Transferring the bounty from the kitchen garden to the plate is the inspiration for head chef George Blogg
Herb-crusted saddle of lamb, roasted garlic, haggis, spinach and mint jellies
If you attend too many London restaurant launches, with their small plates, filament lightbulbs and tattooed staff, it's something of a shock to suddenly encounter Villeroy & Boch Petite Fleur crockery.
It could almost feel wrong, but it completely suits the 16th-century Gravetye Manor, with its quintessentially English grounds shaped by Victorian gardener William Robinson. It is here that George Blogg, formerly of Hotel TerraVina in Hampshire, has spent the past year as head chef, and he is far more interested in a sense of time and place than in fashion.
That's particularly important when you consider that the restaurant is more closely linked to its surroundings than many thanks to the abundance of produce generated by Gravetye's kitchen garden. There can be few to match it, and when The Caterer visits, it is heaving with produce, from strawberries to currants to brassicas, all grown by the eight full-time gardeners.
It takes a particular type of chef to exploit a resource like this fully, as Blogg explains: "It's easier not to use a kitchen garden. If you buy a bunch of leeks from a supplier, they are clean and washed and all the same size. But here you never know what is going to come. You might think you are going to get a crop of tomatoes in two weeks and then find they have got some sort of fly, or a frost, so it is really important for the gardeners that my menu is flexible."
Now there are just two sets of menus - those for the restaurant, and an all-day "garden and lounge menu", running from 10am to 10pm for all other parts of the hotel.
When it comes to the restaurant menus there's a two-, three- or four-course lunch option, the Á la carte at £65 and a tasting menu at £85.
He keeps the lunch menu simple, at £30 for three courses, with starters like wild garlic and garden potato soup, or mains of Sussex pork belly, pomme purée, roast apple, garden brassicas and pork sauce. "At lunchtime, people come here because they want to wander around the garden. They don't want me to try and wow them," he says.
The Á la carte and tasting menu, meanwhile, are certainly more accessible, if not necessarily simpler. "I spend a lot of time making sure the menus read well - I am trying to get rid of the French terminology," he says.
Few dishes could express what Blogg aims to achieve better than the Gravetye summer garden salad with confit hen's yolk, leaves and marinated young vegetables - the one dish he feels "really represents us". He explains:
"It probably sounds a bit boring, but it has about 30 ingredients in it - it's anything we have in the garden, so it changes all the time."
Everywhere there are indications of the produce at Blogg's disposal - such as the squab pigeon (from France) with smoked mashed potato and baby beetroot and bronze fennel with anise jus, or the Hendrick's gin and tonic sorbet with cucumber, pistachio sponge and sorrelade (using foraged sorrel).
But does he ever feel straitjacketed by the near exclusive use of Gravetye produce? Not at all, he says. "Because your list of ingredients is tiny, it makes you do things that you wouldn't normally do and it writes the menu for you. It drives my creativity because I have a smaller ingredient base," he explains.
With a restaurant space of 35 covers and private dining rooms that can bring that up to 55, Blogg hopes to build something special, but recognises he is only at the start of that journey. Eventually, he hopes that the kitchen team will grow to 17-18 people, with eight or nine chefs on at any given time.
"Gravetye has been around for so long that it doesn't need to be fashionable. I am not using flowers because it is cool, but because we are growing them. Villeroy and Boch Petite Fleur is very old-school and in London it would look like your grandma's kitchen, but here it works," he says. "For me, it is perfect here.
I was born in Dorset and love the countryside. I have worked in London and Manchester, but this is where I want to be."
Gravetye Manor, Vowels Lane,West Hoathly, Sussex RH19 4LJ
Foie gras, Madeira jelly, almond brioche and caramelised orange
From the menu
- Flaked Dorset cock crab, creamed brown crab meat and Jersey Royal potato salad, baerii caviar and cucumber
- Heritage tomatoes and ewe's cheese, muscovado cured pork, tomato consommé cloud and basil cress
- Poached south coast lemon sole, cuttlefish, ink macaroni, celery hearts and charred lettuce
- Seared loin steak of aged beef, summer greens, braised snails, leeks and bone marrow juice.
- Guanaja chocolate pave, roasted chicory root ice-cream and cocoa nib crisps
- Amalfi lemon posset, strawberries, lemon verbena and elderflower