By now most of us have heard of the accessibly luxurious hotel chain The Pig, brainchild of the successful hotelier Robin Hutson. Some have already hung out in one or more of them whether as weary townies or southwest locals (so far Brockenhurst, Bath, Southampton, Studland and Honiton). Each combines the benefits of being part of a brand with all the charm of a boutique hotel. This is in part due to the venues Robin has carefully selected, the latest a case in point. The Pig at Combe, an Elizabethan manor house set in 3,500 acres of the Otter Valley on the rural outskirts of Honiton in East Devon has been open for six months. It has been extensively renovated with the utmost Grade One listed respect following its previous life as the charismatic Combe House Hotel. Original oil paintings remain, classic armchairs reupholstered in tweeds, sofas of velvet and constantly tended roaring fireplaces in the sitting room, library and cocktail bar – the latter of which looks right at home in the grand entrance hall of the house. Come for lunch, dinner or sleepover. We did all three.
Every bedroom is a haven but for complete bliss spend a little more (really not a lot more) and book one of the stable rooms tucked behind the main hotel. Beautifully refurbished, acres of space, princess and the pea bed, splendid coffee station, claw footed bath tub and the biggest shower I have ever been under. My architecturally minded husband, never without tape measure, measured the shower head at 450mm – he is such fun to go away with.
Our stable room bordered the most expansive kitchen garden comprising of a patchwork of fully stocked walled gardens. Referred to by the Hotel Director Fiona Moores as ‘the heartbeat of the hotel’ she also cites the relationship between the kitchen and garden teams as crucial. Fiona is proud that the team ‘harvest from the garden every single day’ and the restaurant menu is evidence of this.
We ignored Dry January and behaved like it was Christmas. A cut crystal glass of chilled English sparkling on arrival to toast our escape from work and children on a bleak rainy Wednesday. Lunch in the elegant, partly restored old garden folly, the perfect backdrop for the wood fired oven and excellent seasonal flatbread pizzas. Late afternoon gin and tonics by the fire in the library, chosen for us by Matt the unobtrusively attentive bartender who recommended several of their home infusions. Earlier in the season the bar staff were sent out into the garden to peruse, pick and then infuse their produce in gin or vodka, ‘the first attempt at a chilli infusion was literally mind blowing’. We took his word for it and ordered the damson gin (for sweetness) and the beetroot gin (surprisingly good with a savoury edge). I need to go back for the chestnut vodka. And second helpings of the crispy kale bar snacks.
Dinner, in the potting shed inspired restaurant, was relaxed and delicious with pots of smoked salt, sourdough breads and infused oils on the table. The sommelier matched our dishes with wines we wouldn't have chosen and were glad he had. He poured a crisp, unusual Riesling to accompany their signature smoked salmon and then described his trip to meet the ‘one man in his front room’ winery with such passion and respect I mentally toasted the winemaker with each sip. Braised brisket wrapped in rainbow chard with pickled garden veg and a rich gravy summed up midwinter. I ate crosne for the first time, a miniature onion type vegetable from the artichoke family which had been poached in beetroot liquor and generously scattered over a plate of roast gurnard. We shared a steamed sponge sticky with lemon, ginger and honey marmalade and a glug of Ashclyst Dairy cream from a family size jug. Then we rolled back in to the bar and to our other favourite bartender, the joyful Aline, whose invented recipe won Cocktail of the Month. Without Professor Mark (Makers Mark, rum, cranberry… and secret ingredients I won’t be divulging) my evening would not have been complete. She gave me a quick cocktail making masterclass so now every evening of the rest of my life can be complete too.
Breakfast was a feast. Bowls full of locally sourced ingredients including thick natural yoghurt, freshly squeezed juices, pastries, boiled eggs, fresh and dried fruits and several versions of granola and muesli including a very healthy one which I obviously didn’t try. I didn’t even get to the full English because the buffet, like everything at the hotel, is done with a tremendous generosity of spirit. Not just with the helpings, the cocktail bar and the cushions but with the hard working, friendly team who strike the perfect balance of informal formality. Led by the superb Fiona and her excellent deputy Peter (with a combined pedigree of internationally renowned hotels), the service was the very best we have experienced. This is in fact the heart of the hotel. And this is where The Pig really flies. www.thepighotel.com Check the website for seasonal offers and events.