After 180 years as a country house hotel, it’s hard to imagine finding anything new at The Peacock in Rowsley.
But owner Lord Edward Manners is taking a more hands-on interest in the business since the departure of its former managers last year and the result is a fresh perspective, a stronger emphasis on teamwork and a new vitality about the place.
The most obvious change is the arrival of Chris Tomlinson, who has been in post since the beginning of the month. An experienced hotelier, he is relishing the challenge of his first general manager’s job.
Working alongside other key members of the team, he is out to prove that the Peacock really is a matter for pride: “What we’re aiming for is to be ‘best in class’,” he says.
And that goes for the entire Peacock experience, whether you’re there for a three-course meal, an overnight stay or burger and chips with a pint.
Chris is originally from the High Peak and his experience ranges from Buxton's Palace Hotel to top names in Guernsey and the Priest House at Castle Donington.
It’s not about gimmicks; to me it’s all about seasonal produceDan Smith, head chef
His new role is a chance to work closer to home: “It’s a beautiful hotel in a beautiful area with a great owner… why wouldn’t you?”
And while he doesn’t believe in change for the sake of it, he’s not short of ideas: “The Peacock will continue moving forward,” says Chris. “Four stars are on the horizon.”
One of the immediate changes is the introduction of a seven-course tasting menu: “It’s a natural next step for the kind of hotel we are.”
This is a move which resonates with Dan Smith, head chef at the Peacock for the last eight years.
“It’s a good way of showcasing the food,” he says. “It's not about gimmicks; to me it’s all about seasonal produce.”
"You've got to be careful about chasing accolades; it’s not about my ego. My priority is having a busy restaurant and happy customers."
There's a new wine list too, overseen by assistant manager Oliver Fry but the result of a team exercise: "Lord Edward and all the front-of-house staff were involved in tasting the wines and deciding which we should offer."
Lord Edward inherited the Peacock, along with nearby Haddon Hall, in 1999. It boasts 15 bedrooms as well as a restaurant, private dining room and a cosy, atmospheric bar, all set in a river-fronted garden designed by the acclaimed Arne Maynard.
In such a setting a tasting menu does, indeed, seem to be a natural progression and Dan has invited us along to try it.
This is the first time we've visited the Peacock under the new regime and outwardly little has changed. The picturesque building with its creeper-clad walls and mullioned windows is suspended in timeless elegance.
Inside, the stylish rooms are a marriage of traditional and contemporary, with the accent on detail. We're greeted by the gentle lilting of a classical guitar. In the dining room, authentic Mouseman tables, glass straw chandeliers and latticed windows overlook the garden.
The wine list is distinctive with a good range from £20.95. We choose large glasses of a fragrant French sauvignon blanc – which come as small carafes.
A dainty shotglass of watercress panacotta is the amuse bouche to get our tastebuds working. Silky smooth, topped with nibs of hazelnut and a little salsa of arctic chard, cucumber and coriander, it's a promise of delights to come.
There's a choice of breads – black treacle or sourdough – beautifully crusty and fresh from the oven, with handmade butter to go with them.
Our starter is crab, the flakes mingled with bursts of something crisp and sweet, nestled beneath a sheath of clear tomato jelly.
The flavours are bright and vibrant, complemented by a rainbow of heritage tomato slices, watermelon cubes and gazpacho sorbet. A delight to the eye and the palate.
Next comes a duckliver brûlée: the jury's out on this one. It's a dessert really – served with a curled gingerbread wafer; exquisitely crisp gooseberries, sweet and intense, a hint of nutmeg and a slick of elderflower syrup.
The brûlée is smooth and creamy with a perfectly crisp sugar top… but it tastes of duck. And while I like something new and a bit different, I can't help thinking I might like this better without it!
No question about the next course though: a slice of belly pork is soft, smoky and unquestionably savoury. The dish is completed by strips of soft squid, sliced red pepper, a sliver of spicy chorizo and a pool of nutty chickpea humous. Nicely done.
A fish course follows: meaty hake fillet with cauliflower chargrilled and puréed, brown shrimps, coastal herbs (think seaweed) and heritage potatoes – good old-fashioned anyas, neat and gnarled.
Then beef: a fillet, cooked to rare succulence; and cheek braised to fall-apart softness; with spinach, shallots, a skinned cherry tomato and tarragon-scented sabayon – all in perfect miniature.
And so to pre-dessert: a tiny glass of delicious elderflower custard topped with intense raspberry granita. Simple, fresh flavours to cleanse the palate.
Chef Dan is the master of culinary surprise and he shows his skill with a take on peach melba: a wafer-thin tube of sweet meringue filled with raspberries, soft mousse and sorbet that provides a wonderfully sharp contrast.
And finally, cherry parfait with dark chocolate sorbet and cherries poached in Kirsch… Rich, intense flavours, not too sweet; a classic combination, beautifully executed.
We finish with coffee, which is disappointing in comparison with what has gone before. But the tasting menu is an unmissable experience for foodies at £65; available Fridays and Saturdays.
lThe Peacock at Rowsley, Derbyshire DE4 2EB (01629) 733 518 The Peacock