There are so many reasons to visit Dorset in the summer: the Studland Bay beaches, Lyme Regis, Christchurch, Cranborne Manor Gardens, Lulworth Castle, Corfe Castle and Stourhead Gardens, to mention a tiny few. On your way to the main attractions there is a very charming country inn and restaurant that provides comfort and cheer in equal measure, just north of the Georgian market town of Blandford Forum and south of Salisbury and all its attractions.
The partly thatched Museum Inn in the beautiful village of Farnham dates back to the 17th Century and was built by the father of modern archaeology, General Augustus Lane Fox Pitt. It was his donation of 20 000 antiquities to the University of Oxford in 1884 that led to the creation of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Were he to walk in to The Museum Inn today he would most probably not recognise a thing.
Bought just over three years ago by David Sax, an entrepreneur who already owned another pub in Poole, the building was redecorated and retweaked, bringing it to the plush 21st Century standards we can enjoy now. When you walk in you know immediately you are in the land of hunting, fishing and shooting: green wellies and wax jackets by the flagstone entrance; deer antlers on the wall; scenes of the local hunt in the pub; cut out cartoon figurines of horses, riders and hounds in a glass cabinet and on shelves and that unmistakeable, vernacular, rustic palette of green, earth, wood and stone that resonates with country lovers and dwellers across the land.
There is a very comfortable and large drawing room on the ground floor, with squashy leather sofas and a whole library of books. An old village hall building attached to the main edifice is called “The Shed” and doubles as a private dining room and breakfast room. The art on the wall is modern and bold: bright pheasants, peacocks and horses. It’s all rock and roll meets the landed gentry, firmly tongue-in-cheek and fun. And so it is with the owner and clientele.
David is hilariously funny, if you come and stay here make sure you chat to him. He has the perfect personality for someone in the hospitality trade, with the right mix of gregarious jollity and interest in other people, balanced with an irreverent wit which means he does not take himself, nor the trade, too seriously. His stories abound with the celebrity chefs, film stars, film producers and the beautiful and famous people who come and dine, drink and stay here. He remains equally relaxed and friendly amidst the glitterati as he does with the families, business men and tourists who come here safe in the knowledge of the product and service they are buying.
A favourite amongst the Michelin mafia, four AA stars and many gongs later, The Museum Inn has little left to prove. So much so that many of the neighbouring country estates dotted around this part of the Dorset-Wiltshire borders have entrusted him with huge catering budgets for the entire shooting season: the shoot lunches are cooked in the restaurant kitchen and then driven to the manor houses. The rooms and private dining room are pre-booked in their entirety for many nights from October to March of every year. It is a lucrative business, and one that the team work extremely hard to secure.
My bedroom bears testimony to this part of the masculine world of guns, beaters, port and tweed. Rooms are named “The Chase”, “The Catch”, “The Boot Room”, “The General’s Room”. They are the perfect base for touring round the area in the assured knowledge that you will return in the evening to every creature comfort imaginable. Soft carpets, fluffy towels, l’Occitane toiletries, Hildon mineral waters, copies of “The Field” magazine, torrential hot showers and linens that are starched to within a millimetre of Egyptian parchment stiffness, all cocoon, caress and comfort weary touring travellers.
You are sleeping on top of a popular pub, so remember that if you are an early-to-bed sleeper you may need to wait until the customers have left before you can fall asleep. After that, silence and peace reigns supreme in this country haven. A feisty cockerel, mother nature’s most efficient alarm clock, ensures you do not miss your first appointment for the day.
You come down to a fabulous spread in the breakfast room: you can choose from a whole range of cereals, toasts, juices, homemade pancakes, smoked salmon, Cashmoor free range eggs, Dorset bacon and all the trimmings. They light the fire in The Shed in case you are feeling chilly, newspapers are laid out in readiness, fresh flowers are arranged on the mantelpiece and the jams are outstanding. One is thickly cut orange marmalade, one is strawberry and one is plum, and you will have to try all three in turn to believe how good they are.
When I mentioned this to David, thinking they must all be homemade preserves, with produce from a local kitchen garden, to be so good, he laughs “Oh no, they are our Lidl supermarket specials!” I am quite sure they are not.
Dinners are beguilingly informal and relaxed. Many of the people who eat here are locals, not staying at the inn, but loyal Dorset customers that come night after night. I ate in the conservatory, and the photo opposite will show you the wall above my table.
Menus are printed on brown paper and the Head Chef Richard Ford features just six starters and seven main courses. Here are some highlights: black pudding terrine; twice baked Portland crab soufflé; seared Portland Diver scallops; 28 day aged Salisbury Plain sirloin steak; slow cooked Gloucestershire old spot pork belly; Creedy carver duck with gratin potato and duck jus; praline souffle with Bailey’s ice cream; mascarpone and vanilla mousse with gingerbread, lemon curd and rhubarb sorbet.
The homemade bread is excellent. You are presented with four different types in a wicker basket, accompanied by delicious, unsalted butter. You will not know which to choose between warm granary, white bread roll with poppy seeds and sesame seeds, apricot and rosemary bread and an olive oil tapenada swirl.
My watercress veloute was served by a uniformed waitress in a white jug, poured over three little Parmiggiano beignets and a garlic crouton. It was really silky, bright and flavoursome, without that overbearing creaminess that is common to some veloutes.
The oven roasted fillet of sea bass was perfectly cooked, with Portland crab cake, pak choi, saffron potatoes and bouillabaisse sauce. Soft, salty, crisp and herby, there was a nice finish on the palate delivered by the spiciness of the jus and potatoes.
In the pudding section I really wanted to order the cheese board, which showcases Dorset Blue Vinny, Wookey Hole cave aged farmhouse cheddar, Driftwood, Windwhistle and Isle of Wight Blue, served with warm fig and wheat germ loaf, grapes, chutney and biscuits. Instead, I opted for the coconut rice pudding beignets (otherwise known as sweet arancini in Italy), with a passion fruit jelly, roasted pineapple and mango sorbet. I did well. The dish comes served on black slate, and its highlight is the really fresh, fragrant, fruity mango sorbet.
I heartily recommend an extremely good rose wine from France called “Pretty Gorgeous”. David loves his wine and whiskey and this pub is an oenophile’s dream: a book is on its way. Of the Lagavulin 16 he writes “An evocative seashore aroma, mixing aromatic smoke with marmalade, nutmeg and heather.” The Icewine from the Peller Estate in Niagara receives his highest accolade: “This wine is simply incredible, to live without having tried it is frankly to hardly have lived at all, it is like nothing else on earth.”
As always God is in the detail, and David has spent the last three years finding the best team to man the ship. The Museum Inn is run exactly like a ship: organised, efficient, spotlessly clean and professional, it is an exemplary destination. The staff called me “Madam” throughout, they were extremely attentive, kind and helpful and over the two nights I was there, David and his team very generously recommended other eateries for me to try on my next trip, and looked up their websites and telephone numbers for me on the computer.
Believe me, when hoteliers and restaurateurs know you are on a fact finding mission for a food and drink magazine, all lips normally remain tightly sealed, eyes downcast and fingers fumbling.
When you drive away, through Farnham’s leafy lanes, past rose covered farmhouses, children on ponies and billowing cottage gardens, you will still be laughing at David’s jokes when you rejoin the traffic. God bless him, and all who sail in this ship.
The Museum Inn
Near Blandford Forum
Dorset DT11 8DE
Telephone: 01725 516261