You’ve no doubt been hearing a lot about East Devon’s newest foodie destination, THE PIG at Combe. Set in 3,500 acres of exquisite Devonshire countryside, this beautiful ivy clad Elizabethan manor house certainly isn’t what you’d expect given it’s name. From what we’ve gathered so far, it’s a place where comfort and style are interswined – get it? – with great food and a commitment to providence.
The Combe House Hotel used to be one of my favourite foodie destinations in the county, so as you can imagine, I was initially a little sceptical about its change of hands. My family were frequent visitors to the hotel for over 28 years and the staff were always absolutely superb. However, my first view of The Pig’s new striking interior and it’s flourishing kitchen gardens are doing a lot to allay my fears. For starters the place looks absolutely beautiful. The changes that owner Robin Hutson have made are both stylish and sympathetic to the buildings history, and the new kitchen gardens have brought a new much needed lease of life to the hotel’s exterior.
Obviously at The Devon Foodie we’re very passionate about homegrown produce and supporting local businesses, so we were keen to get the lowdown on what Ollie Huston – The Pig’s Garden Manager – had to say about the role of the kitchen gardens in this exciting new venture…
When and how did you become the garden manager for The Pig hotels?
I have worked for Homegrown Hotels for just over 5 years (since feb ’11). I started out as an assistant at Brockenhurst, before becoming Head Kitchen Gardener there for 2 years. Then I moved to Bath as Head Kitchen gardener for another 2 years, and was eventually given responsibility over all kitchen gardens in the group, as of last autumn.
Have you always been green-fingered?
Yes, having grown up in the New Forest, helping my grandad on his allotment from a young age and spending most of my spare time cycling around the Hampshire fields and woodlands, I always knew that I wanted to find a job in the countryside. After doing my a-levels I decided to attend agricultural college and embark on a career in the outdoors.
When you first arrived at Combe what state were the gardens in? Did they require much work?
The gardens at THE PIG at Combe had been well managed so the soil did not need a huge amount of work in terms of conditioning. We rebuilt everything and ‘piggified’ it all but tried to ensure that we kept to a similar design to what had been there before. I feel strongly that you never quite own a garden, you are just a steward for a time and the best objective as a head gardener is to do justice to those who came before you and leave the garden in a good state for those who come after.
How much produce do you grow onsite and how much is locally sourced?
The easiest thing to say here would be that everything within the kitchen gardens will be served in the restaurant, preserving everything possible during gluts in order to be able to serve homegrown (if not seasonal) produce throughout the less productive winter months.
We are able to be nearly self-sufficient on some crops over the summer months, however, some crops, such as flat leaf parsley, we could never produce enough of for the kitchen even if we dug everything else up and replaced with the parsley!
Anything not produced on site is sourced within 25 miles of the hotel.
Can you tell us about the relationship between the gardeners and the chefs? Do you grow to their specifications or do they build their menus around whatever is in season?
At the end of every growing season, we meet with the chefs and discuss every product we have produced, giving the chefs the option of more, less, the same, or not at all. From this we then meet as gardeners to produce sowing, planting and harvesting plans for each individual garden to run from January one year right through to April the following year.
We meet every day with the head chef to discuss what is in its prime, what is nearly ready and what is nearly over. From this we then produce daily ordering forms for the kitchen to use in order for us to harvest accordingly.
What produce is on the menu at the moment?
Everything! At the moment we are producing lots of different edible flowers, beetroots, chard, courgettes, salad onions, French and runner beans. As well as a few more unusual crops such as agretti, New Zealand spinach and lime basil. We are also producing currants and gooseberries from the fruit cages, as well as up to forty varieties of herb and mint from the herb garden.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
I love all aspects of my job. I love working for a great company with a fantastic team and having the freedom to experiment and find new products to keep both the chefs and the guests enthused. I also like to see how the different chefs across the group deal with the same varieties in their own way for their individual menus.
We’ll be paying The Pig at Combe a visit soon to see how their homegrown and locally sourced menu lives up to our expectations. For more information or to book your own table visit www.thepighotel.com