It is only half an hour’s drive from the bustle of Birmingham, a city that has taken bustle to another level (and that’s putting it politely) since the council started digging up Paradise Circus.
Yet strolling around the grounds of Swinfen Hall, an 18th century pile off the A38 in Staffordshire, feels like being transported to the heart of rural England.
The estate has a flourishing deer park in which 80 skittish Sika roam in meadows and woodland.
The Georgian hall, built for a staff of 55, has been a privately-owned hotel with 18 bedrooms for 27 years. Owners Helen and Vic Wiser have recently introduced seven Manx sheep which help to keep the grass down over the gnarly roots under the oak trees. The sheep have been mated with a ram called Devil and the offspring, it is hoped, will be heavenly.
There is also talk of introducing a couple of rare breed pigs in the near future.
All of this is good news for Swinfen Hall’s ambitious head chef, Paul Proffitt, who must have one of the finest natural larders in the Midlands on his kitchen doorstep. Several young male deer have to be culled each year as part of the herd’s management programme and the Sika make for some first-class venison. Next year’s Manx lamb should also prove to be tasty addition to the menu in the hotel’s Four Seasons restaurant.
Then there is the half-acre Victorian walled garden where I meet Staffordshire-born Proffitt.
The garden is chemical and pesticide free and is showing the first shoots of the approaching harvest when I visit in late April.
Profitt speaks with relish about the produce that will be heading his way: heritage carrots and leeks; Peruvian purple potatoes and pink fir apples; three varieties of cabbage; red, golden and candied beetroot (one bed is reserved for the deer, who are partial to the superfood); courgettes, spinach and squash; a treasure trove of summer berries – strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blackberries and red currants.
Then there’s the rhubarb… You get the idea.
Peaches are being trialled for the first time against a sheltered, sun-trap wall. Bee hives a comparatively new addition too.
Like everything at Swinfen, the walled garden has been brought back to life thanks to the Wisers’ enthusiasm and dedication. Proffitt, a relative newcomer having taken over the kitchen in October 2013, has worked closely with the estate’s gardeners to ensure the produce meets the demands of the kitchen and that there is a steady supply rather than high-summer gluts.
Proffitt, who is 27, must rank as one of the greater Birmingham/West Midlands’ most exciting young chefs. It is a measure of Birmingham’s inward looking food perspective that few people I know in the city have ventured up the A38 to try Proffitt’s cooking. In fact, mention Swinfen Hall to many people in Birmingham and there is a reasonable chance you will get a blank face staring back at you.
Proffitt, who studied Culinary Arts Management at University College Birmingham, took a pay cut to work under Glynn Purnell and credits the Michelin-star chef with being the single biggest influence on his career. “He opened by eyes to the playful nature of food and food as being a way of expressing yourself,” says Proffitt.
It was Purnell who taught the chef to “always push forward.” Proffitt says: “I will never just do something. You will get all of me or none of me – it is all or nothing. I wouldn’t classify myself as a perfectionist but I can always be better tomorrow than I am today.”
The commitment has been borne out by accolades. Only 18 months after taking over the reins, Proffitt won a third AA rosette for The Four Seasons in January this year. It’s a remarkable achievement for a chef with no previous experience at this level. Incidentally, Swinfen Hall is also an AA Inspectors Choice 4 Red Star hotel.
Proffitt admits it was a “baptism of fire” taking on his first head chef position and I am impressed by the gamble the Wisers’ were prepared to take. “For me, it was a never a risk,” says Proffitt. “I always work as hard as I have to to make things a success.”
The chef says he likes his food to have a “natural appearance” on the plate: “If you put food on a plate and let it be what it is, it is so much more attractive. I don’t want diners here to look at my food and be afraid to put a fork in it.
“My goal is to win a Michelin star before I am 29. Everybody does something by the time they are 30. I want to do it by 29.
“It would be the first Michelin star in Staffordshire. This is where I was born and raised. I do think Staffordshire gets forgotten. People know of Birmingham but they don’t really think of Staffordshire for food. I say to the guys in the kitchen, ‘Let’s take on the world – one plate at a time.’”
Gourmet dinners at Swinfen Hall
Swinfen Hall stages a number of gourmet nights throughout the year in the Edwardian Ballroom. I attended a jazz night in April and was impressed with the scope of Proffitt’s cooking – and the great choice of wine matches.
I was not reviewing the food and never do if I am an invited guest. But I will tell you that the main meat course – a roast loin of Derbyshire lamb – was very good.
The lamb was matched with a Clos du Val Zinfandel 2012 from the Napa Valley. I wouldn’t have picked the wine in a million years, having had some duff zinfandel over the years. This was delicious, herbaceous, minerally, a great foil to the sweet lamb.
Here is the menu for the gourmet evening:
- Paul and his brother Harry, a fellow member of the kitchen brigade, are cycling almost 1,000 miles from Lands End to John O’Groats to raise money for the diabetes unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, in June. The brothers’ mother Mandy, who has been living with Type 1 diabetes for 30 years, is a diabetes specialist nurse. Swinfen Hall is hold a fundraising afternoon tea and concert on June 14. Tickets priced £22 include a £10 donation to Team Proffitt. Ring 01543 481494 for tickets and further detail, or support Paul and Harry’s efforts by donating at http://virginmoneygiving.com/team/Proffitt-and-Loss
- Swinfen Hall, Swinfen, Lichfield, Staffordshire, WS14 9RE
- T: 01543 481494