Travel: French a Suffolk village

The Boheme Room at The Great House, Lavenham

The Boheme Room at The Great House, Lavenham - Credit: The Great House

On high days and holidays, our families have been coming to The Great House in Lavenham ever since French couple Regis and Martine Crepy arrived in the 1980s, fusing Gallic gastronomic flair onto a medieval setting to make it a restaurant to cherish. 

The Crepys sought pastures new three years ago, but the French connection has not faded for the new owner of The Great House is Dominique Tropeano, who hails from a small country farm in Nice. 

Mr Tropeano is best known in the region as the owner of Colchester Zoo, turning it around after inheriting it in a dilapidated state in 1983. But he has made it clear he is committed to upholding the Crepy legacy – and indeed building upon it, with plans submitted to Babergh Council to improve conditions for kitchen staff, and create more restaurant space. 

Eileen and Roger outside The Great House, Lavenham

Eileen and Roger outside The Great House, Lavenham - Credit: Contributed

We travelled the short distance from our Suffolk home to Lavenham, not just to eat but this time to stay in one of the boutique rooms the hotel has to offer. The Great House has five rooms, all named after iconic places, moments, themes in French history – Versailles, Elysee, Bastille, Montmartre and Boheme. We were placed in the largest of these, Versailles, a spacious suite at the front of the house with a grandstand view over the Market Place and all its wonky, timbered ancient houses. 

No hall of mirrors here, but an attractive bedroom and sitting room in colours of purple, teal and green, the latter with a comfortable sofa and antique desk. But the highlight was a splendid four-poster bed (apparently Jacobean) that Marie Antoinette would have been happy to find space for in her Versailles palace! 

The Great House has, as you might expect, a fascinating history. The best estimate is that it was built in the late 14th century by the Caustons, a family of well-off clothiers at a time when the village had a nationwide reputation in the textile trade. 

The Bastille Room at The Great House, Lavenham

The Bastille Room at The Great House, Lavenham - Credit: The Great House

The Bastille Room at The Great House in Lavenham

The Bastille Room at The Great House in Lavenham - Credit: The Great House

After the collapse of the wool trade in the 17th century, The Great House was one of the few properties in Lavenham that could afford to be modernized – hence its distinctive Georgian frontage. Inside, however, much of the old medieval house, beams and all, remains.  

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It is a challenging role to run a restaurant that has been garlanded with local and national honours over the years, but as we would discover, current chef patron Swann Auffray, only 26, is clearly up to the task. 

Swann has never wanted to be anything other than a chef, ever since he sat down one evening, at the age of 12, and was entranced by the computer-animated comedy film Ratatouille, in which a rat called Remy dreams of becoming a chef and attempts to achieve his goal by forming a friendship with a Parisian restaurant’s garbage boy. 

Swann’s mission is to offer modern French cuisine – "contrast and balance in the taste is extremely important to me" – made from the best local ingredients. Everything has to be sourced as close as possible, so the lobster and shellfish come from Norfolk, while the skate, sea bass and (exquisitely cooked) lemon sole hail from the Suffolk coast. The meat comes from the exceptional Lavenham Butchers down the road. Only the foie gras has to be shipped from France. 

The dining room at The Great House, Lavenham

The dining room at The Great House, Lavenham - Credit: Chris Reeve

So sat on comfortable padded chairs at our favourite table - the tablecloth pure white and the crockery dazzling, as always - in the corner of the dining-room, next to the massive fireplace, we awaited Swann’s five course ‘Experience’ menu with great expectations. 

Every dish was a delightful surprise, along with the carefully chosen wine accompanying it. We relished our carrot mousse with prosecco rose, and devoured our roasted Gressingham duck breast with a superb Pinot Noir from Maison Louis Latour, But perhaps the highlight was the pan-fried black butter skate wings, accompanied – amongst others - by crispy potatoes filled with parsley and potato puree, washed down with a lovely Riesling from Alsace. 

A combination of Brexit and the pandemic has slowed the traditional flow of French youngsters to The Great House. But on the evening we went, the largely local waiters and waitresses did an excellent job – under the watchful eye of Mr Tropeano, who floated around, helping out in the dining room. 

A strawberry and jasmine dessert at The Great House, Lavenham

A strawberry and jasmine dessert at The Great House - Credit: Emma Cabielles

A cod dish at The Great House, Lavenham

A cod dish at The Great House, Lavenham - Credit: Emma Cabielles

Before we departed Lavenham, relaxed and replete, we popped into the splendid, ochre-coloured property next door – Little Hall, inextricably entwined with The Great House ever since the Causton family bought them both back in the 14th century. 

This house was brought back to its full majesty when an eccentric couple of twin brothers Major Robert (known as John or J.G) and Colonel Thomas (‘Pum’) Gayer-Anderson bought it (together with The Great House) in the 1920s. Both were art collectors and noted Egyptologists, and many of their discoveries are housed at a museum named after them in Cairo. 

These days Little Hall is a delightful little museum owned and run by the Suffolk Building Preservation Trust, now fully up and running again post-pandemic. Here you can view a bronze replica of the brothers most famous find, the Gayer-Anderson cat representing the goddess Bastet (the original is in the British Museum), and a remarkably eclectic mix of antiques, pictures, books, china and art all over the seven rooms. 

Out into the street and the dazzling autumn sunshine via the most enormous wooden door which looks and feels like 600 years old, and back into the almost fairytale-like Market Place. A great excursion into Lavenham’s living, breathing history.