The Pig in Brockenhurst

The New Forest in Hampshire has waited quite some time for a good hotel and restaurant, and then two came along almost at once. Sister ship to Lime Wood, The Pig Hotel is drawing many accolades from all corners of the foodie press and after allowing a period for the business to “settle in” after the immediate media scrum, I decided to go and take a look. How could one describe it? A cross between Babington House, Petersham Nursery, LASSCO reclamation yard and Daylesford Farm maybe?

This hotel used to be called Whitley Ridge and was originally the home of The Queen Mother’s uncle The Hon Malcolm Bowes Lyons and his wife Winifred. Jim Ratcliffe, owner of the Lime Wood Hotel also in the New Forest, went into partnership with Robin and Judy Hutson, of the very successful Hotel du Vin Group, and the latter are responsible for The Pig’s redesign and refurbishment. They have done a skilful job in creating a bohemian, Bloomsbury-in–the-country look that is quietly comfortable and pleasing, without reverting to ostentation or the dreaded contemporary “bling” that is all too prevalent in many modernised country house hotels. Hallelujah squashy sofas, wooden floors, mismatching chairs, frayed kilim rugs, recycled paper menus, grow-your-own food and reclaimed encaustic tiles from Retrouvius – refound, reused and ravishing}. God is in the eco-detail, and it is posh to protect the planet whilst at the same time feeling comfortable, cosy and cossetted.

There is no pretension or posing here, despite the obvious wealth and attire of the customers. The welcome is genuine and from first entering it is impressive how staff so young {most of them young enough to be my children} are so well versed in the manners of a top hotel. For our lunch booking we were guided into a large Marston and Langinger chalky-lichen coloured conservatory, with jasmine plants growing up poles, wooden crates filled with herbs in terracotta pots, vintage cutlery and crockery, coloured glasses and stripy linen cushions. This is a light filled room that looks out onto manicured lawns, mature trees and a patio filled with iron-work chairs. Blush pink hellebores tumble out of big steel planters and there are signs that say “Do take a peek” here and there, guiding you this way and that for a tour round the domain.

The team all look as if Storm model agency did the recruitment at the same time as filling the vacancies in Abercrombie and Fitch: pink shirts, good jeans and converse trainers is the staff uniform with green and white stripy half aprons. Many are just students at college or university, they are well trained, fast and switched on, overlooked by Manager Jonathan who scans the room from left to right behind his Clark Kent glasses.

The Menu is exciting. Of course there is a direct reference to all matters porcine, from saddleback crackling to cured collar, salami, chorizo, smoked ham, pork chops and braised bacon. There is a concerted intention to grow as much of the produce as possible for the restaurant in the kitchen garden, and I went to seek out Oliver Hutson, the kitchen gardener son of Robin and Judy, to find out how this can be achieved.

He showed me how, in a space no bigger than 1 acre, divided into a walled kitchen garden, an Alitex greenhouse and a fruit garden, they have increased the size of the beds and have nourished and mulched the soil with kitchen compost and animal manure. From squashes, to zucchini, broad beans, chard, onions, garlic, cavolo nero, rocket, salads, potatoes, angelica, sage, lovage and tarragon, I could hardly keep up my note-taking with his exhuberance at relaying his plans and hopes for this garden.

I covet his fruit cages: bursting with spring life are blackberry, raspberry, gooseberry and currant bushes, all neatly serried in rows beneath a metal frame holding an impenetrable cage. In the fields you can see lots and lots of chubby Kune kune {pet} pigs, meat pigs and there are also quails and chickens. The rest of the garden rolls out into lawns, trees, hedges, a cray fish pond, potting sheds, smoke house and wood fired oven enclave. This is a miniature 18th Century estate, a gentleman’s residence, hunting lodge retreat even, with a massage parlour and cocktails thrown in.

Oliver told me that the secret to abundance is to plant vegetables much more closely than seed packets recommend, thereby wasting little soil space, improving water retention and decreasing the amount of room for weeds. The Head Chef, James Golding is particularly partial to brassica flowers and edible chrysanthemums for salads and decoration, and Oliver gave me a few to try. After graduating from Sparsholt College he has brought his land management and conservation skills and qualifications to The Pig, and now uses his knowledge of sustainability to grow everything from cordon, heritage tomatoes in the polytunnel to scented geraniums in the greenhouse and fruit trees in the orchard. The garden is still young and under development, as The Pig is only one year old, but in its skeleton you can already see the potential unfolding.

A good walk around the garden will whet your appetite. The emphasis here is very much on simple, good, comforting dishes that are based on well selected produce. There is an A3 paper sized list at the back of the Menu showing their suppliers, chosen for their ability to supply ingredients to within a “25 mile menu”. Sunnyfields is the local organic vegetable producer the chefs turn to when they do not have enough of their own produce in the hunger gap months between late winter and spring-summer. Most of The Pig’s meat and game comes from Alan Bartlett of New Milton, who in turn buys meat from Pennington Farm, Hordle and Romsey.

Of course fish plays an important part in the Menu, and vicinity to the day boats of Christchurch, Lymington, Portland and Poole means that the oysters, seabass, mackerel, brill, black bream, crab and scallops are line caught and fresh. As I sat in the restaurant, which was filling briskly even on a wet and windy Tuesday afternoon in May, I saw plate upon plate of fish and seafood coming out of the kitchen. Some had chips in terracotta toms, others had shavings of fennel salad, but I thought none could compete with my Isle of White black bream cooked in butter with Dorset clams and champ potatoes.

Don’t come expecting culinary acrobatics: the cooking style is traditionally British, fresh, simple and honest. Even the puddings reflect a retro, comforting nostalgia for childhood: buttermilk blancmange, Bramley apple and rhubarb crumble, steamed suet pudding with custard and lemon posset.

You can take your post prandial teas and coffee in the drawing rooms or bar area: reclining on flowery sofas, a log fire smouldering, sconce lights lit and piles of magazines to browse through, you may be tempted to book yourself into one of 26 bedrooms and not leave. It is a wrench to walk back down the pea gravel driveway to the car park, there is so much to see here, so many little techniques of growing, cooking and styling to learn. I even met local forager Garry Eveleigh who showed me the gulls’ eggs he collected from the Solent marshes {he has a license and, in restricted months, goes out looking for these teal blue, brown spotted beauties}. They are served with New Forest asparagus on sourdough bread with tarragon hollandaise or just plainly boiled with mustard vinaigrette and smoked sea salt.

Room rates start at £125 for the smallest room, rising to £220 for a family sized room midweek, which is extremely good value for money, considering the standard of luxury on offer. When you come across an establishment with such an unassuming name, you might well envisage a pub or country inn. Neither stuffy nor snobby, The Pig is nevertheless a smart, stylish private boutique hotel that sets a new benchmark of excellence across the board.  It can only bring prosperity to Brockenhurst and its residents, many of whose beautiful offspring, no doubt, have secured holiday employment for many years to come.

Further Information

The Pig Hotel website

Follow the team on Twitter: @The_Pig_Hotel

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