. I was particularly impressed by the ancient leather wine carrier hanging from a hook behind my husband. On the other side of the room was a log fire next to another beautiful item of furniture – an antique oak settle. We looked round the bar the next morning in daylight and were even more impressed than we had been the previous might – a beautifully carved antique wooden settle; the lovely rounded, enveloping shape of the bar; an antique cock fighter judge’s chair (impressive, even if one does disapprove of its original use) – and that beautiful, glowing copper top! Surely the most splendid bar I have ever seen.
We started dinner with cocktails, for which The Peacock has developed something of a reputation. My husband’s chilli concoction was a very ‘cleansing-feeling’ drink, calling to mind P.G. Wodehouse’s phrase (in connexion with Bertie Wooster) about feeling “as though someone was strolling down my oesophagus holding a lighted torch” but the fiery, energising taste was particularly refreshing. In my cucumber champagne cocktail, the initial notes were strongly redolent of champagne and gin, but the cucumber made its presence felt a little later. This was a beverage of real sophistication, and one to be enjoyed and appreciated with due focus. Amuse bouche were brought shortly after the cocktails and set the high tone for the rest of the meal – really rather delicious beef and horseradish croutons; and a very sweet chilled carrot soup with cumin.
The menu lists a reasonable number of starters and main courses as a la carte choices (around seven) and there is also a menu of “Classics” at far more reasonable prices (that’s not to say that the a la carte dishes may not be worth the amount charged – I’m sure they are, but it would probably push it into a ‘really special occasion’ meal bracket). We ate from the classics menu, which had just three options each for starters and mains, including soup and fish of the day.
I started with a venison terrine – this was very strongly flavoured with dark, gamey notes, with the crunch and heat of the green peppercorns complementing the rich texture and flavour of the meat. It was served with sourdough toast with celeriac, which worked well. My husband’s egg Benedict was pronounced superb. The egg was rich and cooked to perfection; the muffin was beautifully soft but not without a little resistance that complemented the egg perfectly; and the whole was accompanied by simple rocket leaves that added colour as well as an added dimension of texture and taste.
The wines chosen to accompany the starter (by the sommelier) were also immaculately judged: both were complex and sophisticated white wines with very clean, centred tastes and wonderful noses – mine in particular had an immensely floral nose with those floral notes also coming through strongly on the palate, alongside baskets-full of fruit. The red wines which followed with the main courses were equally rich, complex and well-chosen.
For my main, the braised lamb shoulder was excellent – the shoulder itself was both immensely flavoursome – rich and succulent – and wonderfully tender – literally falling into pieces when one cut into it. It was accompanied by pearl barley – which gave a good complement of texture in its bursting crunches; slightly bitter kale, and lamb ragu. The latter was in and of itself also excellent – very tomatoey in flavour – yet I felt that it was one dimension too many and actually obfuscated rather than added to the overall dish.
The steak pleased even fussy Mr Marshall-Luck! This was deliciously and vividly flavoured, with an effective salty tang and an intense depth. It was simply but effectively served with chips and rocket and with an extremely more-ish Béarnaise sauce. Young master Tristan tried substantial bites of all of these and strongly approved – as indeed he did of the beautifully freshly-baked bread rolls, which were also unusual in flavour and of the very highest quality.
He was equally impressed by his father’s bread-and-butter pudding and not surprisingly. It’s very rare that one can find a restaurant that can do this so successfully. Here at The Peacock, it was light enough not to be stodgy but at the same time had plenty of substance and heft which made it an extremely satisfying dessert; juicy raisins, plump from marinating, vied with layers of bread and a soft yet slightly resistant filling. Furthermore, it was complemented admirably by brown-bread ice cream that was deliciously smooth and boasted more than a hint of caramel.
I opted for cheeses, wherein one may choose three out of five listed items (an excellent selection of different types, with each accompanied by a little dab of carefully-chosen sweetness). Thus honey perfectly complemented my goats’ cheese; date puree my English “Swiss”, and apple puree my semi-soft cows’. Again, every element pleased and impressed: delicious cheeses, beautiful accompaniments – which really worked with the individual cheese – and all superbly presented. Tea and coffee were excellent too – the tea very clean tasting, and the coffee strong enough even for Mr Marshall-Luck.
The service had been extremely good as well for the duration of the meal. Staff were smartly attired, attentive and friendly. One even brought chalks and encouraged Tristan by example to squat down on the slate floor and draw all over it. When I later found Tristan scribbling all over my kitchen tiles with a pencil I was less persuaded that this had been a good idea – but the friendliness and attempt to include their youngest dinner was nevertheless laudable.
It was with the very deepest regret that we loaded the car the following morning after an admirable breakfast, noting, as we walked to and from the car park the other thoughtful touches such as the bowl of water inside the door for dogs and a rack of umbrellas for patrons’ use. It is rare that one finds an establishment that offers such a high level of service; such exquisite food and drink; and such fine surroundings (not to mention that bar!).
One of the things that struck me most, however – apart from that supremely gorgeous bar – was the clientele, who were far more civilised than one usually encounters – unusually, we noted that these were all people of good breeding, manners and culture, rather than the moneyed hooligans one all too often finds in top hotels. Perhaps a case of like attracting like, with the refinement and elegance of The Peacock calling to more cultured and civilised patrons.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic