Glebe House founders on bringing a taste of Italian agritourismo to Devon

22 September 2023 by

Hugo and Olive Guest escaped the big city to pursue a life running guesthouse and restaurant Glebe House.

The short taxi journey from Honiton station to Glebe House takes guests down a winding, single-track road into the depths of the Devonshire countryside, past farms with cattle which sometimes put a stop to the journey, forcing the driver to get out and shoo them aside.

It's a stunning day and Glebe House is standing in all its glory, roses climbing up the whitewashed walls. Outside sit its owners, husband-and-wife team, Hugo and Olive Guest – Hugo looks after the kitchen, alongside head chef Sam Lomas who was brought on board upon opening in 2021, while Olive's artistic vision ensures Glebe's interior is just as pretty as the exterior, with antiques and fine art complemented by bold prints, maximalist wallpaper and decorative furnishings.

"We've been inspired by our time in Italy and the agritourismo model where you can rock up at a B&B and get food grown from the land – pigs they've turned into salumi, and wine and vinegar from the local vines," says Hugo. "We spend all our holidays there, we got married there, any spare time we have we go out to Italy."

"There aren't that many countries where I can really get into the art and Hugo can get into the food," adds Olive. "Which is why it works for us."

This Italian inspiration seeps into every aspect of the six-bed guest house with a cabin in Colyton East Devon, from the vines that adorn the sunroom to the charcuterie and pasta that Hugo makes from scratch. "A lot of the time we'll try and either grow or rear produce ourselves," he says. "If not, we work directly with friends and neighbours and small farmers, fishermen and growers in East Devon."

A few years ago, and Hugo and Olive's lives looked very different. The pair both had high-flying careers in London – Hugo as an insurance broker in the City and Olive an account director in an advertising agency. But Hugo had been disinterested in his job for a while, Olive was longing to spend more time on her art, and the idea of Glebe House wouldn't leave their minds.

Tuscan escape

Hugo's love of creating food took hold after using a small inheritance to escape London for a short break in Tuscany where he lived with families learning the ancient craft of curing pork from start to finish. "I just love those artisan techniques and the alchemy of taking a raw ingredient like fresh pork and with a little salt, time and knowledge you can turn it into an exceptional product – it's unbelievably rewarding and everything I enjoy about cooking."

It was fair to say he was hooked, and on his return started a salumi company, the Humble Swine, trading at farmers markets in London. Olive grins as she recalls Hugo's growing passion for charcuterie: "Hugo had this old Irn Bru fridge which he turned into a curing chamber. It was ridiculous."

Charcuterie only stoked Hugo's desire to quit his job and leave the big smoke, and with the Glebe idea still in the back of his mind, he decided to train to become a chef. "It's a real tangible skill," he says. "And if Glebe didn't work out, I could still make a living cooking in some form or another."

This dream took him to cookery school in Ashburton in South Dartmoor, where he enrolled on a six-month cheffing diploma where he was classically trained, after which he worked at the Marksman in East London and Sorella in Clapham. "I had a three-year window to learn to cook, I was really determined to try and learn my craft and it's amazing how you engage with that learning when you know what's at the end of it, so I was laser focused."

The couple soon left their flat in Brixton and upped sticks to move back to the home Hugo grew up in along with his three brothers. Glebe had since been run by his parents as a family-style B&B for a number of years, but Hugo had an idea to extend the site and run the business as a getaway for guests interested in food and art. "It just seemed like the culmination of both mine and Olive's passions," says Hugo.

The pair spent time researching funding and grants, and realised they were able to apply for EU Growth Programme money, allocated to certain parts of the country to promote rural stimulus.

"It was a long process, but it effectively funded 40% of the physical development we did at the beginning and gave the whole project validity," he says, describing how that €250,000 (£215,000) along with a small loan and personal savings, allowed them to create a carpark, rewire and replumb the entire building and convert the kitchen.

That kitchen is now one of the first things guests can see as they walk through the threshold, its yellow panelling offering a hearty welcome, while Hugo will often be found cooking on the fire-engine red Aga, tea towel strewn across his shoulder, the kitchen's wide hatch allowing him to pop out his head to greet guests with a smile and a welcome snack. Meanwhile, Sam will be dashing in and out of his bakery behind the property to check on his signature loaves.

The pair work well together as a partnership, Sam's bread and pastry skills which he learned during his four years at River Cottage complementing Hugo's butchery and curing. "I knew we could learn from each other," says Hugo. "And we found our rhythm very quickly, he is very talented and I've never met anyone quite so hardworking."

The house also boasts a small pool for guest use, as well as a kitchen garden with no-dig beds sprouting salads, fennel, chard, padron peppers, beetroot, mange tout, broad beans and kohlrabi.

And, of course, Hugo now has a professional curing chamber. His produce taking pride of place on the four-course Glebe House dinner alongside the likes of dulce brioche, brown crab and grilled cabbage; Lyme Bay scallop crudo with blood orange and chili; Tagliarini with monkfish ragu; roast chicken stuffed with cabbage leaf, and a dessert of pistachio and olive oil cake.

Well fed

Kitchen suppers of hearty meals like lasagne or pie are offered for those who want something simpler and on Sundays Glebe offers a set menu of antipasti, pasta, main course and a pudding.

