Probably every food writer has a special place about which he or she writes reluctantly, hardly wanting to broadcast the secret. Gravetye Manor, an Elizabethan country house hotel in Sussex, is one such for us. It comes as near to perfection as we can imagine.
On this occasion however, we do want to blow the bugle and sing its praises as loudly as possible because in 2010 it was almost lost to us. It has now been pulled back from administration by fund manager Jeremy Hosking, a former guest, who like us, could not bear to see it close – but unlike us, had adequate funds to do something about it.
Thanks to the investment of its new owner, the hotel, which is part of the Relais et Chateau group, has been fully refurbished and work to restore the unique gardens is ongoing. The gardens are special because in 1884 Gravetye became the home of William Robinson, the influential Victorian garden writer who promoted, amongst other things, the idea of the natural or ‘wild garden’. He wrote two seminal books, “The English Flower Garden” and “The Wild Garden”, which were both best sellers. The new Head Gardener is Tom Coward, who previously worked at Great Dixter.
As well as lawns and beautiful flowers beds all set out and planted with great attention to detail, there is a most unusual kitchen garden contained within egg-shaped walls. This supplies not only fresh fruit and vegetables for the restaurant but also pretty, fresh cut flowers for the house. There are also beehives for honey and hens for eggs and a natural spring which provides the bottled water served at table as well as irrigating a watercress bed. It is almost our favourite part of the garden.
This time we dined at Gravetye just before winter gave way to spring and our evening began sitting in front of a log fire enjoying drinks and amuse-bouches in one of the comfortable sitting rooms.
The dining room is very elegant but not overly hushed – there is a sense of enjoyment and conviviality. For one starter we chose the beetroot consommé – the beetroot had evidently been dug straight from the garden. This was served with ‘spaghetti’ strands of fresh beetroot and braised lamb dumplings finished with soured cream. It was delicious with an unusually sweet and earthy flavour. We also chose seared Hebridean scallops with Stornaway black pudding, rumbled thumps (a sort of Scottish bubble and squeak) and sage butter. Our only comment would be that we wished there had been more.
The main courses were so substantial that neither of us could manage a pudding, however. The fillet of mature Irish beef, served rare, was perfectly cooked. It was accompanied by tender veal sweetbreads, kale and café de Paris butter. Fillet of line caught sea bass crusted with herbs and served with artichokes, tomato pistou, braised fennel and fennel juice was well balanced, well-seasoned and cooked with great care . The service was impeccably attentive and the food beautifully presented. An excellent bottle of Chablis was enjoyed throughout the meal which was rounded off with perfectly-prepared Irish Coffees.
Gravetye Manor is certainly not cheap: the Table d’Hôte dinner costs £40.00 and three courses from the A la Carte menu cost £55.00, yet considering the quality of the standard set it does represent good value and for a special occasion or celebration, it can hardly be bettered in the area.
Since the re-launch however, an all-day menu featuring lighter snacks and meals such as Welsh rarebit, carpaccio, club sandwiches and dishes like steak and chips, fish of the day and tempura of soft shell crabs, have been introduced. This is a sensible move which caters for those who want a less formal approach. The meals can be taken in the sitting rooms, bar, or garden and are priced very reasonably: £6- £10 for the lighter dishes, £15- £18 for the main courses and £8 for puddings. There are few treats to rival the Gravetye Manor Afternoon Tea, £19.00 per person, including cut sandwiches, plain or fruit scones, lemon drizzle and fruit cake and white chocolate and praline biscuits, taken outside in the garden, weather permitting. For the month of June this year this will be replaced by the Jubilee Tea at £25.00.
Gravetye offers the best of country house hospitality, and we are very fortunate that its fortunes, structure and historically important garden are all flourishing.
Gravetye Manor : www.gravetyemanor.co.uk
Tel: 01342 810 567
Fax: 01342 810 080