The latest chapter in the history of the restaurant at Gravetye Manor - one of the UK's most legendary country house hotels - is focused around the kitchen garden.
And it is entirely appropriate that should be so. When Peter Herbert originally opened the Elizabethan property in West Hoathly, West Sussex, as an 18-bedroom hotel in 1958, he set about the restoration of the extensive grounds - including the one-acre kitchen garden - originally designed by William Robinson.
In February 2010, fund manager and enthusiastic customer Jeremy Hosking bought the property with a view to reverse the gradual decline that had taken place on the 1,000-acre estate in recent times. Earlier this year, the hotel closed for three-and-a-half months to allow for a £2.5m overhaul of the property, while outside, work began on what will be a five-year project to recreate Robinson's garden.
Since the reopening, executive chef Rupert Gleadow has introduced a menu that reflects the fresh approach taken to the sympathetically designed new interior and more contemporary approach to service.
CHANGE WITHOUT CHANGE
"We have introduced ‘change without change'," explains Gleadow. "There is not a dramatic alteration to the look of the hotel, but it is lighter, and so is our food. We have moved away from the classic French cuisine Gravetye was always known for and introduced a simpler British menu which reflects the great flavours we are growing in the garden."
A starter dish of carpaccio of Hereford beef, garden carrots and horseradish dressing, which appears on the table d'hote dinner menu, is typical of this approach. The sweet, earthy flavoured carrots in three guises - lightly cooked chunks, crisp ribbons and a velvety purée - provide contrasting textures, which work well with the superbly flavoured beef.
From the à la carte menu, the pan-fried south coast John Dory main course, with the accompanying organic tomatoes, fennel and orange salad and thyme oil, is the epitome of the light approach.
A dish of Southdown lamb - the rump and sweetbread served with braised turnips, fresh peas and eucalyptus - was conceived following a meal Gleadow enjoyed at David Everitt-Matthias's Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham.
"We've spent a lot of time balancing the flavours to achieve a subtle flavour of eucalyptus in a foam, which is used in place of the more traditional mint. If you overdo it, the dish ends up tasting of toothpaste."
A lightness of touch is also required for one of the desserts - English strawberry and bubblegum millefeuille, marshmallow and rice pudding ice-cream.
"The feedback for this dish has been excellent - probably because the flavours take the customer straight back to their childhood," adds Gleadow.
Average spend on the à la carte menu, with wine is £45 to £50 at lunch and £85 to £90 at dinner, including service and VAT, while the table d'hote menu is £25 for three courses at lunch and £37 at dinner. A seven-course tasting menu costs £65, with coffee and truffles at an extra £4.
However, it is the introduction of the Garden Menu, available from 10am to 10pm, which reflects a key change in the welcome Gravetye now provides to customers. Classic Caesar salad (£6), wild mushroom risotto with broad beans, peas and black truffle shavings (£15), and warm dark chocolate fondant, toffee sauce and marmalade ice-cream (£8), are just a few of the dishes on offer.
"In the past you would have had to have a reservation to eat at the hotel and it would probably have only been for a special occasion," says Amy Gleadow, Rupert's sister and general manager of the hotel.
"Now we are far more flexible and relaxed about how our guests eat, what they eat and when they eat it. We still want people to come for birthdays and anniversaries, but also want them to just show up and enjoy this beautiful and historic setting over a plate of smoked salmon and a glass of wine."
The new approach appears to be paying off - turnover for both the bedrooms and food and beverage is up 30% year-on-year since the refurbishment, with 10 to 15 unbooked covers often arriving each day.
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE A LA CARTE MENU
(£55 for three courses)
â- Warm salad of quail, baby spring onion, plum and gribeche dressing
â- Tartare of sea trout and smoked salmon, beetroot purée and wasabi sorbet
â- Roast breast of Gressingham duck, confit leg bon bons, curly kale, golden beetroot, lapsang souchong sauce
â- Line-caught fillet of wild sea bass, seared baby squid and pequillo pepper salsa
â- Ibérico ham-wrapped pork fillet, Savoy cabbage, Chantenay carrots, sage and onion
â- "Black Forest Gateau": cherry jelly, kirsch ice-cream, moist chocolate sponge
â- Pressing of white peaches, apricot ice-cream, watermelon and caramel espuma
â- Tartare of pineapple and local blackcurrant jelly, lychee sorbet, coconut and artisan biscuits
Vowels Lane, West Hoathly, West Sussex RH19 4LJ
Tel: 01342 810567