The Pig Hotel Collection has set new standards for fresh, local produce, including game, writes Joe Dimbleby
There is a real buzz about the Pig hotel collection, started only five years ago, which stems from it doing things differently. Its commitment to growing its own food and sourcing produce locally — within 25 miles to be precise — is at the forefront of the business and runs through every seam. Founder Robin Hutson, whose brainchild it was, sensed that people had a growing interest in where their meals come from.
“Food moves in cycles in restaurants and hotels,” he said. “We are in a place now where people are much more interested in provenance. Twenty or 30 years ago we were shouting about the fact that we had corn-fed chicken from Brest in France; now you’d be shouting about the fact that they’ve come from the farm down the road. That’s not to say the chickens from France
aren’t any good, of course they are, but it resonates with everyone’s concerns about environmental issues.”
Robin is clearly a shrewd businessman, but his personal involvement and interest in the principles and benefits of local produce has grown. “These days, every hotel has to have a back story to get above the parapet but to stay there, that story has to be genuine,” he said.
He’s been amazed by the response from visitors to his four hotels (the fifth opens this year): “I never dreamed it would be as big as it is. If the weather is dry, particularly through the summer months, 90 per cent of the guests dining in the restaurant at lunchtime go for a walk around the garden. Our gardeners spend hours and hours talking to guests and that’s encouraged — sometimes we have to employ another gardener just to talk to visitors.”
Game on the menu
The Pig collection comprises five hotels — in the New Forest, Bath, Dorset, Hampshire and Devon. Each hotel has its own walled kitchen garden providing fruit and vegetables for the table 365 days a year. Naturally, game is regularly on the menu. The fallow herd in the park at Bath provides “very local venison” and there is wild game, too — pheasant and partridge in season, and pigeon, rabbit and venison from the surrounding estates.
Robin explained that ideally there has to be a consistent supply of the right quantity. But the restaurants can take meat and game on a one-off basis. Indeed, there is a section on the menu titled “Literally picked this morning”. clearly the chefs have to be signed up to the concept, but there is no shortage of enthusiasm, which is shared by everyone on the team.
“When we started, I used to refer to the two lieutenants for the head chef being the head gardener and the forager,” he said. “The garden drives the menu, but you need a certain kind of chef. He has to turn on a sixpence because the dish that worked yesterday with spinach suddenly has to be changed to use something else. We are at the stage now where even the barmen are excited about what’s coming out of the garden because they make infusions to create their cocktails.”
Quirky but stylish
Robin runs the hotels and his wife, Judy, designs the interiors, which are another huge draw. The décor is quirky but stylish, evoking the shabby elegance of an old country house; no one piece of furniture is the same. There’s plenty to make the shooter feel at home, with taxidermy and hunting pictures on the walls, intriguing antiques and real fires — the attention to detail is superb.
The family connection extends to Robin’s son Ollie, who runs the kitchen garden operation and kindly showed me round. A former riverkeeper, Ollie came to the business with a great affection for the countryside and his passion for growing food has clearly strengthened. The challenge of trying to produce vegetables all year round is inspiring and they are constantly experimenting, putting things on the menu that you would never normally find in a restaurant, such as flowering broccoli and even the flowers of cavolo nero — black cabbage — which they discovered makes an attractive and delicious salad ingredient.
Ollie explained that the key to the concept is to keep it honest. “Plenty of restaurants offer local food and seasonal food, but to what extent is it local and how much is brought in?” he asked. “If we have to go outside for ingredients, we tell the guests why. For example, we are fine here in Hampshire but when we decided to open in Bath, it dawned on us that the nearest sea was miles away. So we get our fish from Brixham in Devon, but that is explained on the menu and everything else comes from within 25 miles.”
The family atmosphere extends to the hotel staff, who are incredibly friendly and attentive without being overbearing. They are informally dressed so it doesn’t feel stuffy, despite the grand surroundings and as soon as you walk in the door your every need is catered for. This means the staff tend to stick around, which is unusual in an industry with such a high turnover.
One of the waitresses, from Lymington, had been working at the hotel for four years. Pigeon was on the lunch menu and she told me that it was supplied by the local estate keeper, with whom the hotel had a close relationship.
The concept has worked so well that Robin is planning to open more Pigs, but it takes time because a lot of thought and attention to detail goes into selecting the right locations and making sure the supply lines are there. Combe House in Devon is due to open in July and Robin is excited by the prospect: “We are a few miles from the sea and Devon has some of the best beef in the country.”
A keen flyfisherman, Robin is also excited by a short stretch of the Otter that came with the house and to which guests will have access. There is a well-established shoot in the beautiful grounds surrounding Combe House. The syndicate traditionally stays in the hotel on shoot days and Robin is keen to see “very local” pheasant on the menu.
You can discover more about the Pig Hotel Collection here