The Pig on the South Downs
Eating Out

The comeback Pig

A country pub where the cooking extracts the maximum amount of flavour

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Is comfort in the country still naff? Once upon a time the rules were simple: if the house was freezing, the sofa covered in dog hair and dinner was a mouthful of shot nestling in rotten pheasant breast followed by a Pearce Duff’s “shape”, you could rest assured if not content that you were staying somewhere smart.

If the place was “blissfully comfortable with chandeliers in the loo” (in the words of no less a judge than Jilly Cooper’s mother), your hosts were irredeemably nouveau riche.

Posh interiors were never decorated, they evolved slowly into an inimitable hodgepodge of Georgian silver, Victorian armchairs and G Plan sofas, walls softly dappled with dark patches where Granny had flogged off the Romney, frayed silk curtains, everything faded and mellowed by time.

Then came the wiliness of “shabby chic”, Farrow & Ball paint and the horror that is Soho Farmhouse, which is all very confusing. English social comedy and tragedy, wrote John Coleman, is made up of “the perpetual inaccuracy of imitation”, which was spot-on where country house hotels used to be concerned. A combination of bewildered, purse-lipped service, squeaky chintz and (mostly) indifferent cooking of the type served under domes, country house hotels seemed to exist with no aim beyond making their patrons feel inferior about not having a rural place of their own.

Robin Hutson of The Pig hotel chain very sensibly decided to dispense with all the angst when he launched the now eight-strong group in 2009. He wanted an approachable, pub-sounding name, as people aren’t scared of pubs, and he wanted his guests to be comfortable, which was still radical at the time. 

The near fanatical devotion the Pigs inspire across a litter which includes destinations in Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, Kent and West Sussex, is proof of the prescience which saw Mr Hutson awarded Hotelier of the Year in 2021. People don’t want faux grandeur any more than they want arch understatement; they want to feel like welcome visitors in a friend’s rather fabby house.

Different yet consistent is how the Pigs work — they are dissimilar enough not to feel like a bland chain but share certain features. At each one the market garden and “Twenty-Five Mile” menu is central to the cooking, rooms are dispersed around the properties for privacy and individuality and the design focus is antique-meets-airy woods and warm neutrals.

Whilst the food at The Pig isn’t showstopping, it isn’t trying to be

No junior executive suite nonsense either — the rooms are straightforwardly labelled from “Extremely Small” through “Comfy” to “Big Comfy Luxe”. I haven’t stayed overnight, but my family (all enthusiastic Piggers), assure me that the bathrooms are excellent and there are no domineering TVs in the bedrooms. My dad was pleased to find a Roberts radio in the room and apparently they water the plants properly. Pressed further, Pa came up with “Like one of those duff old country house places, but done up.”

We went for lunch at the latest Pig, on the South Downs near Arundel to check out their strong English wine list. West Sussex wines are improving every year and The Pig anticipates first growth Chardonnay and Pinot Noir this summer. Meanwhile we went for a Stopham Estate Pinot Gris, chalky and refreshing and a little bit mango-ey, just right to make a warm spring day feel exotic.

The restaurant menus change twice daily but offer a zigzag approach, flexibly sectioned into “Bits” (Garden, Fish and Pig), cold starters which can also come as mains, a Garden and Greenhouse section with separate Garden sides and more conventional mains.

Watercress soup and New Forest asparagus tasted exactly of themselves, unfussy greenness and savour extracted from ingredients which are too often relegated to garnishes.

Pa enjoyed his pork chop, though he felt it could have been more adventurously sauced, my cod with locally-smoked pork belly and pearl barley was a gem of a dish, the woody chewiness of the meat offsetting the smooth glint of the cod with the buttery grains amalgamating the two. A side of honeyed carrots with caraway was, like the watercress, a reminder of just how really good vegetables can be when they are super-fresh which is an easy thing to say, but a hard one to achieve.

The cooking here extracts the maximum amount of flavour, rather than straining for an elaborate technique and whilst the food at The Pig isn’t showstopping, it isn’t trying to be. It’s the kind of thing you’d cook yourself if your fantasies tend towards eighteenth-century houses and an acre of kitchen garden; bright, pleasing, easy to enjoy.

Which might well stand for The Pigs themselves if Boris Johnson hadn’t descended. Approachability has certain disadvantages. One minute you’re running a near-perfect country house hotel, the next you’re plastered all over the Daily Mail as “luxury £215 per night celebrity country retreat” featuring, oh dear, “antique agricultural items”. 

Perhaps the perpetual greased piglet of politics was having a laugh when he chose his latest mini-break getaway, but it’s not The Pig’s fault.

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