As Verzon House in Ledbury celebrates its two AA Rosettes for Culinary Excellence, Herefordshire-based food writer Bee Costello looks deeper into what lures London chefs to this rural county, and meets the Verzons head chef Callum McDonald who believes the quality of Herefordshire’s produce has much to do with its success.
As Herefordshire strengthens its reputation as the UK’s next big food destination, a new breed of fine dining chefs from London are heading this way and are bringing their refined culinary skills acquired in Michelin Star restaurants with them.
With an abundance of seasonal produce, heritage beef, quality venison and game on their doorsteps, and an opportunity to build their own kitchen teams and menus at country house restaurants, Herefordshire is fast-becoming an attractive proposition for ambitious culinary talents.
For some London chefs with young families, this beautiful food-rich county offers a tranquil life away from the hustle and bustle of the capital – and a few less working hours. It also offers the chance to be as close to the source of their ingredients as they can.
It was Herefordshire’s quieter lifestyle and passion for food provenance that inspired 30-year-old London chef Callum McDonald to move here.
Done with his 18-hour days, and with a desire to change his hectic city life, Callum is now head chef at Verzon House, near Ledbury.
In Herefordshire, Callum has found the perfect life for his family and at a smart hotel on the outskirts of Ledbury he has found a creative environment to cook inspiring and delicious dishes, and to make his own mark on British cooking.
Callum’s cuisine is classic dining with a modern twist. Having had both lunch and supper at the Verzon, the food has always been full of flavour, beautifully presented and exciting. You get the feeling there are more inspirational ideas to come from Callum - a relief for diners, considering that he nearly didn’t become a chef.
The journey into cooking started at home in Cambridge while planning an entirely different career.
"I was 16 at school in Cambridge when I wanted to join the Army but my mum begged me not to join as there was so much going on in Afghanistan at the time," he said.
"I didn’t join but I knew I still wanted a career that offered discipline, so I took up a catering apprenticeship at the Pink Geranium restaurant under Stephen Saunders."
After his apprenticeship with celeb chef Saunders, it was off to London where he competed with 10 other young chefs on a week’s trial at Le Gavroche, owned by Michel Roux Jnr.
Medallion of Hereford beef, served by Callum McDonald at Verzon House, near Ledbury. Photo: Andy Bates
Dark chocolate and marmalade tart with mascarpone ice cream. Photo: Andy Bates
Tonga bean rice pudding crème brûlèè. Photo: Andy Bates
Callum was hand-picked to work at Le Gavroche - the Mayfair joint famous for its fine dining and luxe French food - and he spent a year learning about life in the kitchen of a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
"We saw Michel Roux every day," said Callum. "And all the service was in French so I learned a lot."
Days at Le Gavroche started with larder duties then food prep tasks, and often ended at till 1am.
"I would take in the deliveries at 7am and then deliver the fresh produce to 20 chefs in their different kitchen departments," he said.
While working for Michel Roux, Callum said he learned about man-management, managing himself and being efficient and organised (he also made chicken wings for Hollywood star Woody Allen, but that's another story). Those key skills stood him in good stead for his next move to the Belvedere in Holland Park.
The Belvedere’s head chef Billy Reid was another great influence. Trained by the Roux brothers and having working for the legendary Marco Pierre White, Reid had also held a Michelin star at L’Escargot in Soho and at the Vineyard at Stockcross.
Callum stepped up from junior sous to senior chef de partie, and then another restaurant. This time it was the Northcote, owned by Michelin star chef Nigel Haworth.
After that full-on Michelin star experience Callum moved to Herefordshire where, you could argue, the attention moved away from celeb chefs and back to local food heroes.
With his boss Kate Chase, owner-manager of Verzon House, sharing his passion to use only the best of Herefordshire produce, Callum is well placed to elevate the Verzon to a first class place to dine.
This month he led the catering team to their second AA Rosette for Culinary Excellence. Plans are now afoot for the Verzon’s own kitchen garden and a food research trip to Australia’s culinary capital of Melbourne.
Callum modestly said he’s just keeping his head down, keen to progress towards that third AA Rosette. But with cooking as good as this, before too long it could be Michelin that visits to assess the Verzon for its first star.
Verzon House head chef Callum McDonald.
Final thoughts? Let's talk about the food.
The menu offers three choices per course, which means only delicious seasonal ingredients and quality cooking goes into each plate of food. Dishes are elegant and effortlessly presented, and come with an element of surprise.
Our lunch starter of Charred Broccoli and Shropshire Blue soup came with delicate, handmade walnut and blue cheese sable biscuits. Main courses included a beautifully cooked salt Cornish cod on a bed of smoky braised chickpeas, squid, pancetta and an unexpected wedge of succulent pork belly. We also tried the medallion of Hereford beef with roast garlic mash and wild mushroom jus – classic flavours and a visually stunning plate of food.
Having only seen tonka beans used by chefs on TV’s Great British Menu it was only going to be one pudding when I saw it on the dessert menu. Tonka bean rice-pudding crème brulée with poached pear and pear sorbet was an inspired dessert. We also tried the dark chocolate and marmalade tart with an incredible mascarpone ice cream, which balanced the sweet orange flavours. Portions are extremely generous and it’s a proper pudding you get, not a few deconstructed bits and pieces on a fancy dish. Prices range from £23 for a two-course lunch or £27 for three with menus changing regularly.
Verzon House itself is large and airy with a quintessentially British feel throughout – check out the huge Union Jack Chesterfield sofa sitting pride of place in the hunting-lodge style bar. The interior in both the bar and restaurant is chic, glamorous and quirky with statement furniture pieces, humorous pictures and eclectic objects featured in every room. Take the giant stag’s head in the restaurant, which the staff have affectionately named Verzon. It hangs majestically above the fireplace and puts this very British restaurant into context in its gorgeous rural setting. The delicious seasonal menu tells you that you’re in agricultural Herefordshire and you’re surrounded by very special local produce.
The restaurant’s eclectic mix of luxurious seating, glamorous ceiling-to floor Britannia-style drapes, intimate chandelier lighting and a roaring fire makes you want to settle in for lunch, the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening. A perfect place to sup in winter.
There is a bar menu for light snacks, a new tasting-demo room and shop at the Verzon to host future food and drink events. This light and airy room has gorgeous views of the Malvern Hills and includes cooking facilities to demonstrate what can be done with the best of Herefordshire produce.
Verzon House's newly opened tasting room and shop. Photo: Andy Bates.