When I first moved to Cambridge over a decade ago, it felt very much like a city outside the influence of London – located (as it was then) over an hour’s train ride away.
Â As a tourist hub, we would – and still do – get large numbers of visitors to the city but, with few really good restaurants or hotels of character, the centre did not really cater for locals and one tended to head outside the city to one of the villages for a decent meal.
Â Frankly, the local hotels and restaurants just didn’t have to try all that hard – what with a constant, steady stream of one-off visitors from far-off places.
Â However, in the mid-noughties, Cambridge experienced a flutter of new, up-market openings which brought a hitherto unseen level of sophistication to my home town.
One of these was the conversion of a row of four city-centre townhouses opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum into an Hotel du Vin, a branch of the upmarket restaurant, bar and hotel that is owned by Malmaison.
I was recentlyÂ invited by the hotel’s General Manager Jacqui Griffiths to attendÂ a cigar dinner that she was hosting. Although I am a non-smoker, cigars to me have a certain Romance to them – rather like wine – whilst the smell brings back childhood memories. Besides, the last time I went to the Hotel du Vin (see here) I was sufficiently impressed to make sure of not passing up an opportunity to go back.
Over a fresh and moreish whisky sour with canapes, Jacqui explained that the chain is primarily focused on being a restaurant and bar with rooms (albeit somewhat luxurious), rather than an hotel that does food and drink.
All hotel branches are housed in buildings that have been formerly used for something else, as it gives them a sense of character and history, and all have a humidor and a cigar shack – the latter being a sheltered space outside which conforms to anti-smoking legislation but allows somewhere civilised for cigar smokers to congregate.
The first cigar of the evening was a Hoyo De Monterrey, matched with a single malt whiskey from Ledaig on Islay. The whisky was light but peaty with a touch of sweetness and a long, balanced finish. The cigar was, apparently, one of the mildest Cubans with a creamy sweetness and deemed a good match by those partaking.
Moving inside for a starter, introductions were made and I learnt I was something of an interloper in a group of transplant surgeons from Addenbrooke’s hospital up the road, plus an RAF pilot friend, who had all decided to get together for a private party.
As Jacqui later explained to me, the hotel is increasingly providing bespoke private parties of this type and it does seem a very civilised way to get together with a group of like-minded friends.
Introducing myself in my capacity as a wine-writer (rather than my day-job as a number-crunching company director), I was firstly made very welcome but also pleasantly surprised to be told that I had the coolest job in the room – it’s not often a fighter pilot tells you that.
The second surprise was one of the surgeons, puffing expansively on his cigar, announcing he was doing a liver transplant the following morning; I suggested that presumably it would be as routine as changing the spark plugs on a car – open it up, swap the relevant bits over and close back down – to which he replied a liver transplant is far easier than changing the spark plugs on a modern car.
We were also joined by an expert tobacconist who had come along to tell us about the cigars, but not before we had all – somewhat bizarrely but required for legal reasons – signed a disclaimer to say that we acknowledged that his talk in no way constituted encouragement to smoke.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a somewhat smokey theme to the food and our starter was smoked eel, truffle potato salad and quail’s egg.
Just north of Cambridge, the cathedral city of Ely was once known as the Isle of Eels (hence its present name) as it was surrounded by marshes full of eels. However, the marshes were increasingly drained in centuries gone by and our eel proved not to have come from the area there, but was still local and from somewhere less than an hour’s drive away.
In any case, it was delicious and matched perfectly with the dry Tokaji from Chateau Dereszla served with it; Hungarian Bar Manager Stefan explained that he had specifically chosen a crisp wine to freshen up our palates.
Tokaji is perhaps more normally associated with sweet wines, but this blend of Furmint and HÃ¡rslevelÅ± grapes was beautifully crisp and aromatic with a lovely acidic structure.
Pale in the glass, it was rounded and mouthfilling with tropical citrus and thick-skinned, phenolic ripeness and not only matched with the starter but also cut beautifully through the spicy and intense olive oil served with bread.
It reminded me somewhat of the Austrian style of ripe-yet-dry whites but when I asked Stefan about this, he very politely and gently indicated that his personal preference was for “fruitier, warmer-climate” Hungarian wines.
I guess some old habits and rivalries die hard, however much of polite veneer you put on it, and I couldn’t help noticing Stefan’s pointed reference to Hungary’s greater number of wine-producing regions and wider variety of styles than Austria’s.
At this point, one of the surgeons, with a noticeably Teutonic accent, announced he was actually from Frankfurt in Germany and there was no need to spare his feelings as he felt the same way about Austria, too – more age-old rivalries again.Â
The next cigar course was a Vegas Robina Unicos with an aged Jamaican Plantation rum from 2000; dark gold in the glass, the rum had a rich, strong nose with more than a touch of nail polish. However, this was less pronounced on the palate which showed prunes, cinnamon and spice and felt smooth and well-integrated.
Our main course of hot smoked duck breast was accompanied by caramelised mango and a spicy jerk jus matched with a Chilean Pinot Noir from Apaltagua in Curico Valley.
The wine was introduced by the hotel’s new sommelier who explained he is given a very free hand in selecting the wines and spirits and will be putting together a new list over the coming months;Â enquiring about altitude, I was told the grapes are grown at “800 – 1,200” – “feet ?” I asked; “No, metres” came the reply.
This seemed implausibly high to me at the time, but a bit of quick research on Twitter subsequently suggested this may be entirely possible.
In any case, the wine was very pale and light with an intensely fruity and complex nose of vanilla, spice, mushroom and forest floor. On the palate it showed red berry fruit, gentle acidity and a lovely smooth finish; it was indeed a lovely wine but perhaps a just a little too light for the food and served just a degree or so too warm.
At this point, the next cigar was due and we popped outside for a Bolivar, Coronas Extra and a 20-year-old Baron de Sigognac from Bas Armagnac; Jacqui enquired if I wasn’t tempted to try one of the cigars and in truth I was, but this being a school night, I felt it perhaps was not the best time to try for the first time something whose after-effects I could only guess at.
So I limited myself to sniffing the box of raw cigars and enjoying the Armagnac with its cooked-fruit and coffee nose and the mellowness of 20 years’ aging.
Our final course, a “Burnt Forest” gateau of rich chocolate and sponge, was again delicious and all that remained was to chew the fat with my dinner companions over topics as varied as social media for medical professionals, organ donation rates and vintage sports cars, before heading home.
Â A hosted cigar evening at Cambridge Hotel du Vin costs Â£75 per person for four cigars, drinks and a three-course meal with canapes.
Hotel du Vin Cambridge – http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx
Malmaison – http://www.malmaison.com/
Copyright Tom Lewis 2011