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The very model of a modern estate

Swinton in Yorkshire combines respect for its heritage with a pioneering spirit, including plenty of food and fire inspiration. RUPERT BATES reports

 Rupert Bates   Spring 2022

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A chef in whites striding towards deer should cause a degree of trepidation in the fallow herd, but not at the Swinton Estate in the Yorkshire Dales.

Venison does indeed feature on the menu and over live fire by chef Marc Williams in the cookery school, housed in the converted Georgian stables. But this is as free range as it gets, game grazing gracefully in parkland of rich, natural beauty.

Swinton, near Masham in North Yorkshire, has a galaxy of ingredients beyond the food and fire experiences on the estate. At the heart of the 20,000 acres is the 42-bedroom Swinton Park hotel, the ancestral home of the Earl and Countess of Swinton, which has been in the ownership of the Cunliffe-Lister family since the 1880s with Mark and Felicity Cunliffe-Lister, the present Earl and Countess, passionately involved in the evolution of their estate, a stunning fusion of ancient and modern.

If Yorkshire really is God’s own country, you suspect he enjoyed divining the market town of Masham.

It was Masham where I started the night before in The White Bear inn, with slow-roasted belly pork washed down by Theakston beer, Masham being home to the renowned brewery and also another brewer, Black Sheep.

The approach to Swinton is a reminder of how blessed this county, yet alone country, is by stately homes of soaring architecture – in this case a blend of Regency and Victorian Gothic. The castle does not disappoint inside either; all antiques and understated elegance, with ancestors dripping from the walls. I spy a portrait of Mark Cunliffe-Lister’s grandfather, Willie Whitelaw, the former home secretary and deputy leader in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet.

But I am here principally for the food; I am on this planet principally for the food. I am tempted by the fine dining of Samuel’s restaurant and its exquisite gold leaf ceiling, but I head to the cookery school that Marc Williams presides over, with classes including Weber Grill Academy courses and a range of meat, game and fish cooking, as well as international cuisines, baking and bread-making.

Swinton has also joined forces with DeliVita, the leading wood-fired oven brand and Williams teaches the elements of fire and temperature control, as you learn to cook pizzas, steaks and lamb skewers in the DeliVita ovens, as well as a whole roast seabass and even wood-fired brownies.

In addition to the school and ovens for Bivouac glamping, a DeliVita Pro, a giant ladybird atop her precious woodpile, now takes centre stage at The Terrace restaurant, part of the Country Club and Spa. There is also a converted horsebox for DeliVita cooking to be transported across the estate – pizza in the park.

Williams is a chef with the full suite of culinary skills. But ask him to cook for his life and he’d head outside and fire up any one of his personal barbecues, kamados, kettles, ovens or firepits.

 

 

“I have always had a huge passion for live-fire cooking. I love the flavours you can evoke from smoke and you can’t fake flavour,” says Williams.

Try his duo of venison ­– I knew there was a professional purpose to him showing me the herd – with the saddle barbecued over wood, before a sous vide water bath. Like all BBQ enthusiasts, Williams has chased the holy grail of the 18-hour brisket.

“It is the challenge that scares and unites chefs the world over. You always have to remember it’s ready when it’s ready.”

Williams is meticulous about his choice of meat and cuts. “Give me a 90-day dry-aged steak where the fat melts.” He wants pork with such local provenance that he knows the pigs’ names, while white cattle are bred on Swinton farmland.

“We take pride in our fresh seasonal produce and commitment to low, even no food miles. Most of our ingredients are sourced from the hotel’s walled garden and surrounding estate, including venison, game, lamb and beef, and wild foods such as elderflower, garlic and woodland mushrooms,” says Williams, who also cooks Chef’s Table meals for Swinton guests.

Head gardener is Mark’s mother, Dame Susan Cunliffe-Lister, and, says Williams, the garden and the seasons dictate the menus.

Nothing is wasted, with fermenting and pickling in winter to produce estate chutneys and jams. “Nature doesn’t wait for anyone.”

Willi

ams, from Newcastle, initially studied music technology. “But all I could think about was what would I have for my tea and finding the ingredients.”

Since starting out at the Marco Polo Italian restaurant in his home city, Williams later became head chef at the General Tarleton in Ferrensby, North Yorkshire, and also worked at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire.

He has been a chef consultant to butchers and farmers, further evidence of his relentless commitment to food provenance, not to mention animal husbandry.

Warming to his theme, Williams explains how the flavour of a beef cheek beats a fillet steak because the cheek is such an active working muscle on the cow. It explains the quality of the venison too, with the deer roaming the estate’s acres, clocking up the steps on their imaginary Fitbits, as we clock up our own steps, striding across the park to The Deer House, a rustic semi-alfresco party venue, with fires and sheepskins for winter warmth.

If you want to go off-grid, book the Swinton Bivouac on the edge of the estate’s moorland in the shelter of the Druid’s Temple plantation. Its tree lodges and meadow yurts complete with Weber barbecue, DeliVita wood-fired oven and firepit, are powered by wood chip and logs sourced from the forest, as is the larch cladding on the buildings – a green print for sustainable tourism.

There is falconry and birds of prey experiences with owls and hawks. The estate offers fishing for wild brown trout, grayling and salmon along the rivers Ure and Burn and you can learn the art of fly fishing with Marina Gibson running the Northern Fishing School, based at Swinton. There is also shooting tuition from EJ Churchill.

Chief executive at Swinton is Iain Shelton: “The demand for outdoor living and learning the art of live-fire cooking is growing all the time. We are always looking for new ways to provide fresh experiences at Swinton and with sustainability at the heart of everything we do this really works,” says Shelton. Other future projects planned include a large woodfired bakers’ oven for artisan breads to be available across the estate.

 Dine like a duke or hug your Bohemian spirit; luxuriate in the spa or go ‘forest bathing’ in the woods; the choice is yours.

Me? I’m off for wood-fired ‘estate to plate’ venison. Marc can cook it for me; I’ll learn at the school later.

 


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