Down in the Forest something stirred

The Forest is the New and dynamic chef James Golding is doing the stirring at The Pig, a charming boutique restaurant / hotel – Peter Morrell reports

I must first of all make a declaration, I was born in Southampton and many of my relatives still live in the New Forest. These days hatch, match and dispatch are the only three events that bring us together so my visits to the area are few and far between partly driven by the fact that my memories are of picturesque pubs but serving chicken and chips in the basket as the limit of their culinary horizon.

I therefore set out for my visit to The Pig in The Forest, modestly described as a restaurant with rooms, with a good heart but fairly low expectations. Arriving at The Pig, a short drive from Brockenhurst station which in itself is only about 90 minutes from London lifted my spirits somewhat. A wisteria clad ex hunting lodge once owned by the Queen’s grandfather, a Bowes Lyon, sits foursquare in a charming small estate

The building and its nearby stable block offer 26 rooms which together with the public rooms have a warm and comfortable shabby chic feel with the emphasis very much on the chic. I would have liked to have sunk into a comfy armchair but we were here to find out more about the food. I had already heard whispers in London about its quality but as they say the proof of the pudding.

The proof rapidly appeared in the form of ebullient Head Chef James Golding. Unlike other kitchens two of James’s key staff are a head gardener and a forager. We headed off to the walled kitchen garden, past the wood burning stove used for making flatbread and the purpose built smoking shed, where even the choice of sawdust is a key part in the salmon and meat curing process.

James talked passionately about the food being produced on the estate, from the flock of assorted pedigree hens to the quail, and from the fruit cage to the pigs. The raised beds in the main garden are packed with both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Exotics like Oca du Pérou, a south American tuber sit next to sea beet, a native heritage vegetable and courgettes. In the greenhouse multiple varieties of chilli share their space with aubergines and herbs.

Just beyond the garden is a large pond with a duckboard bridge that leads to a potting shed, inside the shed you can be pampered with a luxury spa treatment and in the pond is a colony of fresh water crayfish is slowly maturing, destined for the restaurant table.

Back to the main house it was time for lunch which was served in a light airy conservatory. The food is listed as a 25 mile menu but in fact a lot of it hasn’t even travelled 25 metres and one section is even called ‘literally picked this morning’.

We started with Piggy Bits, a selection of charcuterie, mini scotch eggs, lardons with a chilli sauce and strips of saddleback pork crackling. Eating crackling usually has my dentist rubbing his hands in glee but this was light, crisp and tasty with never a hint of being able to crack a tooth. It was all exceptional with the chorizo and pickled fennel being a stand out.

Many of the dishes have their provenance described and choosing what to eat is extremely difficult. Dorset snails, Lyme Bay scallops, Isle of Wight mullet and Hampshire partridge are just some of the temptations. I chose the estate smoked salmon to start followed by a whole roast bath chap.

The salmon had a unique flavour with strong vanilla undertones from the oak smoke and it was beautifully garnished. The visual appearance of the food, dotted with flower petals and herbs, is a major feature of The Pig’s food. The bath chap when it arrived was huge, basically it is the upper quartile of a pig’s head, it was covered in a large piece of dentist defying crackling. The meat was meltingly tender and full of flavour. Coupled with a generous scoop of peppery nasturtium mash and home-made apple sauce it was a formidable and highly satisfying dish.

There was a chorus of oohs and aahs around the table as everyone thoroughly enjoyed the food, apart from my bath chap the other dish that caused the most comment was the 24 ounce double Romsey pork chop a giant piece of succulent meat. A special mention must also go to a side dish we all shared, the crispy tobacco onions, they were light, crunchy and moreish.

Desserts were beyond us but there were a mouth watering selection of crumbles, tarts and puddings again featuring local ingredients.

This was a class culinary act combining the freshest of ingredients with good presentation and relaxed surroundings but the real magic comes from James the chef. His empathy with food and passion to nurture it from the plot to the plate shines through. This skill has been honed at Le Caprice and J Sheekey and influenced by Skye Gyngell and Alice Waters allow him to create some memorable cuisine.

Since paying my  visit last month the National Restaurant Awards have been announced and The Pig was voted number 29 in the list of the UK’s 100 best restaurants, beating such illustrious establishments as Chez Bruce, Texture, The River Cafe, Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley and Hakkasan Mayfair. It also won the inaugural Sustainable Restaurant of the Year award, given in conjunction with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), having scored the highest in the areas of sourcing, environment and society. All quite an achievement for an establishment that only opened its doors in July 2011.

The Pig in the Forest is the creation of Robin Hutson, probably better known for his highly regarded Hotel du Vin chain which he sold in 2004. The interior design flair, which gives The Pig its cosy, country house feel is provided by Robin’s wife Judy, who was also responsible for the decor in the Hotel du Vins. In fact it feels so comfortable that after Sunday lunch guests have been known to flop on a sofa in front of a log fire, kick their shoes off and read a newspaper.

Given Robin’s background it is inevitable that he would not stop at one location and he has already opened a boutique B & B, The Pig in the Wall, set into the Roman fortifications of nearby Southampton. This ex pub, which incidentally I used to drink, has been transformed by Judy’s decor and furnishing into a warm and comfortable place to stay, ideal for the night before embarking on a cruise or if you want to explore Southampton’s history.

Next year The Pig on the Beach will open at Studland, overlooking probably one of the best beaches in Britain. Again a combination of good design and well cooked, local, seasonal food will prove to be a winning formula

The Pig in the Forest is a great place to eat and to stay over, relax and enjoy this beautiful part of the UK

For more information on all three locations go to www.thepighotel.co.uk

The Pig – in the Forest
Beaulieu Road,
Brockenhurst,
Hampshire,
SO42 7QL
t:+44 (0) 1590 622354

Review date 26th September 2012

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