Review: Elizabethan Banquet, Lumley Castle, Chester-le-Street
If I was to be as blunt as Henry VIII, I'd say the food wasn't great.
But then it isn’t the food which will lure wannabe wenches and budding barons to Lumley Castle for its Elizabethan banquet, it’s the fun and frolics of being transported to the year 1595.
I’ve enjoyed meals in the hotel’s Black Knight restaurant, as well as a charming afternoon tea in its atmospheric library, but in 1595 the food, which for the banquet is a set menu cooked en masse, is a lot more school dinners-like, it seems.
It’s back to basics, literally, as you’re given only a bib, knife and bread to help you navigate this five-course meal. The food, which I’ll get back to, was mostly forgettable, but the entertainment ensures this was a novelty night to remember.
It begins with a brilliant bagpiper who welcomes you to the dungeon and guardroom for pre-dinner drinks at one of our region’s finest period venues.
It’s here, in the bowels of the 600-year-old castle, that we meet Sir John Lumley, our charismatic Master of Ceremonies for the evening, who greets us in full court regalia. With his commanding boom of a voice, he never breaks character as he regales the diners with bawdy tales of castle life, ditties and sing-a-long songs, delivered in a Carry On humour style. It was acting that wouldn’t be out of place on a professional theatre stage.
Against the imposing backdrop of the banqueting hall, he’s joined on stage by a stooge, court jester character and a group of female actors, who assume the roles of everything from Macbeth-like witches to finely-dressed ladies of the court, singing well-known tracks, with impressive harmonies, such as Scarborough Fair.
They held court in front of dozens of diners as we took our seats at the banqueting benches.
After we’d been bibbed up, and faced with only a dagger-like knife (no forks and spoons allowed), our hosts gave us a comical run down of how to eat our first course of vegetable soup Elizabethan style. Spoiler: it involves a lot of sucking and dunking of bread.
The soup was so packed with veg, it was easier to consume sans spoon than you’d think, and there was plenty of batches of doughy fresh bread to go round.
Next course wasn’t bad either: a fish pie made with silky smooth mash and plenty of fish, which is served in a scallop dish - although you have to eat it off your knife. (If this was the family dinner table my mother would not be best pleased).
My next course of ribs, however, was left largely untouched. They were incredibly greasy, cue the bib, and my fingers struggled to find any meat amongst the fat.
The next course was simply chicken, a jacket potato and salad. Not offensive, but nothing to write home about either.
The final course of a fruit crumble, for which you’re allowed a spoon, slightly elevated the previous two courses. It was packed with fruit and had that home-made crumble top just like your mam makes.
As warned earlier, it is basic stuff, but then at £35 for five courses, two goblets of surprisingly good wine and mead, cracking atmosphere and excellent entertainment I wasn’t going to complain and risk going to the gallows. Plus, in the interests of accuracy, I’m not sure the Elizabethans were ever famed for their fine dining.