“I had initially come here looking for work,” said our Hungarian sommelier, slightly red of chop and grinning ear to ear. My companion and I were dining at Olivier’s Restaurant, found in the belly of The Woburn Hotel in Bedfordshire, and had started chatting with our host after being handed a glass of the Tokaji Katinka 2012 – a respected Hungarian dessert wine.
“I have many friends in England and wanted to experience it all for myself, but my English then was very bad,” he continued. “I struggled to find anywhere that would have me, but then I met Olivier and he happily took me in.”
With that job offer, Olivier Bertho, the executive chef the Woburn Hotel restaurant, had started a new life for our bubbly Hungarian host. After starting from the bottom, he is now head sommelier and has been in the country for 12 years, having permanently settled with his wife and child. They had fallen in love with the beauty and romance of Woburn.
A Georgian village just a few miles southeast of Milton Keynes; Woburn boasts not only a rich English heritage but also a grand safari park, a gorgeous abbey and grounds, acres of breath-taking countryside, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Bedfordshire, and a plethora of other restaurants, pubs and tea rooms.
It is an ideal destination for those looking for a quintessentially English Valentine’s retreat – and who knows, a little later down the line you may even return to put down roots like our Hungarian friend! Just ask those in the Woburn wedding industry, which is booming!
My companion and I had decided to experience Woburn for an early Valentine’s excursion and had booked Bloomsbury Cottage at the aforementioned Woburn Hotel. Holding four AA stars and a 400 year heritage, this is one of the finest country hotels in the region, with 48 rooms/suites and seven individual cottages.
Our cottage really was beautiful. Glass tables, wooden beams, large mirrors, framed artwork, a giant mounted clock face above a standalone bath at the foot of the enormous bed, and more cushions for even the most cocksure of pillow fighters. My companion was like a puppy on pop as she scampered up and down the wooden staircase, unpacking and nibbling at the complimentary biscuits and chocolate.
After a spot of tea in the lounge it was time for an explore. We walked for hours across the vast countryside, which echoes to this day the inspiration of eminent eighteenth century landscaper Humphry Repton. The Woburn Abbey grounds are made up of 3,000 acres of deer park, with many taking a break from their grazing to curiously watch our passage from afar. The abbey and its grounds are part of the luxurious estate of the current Duke of Bedford. As is Paris House, Phil Fanning’s Michelin-starred restaurant – our first stop.
First built on the Rue des Nations in the French capital in 1878, based on the Renaissance half-timbered architecture of Cheshire at the time, Paris House captured the heart of the 9th Duke of Bedford soon after its inception, who had it dismantled and shipped to Woburn were it stands to this day.
Now in the hands of Phil Fanning, Paris House serves truly outstanding British fare and is a must for romance seekers. Seated at the most extraordinarily large (and red) chef’s table, my companion and I watched Phil and his team in action while discussing every one of the fourteen course tasting menu with Chef himself. Staggering quality and genuine insight into the mind of a Michelin-starred chef, with course fourteen a bizarrely brilliant dessert of Thai green curry, spiced pineapple, coconut and lime.
Full to the brim, we set off to make room for dinner. It was nippy out, with scarves and hats a necessity, but if lions and tigers can handle it, so could we!
Those big cats are found and joined by elephants, giraffes, camels, bongos, rhinos, zebras and all manner of reptiles, insects and birds at The Woburn Safari Park just around the corner. Predominantly a drive-through affair (so make sure you pack your car), the park is made up of 300 acres, with regular events and VIP experiences giving every animal the chance to strut their stuff.
Want that snap of your loved one recoiling in horror at a royal python? Looking to finally swap him for that ostrich you’ve always wanted? Now you know where to go!
For us, dinner was found at the aforementioned Olivier’s Restaurant back at our hotel. A grand piano and deep red cabinets stand guard at the entrance, with the restaurant proper boasting wooden flooring, beige banquettes and chairs, framed sketches and deer statuettes, all offset by vibrant purple flower arrangements on every table.
Olivier’s is European cuisine with emphasis on local ingredients, as we soon discovered via an amuse bouche of deep fried local goats cheese balls. The Wobbly Bottom, as it was so named, was delicate, soft through heat and quick to flood the mouth.
Sharing everything (how very Valentines-y), we attacked with relish. My starter of game mosaic with a spicy cranberry jam wrapped in local Brickhill ham (£8.95) was a real winner, as was her pan fried pork fillet, cider pulled pork and black pudding with apple and parsnip puree, fondant sweet potato and red wine jus (£17.95).
Having seen off an impressive cheese board with the Hungarian dessert wine, my companion and I retreated back to our cottage with a bottle of Yeco Sauvignon Blanc (£19.95), their wine of the month, to fully digest our grand day out.
An action packed adventure in the countryside, jammed full of memories. Valentine’s Day may be just round the corner but I’m sure the picturesque village of Woburn provides real romance all year round. Just ask the love-struck sommelier!
The Romantic Package at The Woburn Hotel
From £260 (for two people)
Overnight accommodation in an Executive Room (upgrade available, see website for prices)
Flowers, chocolates and Champagne on arrival
£35 allowance per person towards your dinner in the award winning 2 AA Rosette Restaurant, Olivier’s
Full English Breakfast
Concessionary entry to Woburn Abbey and Gardens and Woburn Safari Park (subject to opening times)
Book your stay with The Woburn Hotel at their website: http://www.thewoburnhotel.co.uk/leisure-breaks/romantic/