I've wanted to visit The Pig since it first opened its doors back in July 2011. It looked heavenly in the newspapers a country house hotel in the New Forest, wisteria climbing up its walls, a remarkable restaurant and kitchen garden at its heart. An approaching birthday gave us an excuse to visit, so we booked ourselves in for two nights at the beginning of this cold, wet and generally rather glum January
By half past five on Friday evening, we're on the road, wellies and raincoats in the boot, hurtling down the M3 towards the New Forest National Park. I grew up in Hampshire and used to visit this part of the county as a child. Those wide, open plains, a riot of subdued colour honey, heather and moss, are a very comforting sight indeed.
On entering The Pig, we find the hallway cluttered with watering cans and croquet mallets. Fires crackle in every room. The whole place has a delicious, familiar smell about it of wood smoke and muddy boots; the best smell there is in my opinion. We are led off, bags in hand and grinning, enthralled to be so far from London (in fact, we're not so far at all two hours by car), to find our room a little snug situated in the former stable block, a stone's throw from the main house. After a good bath and a quick browse of the rural guidebooks stacked up by our bed (I make a few notes on hen keeping could we construct a coop on the balcony at home, I wonder?), we're off to the main event: dinner.
A storm is brewing overhead as we hop through the mud and over to the house. We locate the drawing room and sink into the kind of chairs that you fall into with a newspaper and never want to get out of. Some time later, a Bellini (made with foraged fruit) and a Martini suitably guzzled, we sit down to eat. Now, the country show at The Pig is most definitely stolen by its walled kitchen garden and magnificent restaurant, which is housed in a sort of oversized Victorian greenhouse. It's a remarkable room, buzzing with friendly staff and happy diners and strewn with terracotta plant pots. Plants climb up pillars and candles cast long shadows across the colourful, mismatched tiled floor.
What's so refreshing about The Pig is its complete reinvention of the traditional head chef/sous chef relationship by the introduction of a forager and kitchen gardener to the mix. (In fact, these two are the sous chefs, to head chef James Golding.) The menu is adapted daily according to what the forager finds in the wilds of the forest and the kitchen gardener deems to be in perfect edible condition. Snails from Dorset make an appearance tonight. Unfortunately for us, we're not entirely starving, having had a bite to eat before leaving London, but supper is still a triumph we feast on piggy bits' (a New Forest take on the Scotch egg and delicately cured meats cured on site, naturally) and locally caught fish. We make a pact to truly indulge the following night, and we do, quite possibly a little too much, gorging ourselves on more piggy bits', crab, carpaccio and excellent puddings. Local, local, local' is the crucial phrase here. What can't be picked in the garden or foraged inside the forest is sourced within 25 miles. It seems that The Pig's location is perfect for the kind of food that it serves up the bountiful forest creeps up to the doorstep and the coast is just a few miles away. As you might expect, the pig reigns supreme. Saddleback and Tamworth pigs are raised on site and eventually slaughtered by the local butcher. This means that The Pig's fridges are stuffed with the best porcine products (as are we, by the end of the weekend).
Waking up on Saturday morning is a treat; we spring out of bed and find twenty-odd chickens pecking at the ground outside our window. Papers in hand, we head off to the great glasshouse the beating heart of the hotel where we're fed pastries, granola and the birds' delicious eggs. Afterwards, we poke our heads around the gates of the kitchen garden. It's calm but vivid a vegetable paradise hidden within four brick walls. Cavolo nero and kale plants shoot up out of the frost-covered ground (we are so taken by the sight of the former, with its dark green, proud leaves, that when we remember it during dinner that night we request a plateful right away, even though it's not on the menu). The heavens suddenly open; we go back to our room and read for a while, before jumping in the car and venturing out into the dark canopy of the forest. We try our best to avoid giant puddles (a few cars are stuck, buried half deep in murky water) and tiny, wild ponies at all costs... We sleep well that night, undisturbed except for the sound of passing trains. (I don't mind. I've always liked the sound of passing trains.)
After reluctantly realising that we have to leave The Pig on Sunday morning, we pull on sweaters and scarves and navigate our way to Friars Cliff, a really lovely stretch of Dorset beach. We walk along, boots sinking into the sand, heads empty, January spirits lifted by the sea air and freezing sunshine. I clamber up some rocks and almost fall into the water. Moleskin trousers muddied, we grudgingly find the car and point it towards the city.
Our journey home is spent discussing how much we enjoyed our stay. Golding's brilliant food philosophy is clearly one of the best things about The Pig a perfect match for the hotel's rustic feel and forest surroundings. It felt like an exciting, novel, and generally good and wholesome way to eat. Put it this way, I don't think we'll be waiting for an excuse to visit again.
(I realised a few days later that we missed out on paying a visit to The Pig's most noteworthy residents the pigs themselves! Alas, perhaps it was for the best... I don't think I could have looked one in the eye after all those piggy bits.)