Sometimes the best part of living in the city is breaking outside of it.
I didn’t even turn on the radio during my 2 1/2 hour drive north from New York City, through parts of the Hudson Valley, towards the lovely Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Here, outside the quaint town of Lee, is a country house hotel called Blantyre. As I passed through the gates and slowly maneuvered up the driveway, I couldn’t help but feel transported to a different era. This Gilded Age mansion provided exactly the type of history lesson I enjoy: one that is hands on.
Passing under the portico, I brought the car to a stop and the front door swung open. From this first encounter, Blantyre delivered a warmth that is missing from so many hotels. This was my first experience of Blantyre feeling more like a home than a hotel; it provides a personal level of service that elevates any trip, even a short little weekend getaway, to exceptional.
Through the front door the scent of a wood-burning fireplace welcomed me to the country, and passing piles of logs in the entryway, we were escorted into the main living room and up to the stairs to our suite. The Paterson Suite evokes luxuries from a time in history that many of us have only read about. Here, after the careful restoration of the mansion by charming owner Ann Fitzpatrick Brown, these pleasures once again come to life. A wood-burning fireplace was crackling after the simple strike of a match, and a bottle of red wine, cheese, crackers and fruit was waiting to welcome us to our retreat.
Blantyre is full of the pleasures that you would pursue if you had more time. Rooms and hallways are full with books, everything from stunning coffee table books on art, design, and fashion to novels and ancient-looking books of poetry. This touch impressed a certain visiting poet. There was classical music to listen to. A collection of DVDs to watch by the fireplace. Board games to leisurely pass the hours. From this introduction, I was hooked.
Everything in Blantyre has a story. From the chair in our bathroom that stated ‘Marilyn Monroe sat here’ to a book inscribed to Ann’s father by Babe Ruth, the suites here are filled with treasures. The surrounding Berkshires has plenty to offer history buffs as well, but I personally wouldn’t leave the grounds of Blantyre for a moment. This type of retreat is one for good company and the pleasures of a magnificent meal. Don’t forget about a tour of the wine cellar as well – during our visit we actually got to hold a bottle of famous Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 (the wine some argue is the best wine ever made).
Check back next week for details on the five-course surprise tasting menu I enjoyed at Blantyre, along with more details on how this hotel is bringing back the elegance of the Gilded Age with canapes, a piano player, and jacket and tie policy. For now, I’ll finish this gushing post with a list of a few things I learned during my cooking class with Relais and Chateaux Grand Chef Christopher Brooks.
- The first dish we learned to prepare was a classic omelette. Besides demonstrating the technique with incredible skill, chef Brooks also suggested using a strong, sharp cheese – such as Vermont cheddar. By using only a little you will get all the taste but a much healthier version than one loaded with cheese.
- While many at-home cooks shy away from preparing fish, the chef showed us his fool-proof method. Many recipes suggest flipping a piece of fish, but Chef Brooks says this is the first mistake people make. We prepared a piece of Halibut, and Chef seared the filet on the stove before transporting the pan straight into the oven. This allowed us to visually see – instead of guess – when the fish was cooked through. Back on the stove, we flipped the fish and browned some butter to finish the dish. Voila: simple, elegant, country house cuisine.
- Chef Brooks seems focused on delivering big flavors without all the extra calories. For the final dish, we prepared a risotto, without any of the extra cream or cheese that can often make this such a heavy dish. The first step was to make a carrot ginger puree, packed with flavor and also vibrant in color. The chef didn’t use stock for this dish – simply water to cook the rice. Towards the end, we added the carrot ginger puree and the dish was suddenly infused with tons of flavor. A simple sprinkle of parmigiano reggiano afterwards was the perfect finishing touch. (*Note to readers – apologies about the lack of pictures from the cooking course. I was too busy eating to get out my camera!)
Readers, what are your favorite country retreats? Share your top picks in the comment section below.