Meanwhile, breakfast consists of simple, quality ingredients, with everything made from scratch, such as home-cured ham, bacon or sausage with Aga eggs and brown sauce. Or homemade yogurt and granola with seasonal fruit and kombucha, as well as a sweet plate such as a slice of brioche under a blanket of icing sugar. And not forgetting the welcome snack awaiting guests in their room, which could be a double chocolate cookie, salted to perfection, enjoyed with a cup of tea overlooking the countryside. Guests are looked after by general manager Maisy Wyer who oversees the day-to-day running of Glebe, as well as being a budding sommelier.

While the property is currently leased off Hugo's parents, in time they hope to buy it outright. "We've had a good few years," admits Hugo. "The business is profitable and it's really working, so we have no worries financially. We're just mindful with the current economy that people may decide not to have their weekend stays and margins will become a bit tighter so we need to protect ourselves."

One way is to invest for the future in terms of looking at ways the business can become net zero, be it by installing solar panels on the roof and reducing plastic usage in the kitchen. The site already has a hot composter which can produce up to 16 tonnes of compost from food waste per year. "There are a lot of things we're thinking about that will help with energy bills, but we're also very conscious of the world in which we are bringing our kids up in," he says.

The Glebe House experiences is another way the pair hope to improve margin by encouraging guests to spend that little bit more – from bread and pasta making to mackerel fishing and a twilight dinner on the beach, as well as vineyard tours, introduction to salumi and art classes. Currently a lot of locals take up the experiences, and operationally, Hugo says it's been hard to get into a rhythm. But with Olive's hand in the marketing and running of the events, they hope to offer more packages where the experience will entice guests to stay, rather than suggesting an experience after guests have booked in.

With further cabins on the grounds and potential barn conversions, Glebe is very much an ongoing project. And while Hugo admits he sometimes misses London – mostly for the restaurants – he and Olive are content with creating a special escape for visitors to Devon, while bringing up their two children in their little pocket of the countryside, living la dolce vita.

About Sam Lomas

Sam started his career in 2013 when he won an apprenticeship with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage, where he was involved in the production of several River Cottage cookery books, such as River Cottage Light and Easy as well as Gill Meller's Pig's and Pork handbook and Steve Lamb's Smoking and Curing.

After leaving River Cottage Sam established Tide/Llanw, an outdoor café on the Isle of Anglesey with the Anglesey Sea Salt Company, which gained a place in The Good Food Guide. In 2021 he moved to Devon to become head chef at Glebe House and has since competed in Great British Menu in 2022, beating off three other chefs in the North West heat to become the youngest chef to reach the finals, alongside Adam Handling, Sally Abé and Spencer Metzger. Earlier this year he also reached the finals of the 2023 Roux Scholarship competition.

Rye loaf

  • 500g rye flour
  • 200g active rye sourdough starter
  • 12g salt
  • 500g water
  • 1tbs coriander seeds
  • 1tbs caraway seeds

In a large bowl mix together the starter and water, then add in the rye flour, salt, coriander and caraway seeds. Mix the sloppy mixture together until really well combined. Because rye flour is low in gluten it won't feel stretchy or soft.

Next grease a large baking tin with a little olive or sunflower oil and then dust the tin heavily with rye flour. Scrape the rye dough into the tin and sprinkle it with another dusting of flour. Now leave the mix to prove for about two hours at room temperature, or until it increases by a third in volume.

Preheat your oven to 200°C and bake for 40 minutes. To test whether the bread is cooked tip the loaf out of its tin and listen for a hollow sound on the base of the loaf when tapped.

When the bread is baked place it on a cooling rack. Wait for a minimum of an hour before tucking in because cutting the bread too soon will make the loaf stale much quicker. Your rye bread will last a minimum of a week in the bread bin.

Olive Guest on art and design

"I worked with one of my best friends who is an interior designer to design Glebe, she totally got what I wanted, and I was a bit overwhelmed about the thought of doing up a house. I know about art, but finding good art is a totally different thing than knowing how to source fabrics. But I feel so much more confident with that sort of thing now. It's been really fun painting wardrobes and panels – originally I was going to get a decorative artist to do it, but I tried doing it myself and I thought it's quite a nice thing to do to make it exactly how you want it to look. We've always had a clear vision of what we wanted. Hugo is really involved in that side of things as well. He loves it and we both love going shopping for antiques and we've both got quite addicted to finding things on Facebook Marketplace.

"Our plans are to build some more cabins on the grounds which I'll design, plus hopefully convert some of our barns into more usable spaces, where we hope to grow our experiences. Our style is quite eclectic, we're quite maximalist, and I'm influenced by Charleston House in East Sussex, it's just so beautiful there and knowing every object has had so much love poured into it and everything is handmade and thought through. I wanted to inject some of that spirit into Glebe and I didn't know of any other hotels or B&Bs like that.

"I grew up in an artistic family, and painting has always been a big part of my life. I use oil paints and mixed media myself, and I work with local artists to showcase and sell their pieces – and we're selling around a painting every week, which doesn't sound massive, but if it's an £800 painting it's not insignificant. And especially around Christmas they were flying off the walls – literally. That's become quite a lot of my job, making sure there are no gaps on the walls and everything looks great. My goal for the future is to do more residencies and for Glebe to become somewhere for artists to come and be inspired.

"I love the fact that Glebe was never going to be one of those places where we just did the design and ‘tick', move on. I love the way it looks and changes with the seasons, whoever is walking through the door, the different artists we meet and work with is ever evolving."

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