Table Talk - Sunday Times Style

June 19, 2012

I am inordinately fond of pigs. Not in an "Ah, bless" kind of way - though they do have particularly kind eyes. No, what I love is their utter, selfless dedication to the pleasures of the table. If I could choose one farm animal to take with me to a desert island as my dining companion, it would be the pig. There are more ways of turning swine into supper than there are with any other animal: Bath chaps at the snout, crispy tails at the rear and, between the two, a whole smorgasbord of ears, cheeks, trotters, chops, shoulder, loin, belly, bacon, salami, sausages, hams, kidneys, liver and lights. Pigs are not merely animals. They are a buffet of edible possibility.

So I arrived at The Pig restaurant with rooms in the New Forest feeling warmly predisposed. It's a good name - grounded and unaffected, jovial and warm - and well chosen for this country house that's stoutly handsome rather than intimidatingly grand. I'm told it was built by an uncle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and later owned by the Queen Mother's brother. It's now in the hands of Robin Hutson, who cofounded the Hotel du Vin group in the 1990s. The Pig is the prototype for his latest project - the reinvention of the country-house hotel.

I like what he's done to the place. There's not a ruched curtain or gold doorknob in sight. The rooms have been decorated in an artful shabby-chic style - deep sofas, wood floors, roaring fires, a scattering of quirky objects - that makes it feel more like a private home than a hotel. There are pink umbrellas by the door, and Hunter wellies if you happen to feel like a walk in the rain. It's country house with a sophisticated lick: urbane without being urban.

I took Lucie and Emma for lunch. It was 1:30pm on a drab grey Monday, but the place was packed. That's a good sign for a restaurant. A smiley girl showed us to the bar for a drink and it started to dawn on us that The Pig was more of a mission statement than a name. The whole place is a palace of pigginess. Wild boar heads look down glassy-eyed from the walls. The drinks list, which includes the Pig Martini, the Pigito and La Petite Cochonnerie, comes tucked into the pages of a book on pig husbandry. Even the staff wear pink shirts, though maybe that's just a coincidence.

And then there's the menu. An entire section is devoted to piggy snacks: saddleback crackling with apple sauce, home-cured lardo, local salami, brawn, baby BBQ ribs, brock eggs, smoked ham and mini sausage rolls. We ordered cocktails - all exceptionally good - as well as three piggy bits to try. The lardo could have done with a bit more flavour, but the sausage rolls were some of the best I've tasted, second only to those at The Ginger Pig in London.

The restaurant occupies a large conservatory seamlessly grafted onto the side of the house. It's a space that plays fantasy greenhouse, fringed with pots of herbs and stacked wooden crates. There are mismatched tables and chairs, a floor of patterned tiles that looks deceptively old, and a private room in the corner with more pig inspired art and a chandelier that floats above the table like a luminous airship. Good home-made bread comes with herb oil for dunking and little pots of home-smoked garlic salt, whose bonfire flavour reminded me pleasantly of tarred string.

The main menu is divided between starters and small plates, weekly specials and Forest & Solent - Hampshire's answer to turf and surf. I liked it immediately. It's local and seasonal - most ingredients come from within a 25-mile radius, some from the restaurant's own kitchen garden - and the sort of food Iactually want to eat. It doesn't try too hard to impress.

Predictably, there's a lot of pork - black pudding with duck egg, or breaded pork escalope - but there's also game from nearby estates, fish from the south coast, local meat and veg, home-smoked salmon and all manner of bits and bobs foraged from nearby woods, hedgerows and beaches.

Most dishes come in a choice of two sizes. We ordered five small and two large plates to share, as well as a couple of extra vegetables. First out was a Kilner jar of potted New Forest hare, accompanied by piccalilli, duck egg and salad leaves on a board alongside. The meat was sweetly rich, cut by a saucewith just the right spike of acidity.

The kitchen's aesthetic is rustic and uncheffy.  A dressed crab, the flesh piled back into the shell unadorned, came with a mound of celeriac remoulade - perhaps a little too sparse and a little underpowered - a sprinkling of pickled sea purslane, half a lemon and a tuft of

baby salad leaves. Home-made chorizo with deep-fried baby squid was tumbled into a bowl with sea beet and foraged wild garlic sprouts on top. This was deliciously more than the sum of its parts, aromatic hits of fennel seed in the strips of sausage lifting the whole dish to brilliance.

It was matched by a salad of crisp, sweet pork belly, cooked with honey and mixed with lightly pickled roots, grain mustard and quails' eggs. There are quite a lot of pickled things on the menu. It makes sense at this time of year - preserving is traditionally one way to deal with the privations of a northern winter - and here, the vegetables gave depth and contrast, like a deft take on sweet and sour.

There was also a plate of roast wood pigeon breast, slivers of crimson meat tottering on dollops of celeriac puree, with the green savouriness of kale and hazelnut salsa spooned in between. The puree was excellent - a deep, rooty essence - and the sauce a vivid foil to the iron gaminess of the breast. The meat was cooked well enough, though marred by occasional chewiness - probably the pigeon's fault rather than the kitchen's.

And so to the bigger plates. We had more pork, naturally - two big cubes of slow-roast belly that were yielding and crunchy, with roast squash and poached pear alongside. And then a salad of home-smoked haddock - that same wonderful tarriness again - with poached eggs, chicory leaves, walnuts and a gentle cider dressing. It was uncomplicatedly delicious. Sides were a mixed beetroot and potato mash - labelled "cosmic" on the menu, perhaps overenthusiastically - and some very good crisp fried onions.

For pudding, we shared a layered chocolate orange mousse cake and a gin-and-tonic jelly with lime-soused cucumber. By now, it was gone 4pm, and I have a feeling they were plated by someone rather junior in the kitchen. They tasted better than they looked, though I wish the cake hadn't come with a physalis perched on the side. These little orange fruit, with their paper-lantern cases, are the all-purpose lazy dessert garnish, and I'm not sure they're particularly seasonal or local.

But that's a small niggle. The Pig is a charming place and it serves great, unpretentious food. The waiting staff are chatty and knowledgeable when you want them to be, and leave you alone when you don't. And it's not expensive. Our bill, with three cocktails, piggy bits to start and a very decent bottle of Chilean pinot noir, came to £176 with service. That's really not a lot, considering we went the whole hog.

Lucas Hollweg - Sunday Times