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Lumley Castle earns its keep for Sunday lunch
OUR part of the world is blessed with many castles, in various states of repair.
The majority have been knocked about a bit, if not by Cromwell, by locals keen to lay their hands on some cheap and top-notch building stone.
Most will make an attractive setting for a picnic, if the sun ever shines, not many are in presentable enough condition to provide a sit-down dinner.
Lumley Castle Hotel, near Chester-le-Street, is one that falls into the latter category and it’s a proper castle too, not some large manor house with pretentious castellated knobs on.
It’s got proper battlements, romantic turrets, dark, dimly-lit passageways and probably a dungeon too.
Pulling up in the car park and looking up at the slightly forbidding stone slab walls, one half expects a cauldron of boiling oil to be poised waiting to repel invaders, or perhaps a damsel in distress to be waiting for her Prince Charming to rescue her.
The hotel makes the most of this setting with its regular and popular Elizabethan-themed banquets, but we were calling for Sunday lunch.
The challenge for any Prince Charming, or guests arriving for Sunday lunch, is finding their way to the right part of the castle.
Today’s guests are heading for the Black Knight Restaurant which, after passing through reception, is found by walking across an inner courtyard, in through a doorway, down a passage, across a landing and then down a marble bust-lined corridor to a rather grand vaulted dining room. It would be easy to get lost.
The style of the Black Knight Restaurant is essentially baronial but comfortable. Crisp white linen, sparkling glassware and good quality cutlery help to justify the hotel’s upmarket reputation There are lots of staff too, well marshalled by an imperious maitre’d. We lost count of how many individual waiters/waitresses tended to our modest needs Service varied between auto-pilot efficiency to almost over-the-top obsequiousness. One young waiter almost tugged his forelock as he brought some extra gravy and served it with a dramatic flourish.
The menu rotates on a regular basis but on the Sunday we called (Father’s Day) it featured four starters (soup, pate, vegetable terrine and crab fishcakes) and four mains (roast beef, pork and lamb, salmon, vegetable pave).
Sylvia had the soup of the day, a thick vegetable which was a little under-seasoned for her taste but that tends to be the way these health-conscious days. My terrine of char-grilled vegetables was a well put together melange of courgette, aubergine, sun-dried tomato and mushroom. It came with a small dressed rocket salad and a light and mild tomato sauce. It perfectly met the definition of an appetiser.
On to the mains and Sylvia thought her slices of garlic and rosemary-infused leg of lamb a very good example of the classical French preparation of the dish. The combination of flavours simply enhanced the essential lambyness of the meat. It came with a mild pepper mint sauce and its own lamb gravy My pork was cut from the loin and the right balance of lean and fat (80/20 I reckon is the optimum for pork). The flavour was good and there were the standard accompaniments of a sage stuffing and apple sauce.
Both dishes came with excellent, light and crispy outer edges/soft inners Yorkshire puddings. Sylvia was particularly appreciative: “How do they get them to rise like that?” she wondered. Vegetables (mashed and roast potatoes, carrots, green beans and swede) were OK.
For dessert, Sylvia didn’t fancy any of the choices offered (pecan and caramel tart, profiteroles, pear and almond flan, cheeseboard) and asked for a little vanilla ice cream which turned out to be freezer-bound. I tackled the pear and almond flan which looked stodgy on the plate but was anything but, and was nicely complimented by a fruity, ever-so slightly sharp, pear compote.
Included in the Sunday lunch (Father’s Day) price of £27 per person was coffee, which we could have taken in the lounge. We chose to stay at the table. The coffee was good and strong and came with “a confection” which turned out to be a humble after-dinner mint.
But this was a very good Sunday lunch. Not the cheapest perhaps, but then the setting is unique.