Going the whole hog: inside THE PIG-at Combe

July 9, 2016

Written by 

The best account of a country house weekend was by Harold Nicolson, diplomat, diarist and, as resident of Sissinghurst, an expert with first-hand knowledge of his subject. In a celebrated essay, he described the languorous guests, chafing dishes, hot bacon under silver cloches and insistent drizzle outside the French windows. He exposed what he called the jade and lobster of the Edwardian period.

The best account of the English country house hotel is, however, by Robin Hutson, son of a south London heating engineer, who rose from pot-washer to GM to become a proprietor of genius. In one of Hutson’s Pigs, you have an ambience that is sophisticated, but relaxed. A fastidious eye has chosen everything, but not in an intimidating or controlling manner: authentic comforts are understood and addressed.

Restaurant 01

Hutson then graduated to Martin Skan’s Chewton Glen in the New Forest, at the time the top dead centre of sleek country house hotel grandeur. Chewton Glen had a jackets-at-dinner formality which progressively alienated Hutson, even as he remained observant of and respectful to the crisply starched norms. But in 1994, he and sommelier Gerard Bassett decided on a revolution: a hotel with a wine school attached. Bassett scribbled “hotel du vin” on the business plan and the revolution had a name.

Three years before Farringdon’s Eagle had been styled the first gastropub – a signal event in the history of a nation’s eating out – Hutson’s Hotel du Vin had the same disrupting effect on the complacent hotel trade.

 

The original opened in Winchester in 1994 and was promptly praised for its integrity and quirkiness as well as for its food; Antony Worrall Thompson’s 190 Queens Gate, Bruno Loubet’s Bistrot Bruno and Alastair Little’s Frith Street were the reference points. Hutson brought these lofty standards to English provinces where sticky canard a l’orange was still a token of refinement, even unto Harrogate where there was a general gripe that portions were too small. And while provincial hotels before Hutson had been empty and depressing, suddenly they became busy and interesting. The Hotel du Vin business was sold in 2004.

The Folly 02

Seven years ago, Hutson opened the superb Lime Wood Hotel at Lyndhurst. He does not misstep often. But The Pig is positioned differently. And it flies. Asked how many Pigs there will one day be, I am told the answer depends on the availability of exceptional properties: Grade I Elizabethan mansions do not cross your desk weekly. At the moment, they are working at the rate of one a year since Brockenhurst opened in 2011. The answer also depends on the availability of the fabulous brocante and interesting objets that give idiosyncratic character to each Pig: no two drinking glasses are the same. Jumble is too unrefined a notion, but you get the idea.

In the early days at the Hotel du Vin, an interior designer was employed, but mutual disenchantment broke out, so Hutson and his wife, Judy, decided to do it themselves. They visit Paris’s annual Maison & Objet trade fair and trawl provincial greniers vides, maintaining a reserve warehouse of stuff whose volume goes up and down like a Victorian gasometer, depending on how close they are to fitting out a new Pig.

Kitchen Garden 05 2

At The Pig, the Kitchen Garden and Herb Garden are real working features, not decorative conceits. Diplomatically making the best from the occasional nuisance of flying mammals, Hutson’s amiable horticultural son Ollie maintains “bat poo is rocket fuel for courgettes”. There are polytunnels of specialist tomatoes, banks of edible flowers, a dedicated mint garden and herb curiosities including the must-have agretti. Ollie gave me one astonishing leaf that tasted of mint chocolate. Within the garden, there is a Smoke House and a Quail House. “The agricultural feel to what we do is essential,” says the older Hutson.

Coming down to dinner, I found him leaning against the bar with another bottle of Hambleden. “Come on. You’ve got to tell me more. You have still not explained why this is so different,” I said. “It’s a million little things,” he replied, perhaps unconsciously echoing Fernand Point’s “success is a lot of small things done correctly”. But we got a little closer when he explained: “I can tell you where every single item in every room comes from.” It’s an obsession. “There are people who can go away and forget about it. I’m not one of them. Four in the morning is not off-limits for discussion. Judy and I live it.”

The Attic Hideaway 01

My bedroom was vast, eccentrically shaped and soothingly comfortable. Again, it was like a friend’s house, if only friends had such good taste in floor coverings and linen. I woke up to sunlight blasting through the Elizabethan window’s stone mullions, putting Hutson’s signature bath-in-the-bedroom feature into silhouette. And at seven, a workman began an insistent banging on a pipe. Nail guns started their work and dump-trucks whined and churned. Last week, The Pig was still a building site. Downstairs, cheerful wait staff rehearsed for Monday’s opening – it was like a movie set with extras milling about while men with clipboards took note.

Devon from sitting by the Otter with a Cohiba and a glass of red. And what inspired him was the idea of what a hotel should be: a place where the simplest parts of existence – eating, drinking, sitting, reading, sleeping – can be enjoyed in beautiful surroundings.

Before leaving, I wanted to know about his favourite hotels and restaurants. There’s the Colombe d’or in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where he sits by the pool beneath the Leger. He admires The Gunton Arms in Norfolk and The Mercer in New York. He is fond, too, of celebrity butcher Dario Cecchini’s communal tables at Panzano in Chianti. And April Bloomfield’s Spotted Pig on West 11th Street, a Manhattan gastropub, was a part of the inspiration for The Pig’s own name.

It’s sad that Marks & Spencer could never become as fashionable as H&M and that Royal Mail will never emulate the expansionist success of Deutsche Post; these are testing times for national pride. But The Pig shows that a small, native hotel group can set world standards. I asked Robin Hutson if there was a single element to his business success. He said: “We understand what the customer wants before he knows it himself.”

At dinner, Hutson had understood what I wanted, so we drank a Ridge Montebello chardonnay of 2012 – California’s very finest – and a 2006 Trus from Ribera del Duero with chef Dan Gavriilidis’s cured meats and rhubarb chutney, crispy tobacco onions and Piper’s Farm Lamb Shoulder. We chewed the locavore fat and I succumbed to The Pig’s easy-going, but thoughtful, excellence. I cannot imagine who would not.