As a food and drink journalist, I try to seek out the latest and greatest in the hospitality industry through a variety of sources. Chatting with operators, Twitter, walking the streets of unfamiliar cities and, of course, good old-fashioned PR are all trusty ways of keeping up with what’s around the culinary corner.
As a result, friends and family often ask me for recommendations on where to go when they’re visiting a certain area (why is it that people who visit London only ever want to eat in Covent Garden?), to which I happily, if not a little smugly, respond with a list of places that can only be derived from working within the industry. When a top tip comes from the other direction, it’s something of a rarity. However, around six years ago, my dear mother paid a visit to what has now become her favourite place in the world – The Pig in Brockenhurst.
“Darling, you must go. It’s so wonderful,” she told me time and again over the years. Well, I finally wised-up and listened to the lady who gave me life, and booked myself into one of the sister sites, The Pig near Bath.
Home Grown Hotels, which now runs five Pig venues, was launched by Robin Hutson in 2011, having sold his six-site Hotel Du Vin business to Marylebone Warwick Balfour for £66m. When it comes to boutique hotels, Hutson has been ahead of the game for some time – many attribute Hotel Du Vin as redefining the sector entirely. His time spent on Du Vin, as well as his involvement with the Soho House Group, perfectly paved the way for the creation of The Pig brand, which is now one of the most renowned hotel food and beverage escapes in the country.
I paid a visit to The Pig near Bath last month – I don’t know if Hutson is that good that he is able to control the weather around his venues, but what a difference it made. A chill in the air, leaves beginning to fall, yet a warming sunshine coating an autumnal September afternoon was the first experience we had of the place as we drove into the country grounds car pack (which was packed, by the way – The Pig near Bath is currently running at 92% occupancy). The joyous reception continued as we made our way across brick paths and courtyards and into the reception area, The Pig’s team all donning a beaming smile as we checked in. Lunch time.
After a well-made Bloody Mary (which we later found out to be consistent too – very important), some ‘Piggy bits’ were nibbled on. The sage and onion sausage roll with hock eggs and Colman’s dressing (£3.95 each) sat nicely alongside the turnip, apple and Godminster slaw. It’s important here to highlight The Pig’s 25-mile menu – whatever the team can’t produce in their incredible kitchen garden is sourced from within a 25-mile radius. The sardines with a pickle salad and super chilli mayo (£7) was also a decent light lunch option, as was the hot smoked organic salmon fillet (£7).
Should you be visiting The Pig near Bath any time soon, I implore you to take a long stroll around the grounds (this is probably the case with all of The Pigs). As well as noticing additions like the smokehouse that has just cooked up your lunchtime salmon, the produce that is being grown on-site is a marvel in itself. Rows and rows of salads, herbs and vegetables light up the garden, allowing guests to truly get a sense of what this hotel’s food offer is all about. It’s a vast operation that requires full-time gardeners to work there all year round.
To dinner then, and after a couple of aperitifs in front of an open fire, we moved into the greenhouse restaurant. I’d promised my vegetarian companion that I wouldn’t order the cute and spritely venison that we’d seen frolicking around the grounds earlier that day, so opted for the Bartlett’s 35-day-aged sirloin (£25), which came after a wonderfully charred Zermatt leek with cauliflower purée (£7). Another winner is the oven-roasted south coast landed hake, which comes with silver chard (spotted in the garden earlier) and a nasturtium (ditto) butter sauce (£17). Even the garden salad tasted that little bit better as you dined immediately alongside where it was grown.
The Pig has its own sommelier, who comes and says hi once you’ve been seated and shows you a wine list. It’s a brave addition to this particular hotel’s set-up, as the inclusion of a sommelier runs the risk of undoing the relaxed and unpretentious vibe that has been created throughout the stay, depending on the individual, of course. I’m happy to say that no such pretention was felt.
Upon handing him the awkward requirements of the wine we were after (something to go with steak and hake, that’s not too heavy, but not too light), our man let out a chuckle and promptly returned with a bottle of Weingut Thörle’s Saulheimer Spätburgunder Kalkstein. Or, as you or I might say, a bloody great 2014 German Pinot Noir.
I could prattle on for pages about just how polished The Pig’s operation is. The location, the team, the attention to detail and notable investment all combine to raise the industry bar to a rather daunting height for other operators. Home Grown Hotels turned over £17.1m last year, as the opening of The Pig at Combe showed yet again what substantial investment commitments the company has.
With projects such as Tom Adams and April Bloomfield’s Coombeshead Farm shining the hotel food and beverage limelight on another part of the sticks, and what with Soho Farmhouse from the Soho House Group doing a fine job at being most trendsetters’ accommodation aspiration, the Pig brand is currently showing how to deliver this harmonious hospitality, but as a group.
It’s clear Hutson is not scared to invest, and with the steady growth of Pig hotels seen over the past few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple more sites were to open in idyllic settings in the very near future.