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Emma Ford

Published:  23 July, 2008

This is a fine Georgian building for your first hotel

Yes, although when we bought it, it was in a real state. It looked beautiful from the outside, but the bathrooms were yellow. They weren't even avocado green - it was a time even before that colour. My mother was concerned at us sinking half a million into the project, and I was pretty worried too, although I reassured her - and myself - with the fact that people would know us from Summer Lodge, the hotel where we were working. Once the new owners started trying to turn Summer Lodge into a corporate venue rather than a place for regulars, we knew we had to leave.

What sort of cellar were you left with at Barwick House?

Awful; there was a load of Niersteiner that we had to give to the village fte and a list with flowery descriptions such as 'nice and fruity with a bit of bite'. It was terrible, and had obviously been copied from some guide. The wines were kept in a shed in the garden, so they would have been subject to temperature fluctuations from winter to summer, ideal for spoiling every single bottle.

Did anything prepare you for running your own place?

Rather naively, because we'd both worked in a number of kitchens, we thought it would be easy. We both trained as chefs. Tim, my husband, was a little college boffin from the Isle of Wight, scrubbing copper pans and learning how to make demi-glace properly. I did a private cookery course at Tante Marie in Woking, which included wine.

Was that enough for a career in restaurants?

I also cooked for large dinner parties. It was great fun for a time. I'd go to people's houses, drive their fast cars and spend all their money. The amusement waned when it became shooting parties of 12 in Scotland, having breakfast, lunch and dinner. They didn't stop eating and I was cooking on an Aga, something that was very much below par for the job. People would get very excited come the grouse season and want the birds roasted, but there was no way that was happening on one of those Aga hobs.

Luckily you don't tend to find them in professional kitchens.

Well, that wasn't the only problem. A group of doctors then brought in a lamb, demanding that it be butchered, even though it still had all its fur on. They also handed me a whole eel that they wanted smoked. I had never skinned a whole animal and I had no idea how to kill the eel. My first thought was to treat it like a lobster, so I put it in a pan of boiling water. But it slithered out and was writhing around on the floor. I hate snakes, so I asked one of the doctors to help me. He was chasing the eel around, knocking into shelves and cupboards, trying to bash it to death, but they have really hard heads. Eventually we got the thing in the pot, but it wasn't very good - it needs to be raw before it's smoked. Afterwards I rang up the woman who had trained me at Tante Marie, and she said it was quite simple: you just cut the head off.

So how did you follow that?

I moved to the pastry section at Sharrow Bay in Cumbria, after working in a kitchen where the staff were awful to me. Luckily I'm quite a strong person. I won't say which hotel this was, but they tried to break me. Sharrow was horrible too, but only in the way it looked, with camp nick-nacks everywhere. Brian and Francis really knew how to look after people and that filtered down to the staff, who were brilliant. Most of them have been there for years. Nigel, who was then the washer-up, now manages the hotel.

And that's how you became interested in pastry?

Yes, so that when I try a pudding now I can visualise how it will taste with a wine. I know, for example, that the 2002 Clos de Portail from Graves on our list will be great with our apple and almond tart. That's why we have so many dessert wines. Westland Helicopters, of Michael Heseltine fame, is based nearby, so we have plenty of high-spenders who like this sort of thing.

And you met your husband at Sharrow Bay too?

Yes, I actually split Tim from his girlfriend, who was a housekeeper, so the atmosphere wasn't great for a while. But there were lots of people working there, and the kitchen was down a long tunnel, so we were able to avoid each other. Tim and her had been together for years but it was going nowhere. He needed help. She's all right now; she even said hello to me once.