Celebrity cook Clarissa Dickson Wright talks to Cheshire Life
PUBLISHED: 20:05 17 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013
Is Clarissa Dickson right? Why the Cholmondeley Arms is the chosen home from home for the Two Fat Ladies star... Andrew Hobbs spills the beans
THE regulars at the Cholmondeley Arms near Malpas are not the sort to bat an eyelid when a TV chef appears from the kitchen or sits opposite them at the bridge table on a Tuesday night. Which is all part of the charm for Clarissa Dickson Wright during her regular stays at the south Cheshire pub.
The food broadcaster and writer has been using the converted village school, an award-winning pub since 1988, as a staging post on journeys south from her home near Edinburgh for the last 14 years.
'I find it the most delightful place, and on top of that it serves very good food,' she says. 'Last night, for instance, I had Welsh black sirloin from one of the tenants on the Cholmondeley estate,' deftly putting in a good word for the Cholmondeley Hub, a new initiative to promote food grown on the nearby castle estate.
'I stay there very often. I live in Scotland, and if I am going down the West side of the country it's the perfect place to stop because it's about halfway down. For instance, I was in London this week so I went by train from Crewe, and left my car at the Cholmondeley.
'The regulars there are a wonderful mixture of people, farmers, people in the hunting community, there's a Mancunian tycoon, a wonderful man who brings his vintage car club every year for lunch, there's the Tuesday bridge nights, the cheese-makers, there's always something going on.
'If you go at lunchtime you will always find Johnny O'Shea, who hunted with the Cheshires for 25 years, you get a lot of gardeners because of Cholmondeley Castle gardens, and I'm quite a keen gardener, there's a huge cross-section.
You get people coming in from Manchester, even to spend the night. It's a very friendly pub, everybody talks to everybody, so you won't be left on your own staring at your thumbnails. There are High Court judges and QCs, all sorts of people, one is never strapped for conversation.'
It was Clarissa's third career, as an unlikely TV presenter, that made her famous. She had already been a barrister and a chef before teaming up with Jennifer Paterson in 1996 as the Two Fat Ladies, puttering about the country in a motorbike and sidecar, in search of fine British food.
They were halfway through filming the fourth series when Jennifer died suddenly, in 1998. Clarissa later appeared with another TV partner in the series Clarissa and the Countryman: sheep farmer Sir Johnny Scott, who she has known since she was ten. And it was he who told her about the Cholmondeley Arms, run by his best friend from the age of five, Guy Ross-Lowe, with Guy's wife Carolyn.
So why does someone of her standing stay at a country pub rather than an upmarket city hotel?
'It's what I like, it's just the way I am. I prefer the countryside and also it's much easier to park. I am a Londoner born and raised, but by the time I was 13, I had probably stayed in every one of the world's great hotels of the day, and there are very few hotels in the British Isles I would choose to stay in.'
She always tries to get room six, in the converted school house across the old playground from the pub, and looks forward to the breakfast cooked by Shirley Collins, 'a sort of Ma Larkin, who does these amazing breakfasts, her fried bread is second to none'.
The fried bread is currently helping to fuel a publicity tour for Clarissa's new autobiography, Spilling the Beans, and there are plenty of other projects on the go.
'I am working on a book of wild food, except unlike existing ones you are allowed to kill things in mine, there are recipes for rabbit, eels, carp and so on. And a longterm project, a big encyclopaedia of English food, scheduled for 2009. I do quite a lot of after-dinner speaking, and bits and pieces of radio and television. I have a really nice life!'
There is more to the Cholmondeley Arms menu than breakfast, though, says Clarissa. 'It's not a gastropub, it's a pub that serves good, proper food. Last time I was there a relative of Carolyn's rang, who had been fishing off the Welsh coast and caught a whole tranche of mackerel, asking if she wanted it. He brought it back that day, I ate one of them for dinner that night, it couldn't have been fresher. That's the way they operate here, and it's that sort of attitude to food I like. They have also got a very good pudding chef, and the meringues are the best I have ever eaten.
'Carolyn is a super cook, and if she's there, I am always in and out of the kitchen, sticking my nose into things, seeing what's happening. You might find me chopping the odd onion if I've time.'