“It’s been a funny kind of a day” as Albert Arkwright would muse whilst packing away his grocery store. Well, a funny kind of a week so far in fact, and although I don’t have a grocery store as such, let us think of a career as a store of sorts, in as much as you might think of a ship as a woman. Never quite got my head around that one; then again perhaps I simply lack the capacity to fully understand and appreciate the true nature of ships.
So yesterday I piled down to Hampshire for a day out with fellow foodies to visit the much lauded The PIg – In The Forest, a refreshingly different yet somehow traditional country hotel set in the heart of The New Forest, although in fact it’s more on the edge of the New Forest but no matter. If we’re going to be picky, the New Forest isn’t new, careers aren’t stores and women aren’t ships. I mean you don’t kiss a girl on her port and starboard cheeks do you? Maybe you do, maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong.
Just an hour and a half from London on the train to Brockenhurst and a few minutes later that seductive sound of tyres on the gravel drive saw us pull up outside this grand Victorian pad, lovingly converted by Home Grown Hotels in to what is now a real home-from-home retreat. Once in, past the two stone bookend hounds, you’re instantly met with a feeling of warmth and cosiness. Rather than knocking any of the rooms through, they have been kept separate, the conversion remaining sympathetic to the building’s original fabric. There has been clever use of light, fabrics and furniture that somehow conveys a feeling of expansiveness and brightness. The floors are rugged reclaimed boards, sanded back hard and lightly limed, the sofas and armchairs all seductively inviting. The designer Judy Hutson, has a keen eye for detail and clearly knows how to bridge the gap between commercial and domestic environments. Open fires abound, stone surrounds and intricately carved over-mantles provide grandeur and interest. The palette is soft, warm and speaks of subtle sophistication, with quirky touches adding to the overall feeling of originality. There is no overkill, just enough detail to make it work.
Head chef James Golding (Le Caprice, J Sheekeys, Mark Hix) greeted us in the drawing room then took us out for a tour of the gardens, starting with the wood-fired pizza oven on the terrace. This is just as it should be. Built from bricks reclaimed from another wall of the building, it’s an example of the eco-aware attitude that prevails here. The ethos is one of waste-not, want-not. It was truly delightful to listen to James waxing lyrical about the multitude of herbs, fruit and vegetables growing in their charming walled garden. As we ambled through he pointed out a whole host of earthly delights, some of which I’d never even heard of. Monk’s beard, I have learnt is a relative of samphire, which I love, having recently served it alongside herb roasted mullet. Bog myrtle proliferates around the herbaceous borders, trellised arches singing with strands of broad beans he proudly proclaimed to feature in their Tuscan sardine soup. By this point we were all salivating as he took us in to the drying tunnel and hot house where they grow their own chillies and hybrid plants, including this fine lemon chilli specimen.
Cross the slatted bridge over the crayfish pond to a shed that serves as the smallest treatment room in England if not the world. Apparently the crayfish have been known to escape from the pond, across the ground and even wind up in the pig sty. Surf and turf of it’s own accord!
James and his team have a genuine passion for all things foraged, local and seasonal and they can arrange foraging trips for you if you are so inclined. Fungi lovers can expect to unearth Ceps, Girolles, Chanterelles and Pierre De Mourins. I’ve yet to be introduced to the joys of foraging but it’s certainly on the ever extending to-do list.
We repaired to the dining room: a bright and airy conservatory with views on to magnificent landscaped grounds. Up-cycled, reclaimed and vintage everything is the order of the day. Decor wise that is, not menu wise. We kicked off the meal with a range of “Piggy Bits” all locally sourced pork products including miniature Scotch eggs made with quail’s eggs, pork crackling straws and tiny crispy lardons with smoked chilli sauce. I elected to go three starters: six Dorset snails with garlic butter and nettle, then New Forest Pigeon & Roasted Garden Beet salad, also Mixed Wall Garden Vegetable Tempura. The menu reads very well and it’s plainly obvious that the foraging and local, seasonal sourcing ethos is harnessed to full effect. Pigeon was the highlight for me, it’s tender flesh served extra pink and giving a flavour of that forest warmth that The Pig embodies. Other highlights included my companion’s Hand Dived Lyme Bay Scallops with crispy bacon and Monk’s Beard, and the Whole Roasted Bath Chap. Not perhaps likely to appeal to all diners, the poor old Chap is basically one half of a pig’s jaw, teeth in. Sounds grim but as you can see the presentation was in fact rather delicate and fellow foodie gave it a hearty thumbs up. The wine list is really extensive, covering most countries, with even a couple of British wines.
I’m definitely coming back here. A leisurely game of croquet would have finished it off nicely but we had to dash in to Southampton, where our carriage awaited. I’m not going to harp on about the joys of Southampton (….) but I will say there is an outstanding sister to The Pig in the Forest called …wait for it.. The Pig in the Wall. Blink and you’ll miss it but this is boutique hotel at it’s very finest and a perfect place to stay if you’re on your way over on a ferry and want to spend the night in a charming, rustic chic townhouse. They’ll even drive you up to their big sister for dinner and roaring log fires and a mosey through the grounds. Frankly if I was heading to Bestival or the Isle of Wight festival I could think of much worse ways to wind up or down either side.