I grew up in the rolling hills of Sussex and owe much of my countryside know-how (how to milk a cow, pick wild garlic, ride a horse etc) to this fact. However, I was never aware of the plethora of local produce on my doorstep. That is, until I spent a foodie weekend at Ockenden Manor. A cosy Elizabethan hotel, spa and Michelin-starred restaurant nestled in the South Downs, an unexpected place for a gastronomic retreat.
Upon arrival at the hotel, the reception wasn’t of the standard I expected. Lacklustre welcome aside, the suite was beautiful. A large open plan room with a stunning view of the countryside, made even more spectacular by the presence of an incredible red sky. There wasn’t a single guest who didn’t leave their room to gawp at it from the balcony.
Once the sun had set, I went down to the restaurant in the main house. The smiling waiters guided us to a large table in the centre of a softly lit, wood-panelled suite. An old, dark portrait of Samuel Pepys gazed down over us. The menu promised five courses, each one made with locally sourced ingredients which are the inspiration for head chef, Stephen Crane and his team. The menu is seasonal; each dish is created depending on what the locals can provide. The kitchen intentionally lacks sous vides and other molecular gastronomy gadgets, to forego modern techniques and create more authentic Sussex food. “Ockenden Manor,” Stephen tells me, “is a country house hotel so we serve country house cuisine. We buy the best ingredients locally and cook them simply.”
The waiting staff swooped in balletically with the first course. It was pigeon breast from Balcombe Estate (just down the road) with fois gras boudin, Waldorf salad and a crispy samosa. Our sommelier was also warm and friendly, pairing the dish with Hindleap Seyval Blanc, from Bluebell Vineyard. A pale gold sparkling wine, with buttered toast and stone fruit notes, bold enough to stand up to the gamey flavour of the pigeon.
The next course was partridge with stuffed cabbage, braised lentils, girolles, spring onion and truffle jus. Followed by venison saddle with apple and red cabbage, paired with Pinot Noir again from Bluebell. A cheese plate from High Weald Dairy took us neatly into desert, showcasing their Brighton Blue and Brother Michael with piccalilli and a stunning, delicate apple jelly.
Desert was poached pear with a crunchy cinnamon crumble, toffee sauce (which, quite frankly I could have had more of), sweet honeycomb and pear sorbet. It was light and fragrant, the pear cooked just enough to be soft. A well thought out ending to a very rich menu.
All in all the meal was exceptionally well cooked. But if they are going to forego modern gastronomical cooking techniques, I would have preferred a more ‘traditional Sussex’ experience, in keeping with the concept. Otherwise, why not use the most cutting edge gastronomy equipment?
The next day we set off for High Weald Dairy, a family run cheese dairy, which makes a range of delicious, award-winning cheeses. They have a tour where you get to take part in the cheese making process and learn the technicalities behind their rich, creamy ‘Brighton Blue’. It ends with a mozzarella workshop and a tasting session of their best cheeses. The cheddar in particular was very good – thick and crumbly with a subtle, earthy flavour.
We also stopped in at Bluebell Vineyard, one of the UK’s best sparkling wine producers. Their wines are created using a traditional method, inspired by Christopher Merret, the Englishman who first championed sparkling white wine. If you visit, you can take a tour and pick up a bottle or two of their stunningly fruity Brut Rose or golden 2010 Blanc de Blancs. You might also find yourself flanked by six very happy and fat Labradors, the perfect accompaniment to a sunny afternoon stroll.
Our penultimate experience was at Sandpits Wood in the pretty village of Lindfield. We went to learn the art of foraging, tromping about looking for mushrooms (most of which turned out to be horrifically poisonous) with Martin Hadden, executive chef who led us down to a fairy-like eco campsite. Stephen Crane stood next to a barbecue, cooking the mushrooms. We sat down around a campfire, and Sarah Thompson, the artisan spirit maker from Blackdown brought us delicious warm honeyed mead and gin cocktails. As we sat huddled around the fire, Stephen passed us each an incredibly moreish plate of High Weald cheese with fresh girolles mushrooms in a silky foraged mushroom sauce. Sitting in this gorgeous environment backed with the smoke from a crackling fire, I felt like I was eating a dish that told a story.
Afterwards, we headed back to Ockenden Manor for Afternoon Tea. Before my stomach had time to wave a flag of surrender after a weekend of over-indulgence, the petit fours blew it away. My sweet tooth was never so sated with the melting, gooey macaroons, the delicate pastry of the éclairs, the rich, indulgent marshmallows. It was probably the best afternoon tea I’ve ever had.
I would go back to Ockenden Manor. I’d go back with the girls for a day of pampering in their lush, relaxing spa and make myself feel guilty eating too much afternoon tea. And I’d go back for a romantic foodie retreat, stocking up on wines and cheese at Bluebell and High Weald Dairy. It would be worth it, even if I did have to spend the rest of the week eating lettuce.
Ockenden Manor is part of the Historic Sussex Hotels group. For more information, including details of the spa, dining, events packages and offers, visit www.hshotels.co.uk.
In celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th birthday, Ockenden Manor has partnered with another West Sussex gem to host a very special lunch on Sunday 12th June.
Producers of award-winning English sparkling wine, Ridgeview Estate, are joining Ockenden’s Michelin-starred chef, Stephen Crane, to host a modern take on a medieval banquet. (Ridgeview’s sparkling wines are well-known by Her Majesty; in October 2015, the Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2009 was served at the state banquet held at Buckingham Palace as part of the state visit by Chinese Premier Xi Jingping.)
This is Ockenden Manor and Ridgeview’s take on the great British street party; guests can expect a series of scrumptious dishes, bundles of bunting and plenty of fizz – the perfect way in which to raise a glass to Her Majesty’s big day.
Tickets are £125 per person for a three course lunch with matching sparkling wines. From 12.30pm, adults only.