In fact, it is good form to utter things like:
"Oh yeah, my shed is just as big as this. If not bigger. I call it my 'Ginger Orangery'."
"See you've only got five different types of kale on the go there then....*stretch, yawn*.....I grew six varieties last year."
"Ha, your rhubarb is looking a bit shabby! Oh........oh that's chard is it?......Yeah...... yeah, well I knew that."
Because when it comes to gardening and growing fruit and vegetables, one-upmanship is very important. I learnt that from my time down at Norfolk Road. No matter how good your neighbour's plot is doing, never ever let on, never ever compliment and always hide your jealousy. Especially if your turnips are looking a bit shit.
This was the course of action I took when Head gardener Alex Coutts led me and some others around for a peek in the kitchen garden at The Pig Hotel in Brockenhurst, Hampshire just recently. Despite being in that fallow period, when the season is beginning to wake up, with shoots and leaves only just starting to peep through, there was still a lot going on. Overwintered veg such as the aforementioned kale were all swaying gently in the breeze. Clumps of vibrant purple sprouting broccoli, trumpeted skywards; along with a plethora of salads, rows spiky with mizuna and billowing mustard greens. Cages kept and protected a whole host of berry bushes, still dormant but on the cusp of erupting green, and then later into scarlet, white and black. Under glass, there was an indulgence of aromatic herbs to pluck, taste and smell. And underpinning it all, in the background, came a gentle hum from the bee hives, workers getting ready for a buzzy summer ahead.
I am being wistfully over the top here by the way. Don't panic, you've not tuned into Gardener's Question Time. But I have to admit though, the whole set up was very impressive. So much so, that as Alex proudly yet quietly showed us the fruits of his labour (not forgetting that from his team), it was a struggle to keep the ol' green eyed monster in me subdued. To this day, I still wonder if he noticed me kicking over a pot of sorrel in the greenhouse.
|Purple sprouting broccoli, carrots and pots, kaffir lime tree|
The main drive for all this horticultural effort is of course to service the kitchen at The Pig, which makes a much louder bang on the saucepan lid when it comes to promoting local food. If it can't be sourced from the garden next door, then the chefs will venture no further than a 25 mile radius to get hold of their ingredients and there was a tacit admission that this was largely the case. On the menu, all their suppliers are shown dotted around the surrounding Hampshire countryside. Considering that Dorset and the Isle of Wight also falls within the shadow of that extended doorstep, they have one hell of a larder to choose from.
The Pig describes itself as a 'restaurant with rooms' and the big draw for our visit was lunch but before settling down, there was a brief scooch around the place, to have a look at their pristine bathrooms and to have a bounce on a bed or two. Which I did, delivering that raised eyebrows and slightly pursed-lipped expression you should give when testing beds in department stores. As one blogger has already said, it is all very shabby and charming at The Pig, delivering a cosy home-from-home vibe. And though I felt a little uneasy that the hotel possibly attracts one too many Tabithas and Timothys ("Oh we're orf to that farntarstic little place in Hampshire this weekend darling") the overall feeling I got was that this would be a lovely and fairly inexpensive bolt-hole to escape to. Away from the all hustle and bustle, and most importantly, away from the kids. I'd spend most of my time in the bar I think, looking at all the beautiful vintage glassware. Whilst getting slowly pissed on the 32 bottles of Chase vodka I spotted under a window, quietly infusing away.
|Hotel, booze, bar|
The dining room itself is, again, all in keeping with the general tempo of The Pig. Divided into two spaces, with muddled, bashed up furniture and all light and airy, and it was already pretty busy with outside trade too. A good sign for a restaurant that is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. However, a quick scan through the reasonably priced menu soon revealed why. It was all seasonal, as you would expect but inventive enough to cause a furrowed and excited brow or two. Lots of pickles, lots of curing and best of all, lots of meat. The fish and vegetarian options looked really good too, don't get me wrong and I was tempted to ask the waiter whether the dishes from the 'literally picked this morning' part of the menu were like, quite literally picked. Like this morning. Literally. But my eyes pinged and focused mostly at the offerings of meat.
|Bread, restaurant, mint drinks|
To start me on my carnivorous journey then, I had the hay smoked Marwell Manor oxtail with dragon tongue rocket and preserved lemon, which on first impression looked a tad untidy or a cover up. But a quick dig through the peppery foliage soon dispelled my fears. To describe the beef as melting and tender would be too obvious so lets go for um, evanescent and ah....frangible.....no, sod the thesaurus, it really was oh so melting and tender in the mouth. With just a hint of hay and a slight citrus shock now and then, to cut through the richness, this unassuming mess was gorgeous to eat. The gravy or 'jus' mopped up lovely too, with hunks of handsome bread.
|Hay smoked Marwell Manor oxtail with dragon tongue rocket and preserved lemon|
Anyway, the waiter delivered this farking huge pig's jaw to the table, with teeth protruding and all, and it took me a few minutes to work how I was going to eat it. Once I prised the crackling off, and that alone was tremendous and crunchy, I was soon picking away at delicious and succulent porcine flesh. A little nibble of lush cheek here, a chewier bite of roasted meat there, a smattering of grease on my eyebrows and it was done. It was, in short, lip smacking, and awesome; and very, very filling indeed. I very nearly left the accompanying fartichokes but managed to squeeze them in, along with some nice tobacco tainted onions. I did have it mind to ask for the cleaned jaw, to take home to show the children. But it was whisked away rather niftily, possibly destined for a dog somewhere, maybe a dog named Colin.
But Alex is going to find out about that pot now. So I best return, make amends and replace it, and try not to get so jealous in future.
|Spa hut, coals and bottles|
|The 'original' Pig|