Gravetye Manor: Victorian kitchen garden inspires the best food

New head chef George Blogg at Gravetye Manor
New head chef George Blogg at Gravetye Manor
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Top chef George Blogg is in no doubt who determines what should be your ‘signature dish’.

And it’s not him.

“Signature dishes, no matter what any chefs say, are driven by the customers. It’s something that you’ve put on, and then when you take it off the menu for whatever reason, customers complain and say ‘oh I came back for the lamb, it was amazing last time’ and it’s so popular you’ve got to put it back on.”

Listening to the customer is vital as far as George is concerned.

That means serving food that is unpretentious and cooked to perfection from the best local produce available.

When it comes to serving the finest ingredients, he is spoilt for choice.

George has just taken over as the head chef at Gravetye Manor Hotel and Restaurant - this year’s AA Hotel of the Year for England.

Gravetye is a quintessential English country house set in 1,000 acres of rolling Sussex parkland with a history dating back to Elizabethan times.

Its 35 acres of gardens, carefully created by William Robinson over 50 years, are considered amongst the most influential in English gardening history. Flora and fauna is the theme within Gravetye Manor’s 17 bedrooms and suites too as each are named after tree species found on the estate with nods to the florals throughout the décor teamed with rich fabrics, fine antiques and hand crafted beds.

But what makes this property unique is its astonishingly diverse oval-walled Victorian kitchen garden which has been painstakingly brought back to the peak of its glory in the past few years.

It’s the produce from this garden and the historic glasshouses that determines what should be served - and as a result George changes the lunchtime menu every day.

George says that if he were to choose one element that made Gravetye supremely special it would be the kitchen garden. “Lots of places say they grow fruits and vegetables for their own kitchen but 90 per cent don’t have the capacity or the gardeners to come even close to supplying 20 per cent of produce that’s needed. There are only a very small number of places that can do it and we’re lucky enough to be coming the top of that list.”

Building a strong relationship between the food on the plate and the crops in the garden is fundamental to his philosophy.

But any changes will be implemented slowly.

“I think it’s very important to remember the heritage of Gravetye and to remember that people do want essentially classical based dishes. They’re classical for a reason and that’s because they work. I want the food to be a bit more natural, to focus on the kitchen garden obviously.”

George started working in a kitchen at the age of 15 washing up. “I’ve never been amazingly career minded. I stayed in education and did a degree in geology and then after that thought I would do a masters in geology. I’d paid for my education by working in restaurants, in hotels. Every summer holiday I would work full time in various kitchens and at the end of that I thought I’d rather be a chef than a geologist.”

After being awarded his Professional Cookery qualification George went on to work with Philip Howard at Mayfair’s Michelin-starred The Square before moving west to the two-starred Le Champignon Sauvage under David Everitt-Matthias and onwards to the New Forest’s Hotel Terra Vina. Throughout his career George honed his skills undertaking stages in some of the most world’s most famous kitchens including the likes of The Ledbury in Notting Hill, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire and Noma in Copenhagen – places that echo his own enthusiasm for using locally sourced and foraged produce.

But it’s more than a job - it’s a passion.

“At the moment I live on the estate which is great because I can devote all my time to it.”

In his view a great chef is one who cares. “And because you care about it and are passionate about it you try to make it the best you can.”

Despite his clear views and his propensity for total commitment to the job, he seems both relaxed and unassuming. Is he different in the kitchen? “I am quite fair. Brutally fair. But I don’t shout or swear!”

On behalf of the owners Jeremy and Elizabeth Hosking, Managing Director Andrew Thomason said: “We are absolutely thrilled that George has accepted the offer to run our kitchen at Gravetye Manor. George has a wealth of quality experience and joins a long line of fine chefs that have passed through our doors during the last 50 years. He will bring with him a style that is underpinned by classical roots combined with the skills learnt from his time with Phil Howard at the Square and David Everitt-Matthias at Le Champignon Sauvage. After winning AA hotel of the year for England, George’s appointment reinforces Gravetye Manor’s commitment to excellence in the luxury country house market.”

Our verdict

At £25 for two courses or £29.50 for three, the daily lunch menu represents spectacular value for money. The three course Sunday lunch is £35; and there is a full a la carte too.

The hotel is pristine having enjoyed sensitive and exquisite restoration under the current owners.

Good service has always been a hallmark of Gravetye and we were hugely impressed by the serving team, not least sommelier Sean, head waiter Gavin, and lounge and bar manager Joe.

Resident manager Kyle and managing director Andrew made us hugely welcome.

But the masterpiece was George’s cooking which must be heading toward that coveted Michelin star.

Even so soon after his arrival with a number of staff changes, it was already displaying the qualities of seeming simplicity; beautifully blended textures and tastes; while oozing the fresh tastes and tones of being grown on the estate.

We sampled both the set lunch menu and the a la carte.

Three highlights:

For starter - the ballotine of goose liver, wrapped in sherry jelly, adorned with garden flowers, roasted hazelnuts and salted grapes - with a tiny brioche loaf.

For main - the new sea bass dish served with garden courgettes. Courgette puree made from the outside of the vegetable with the centre baked and crushed to form an ecrasee. The red basil grown in the polytunnels heightened the taste, with razor clams and a tomato salsa with soft herbs adding to the perfection. It was very light, very simple - with no heavy carbohydrates to weight it down. The fish is caught on the south coast with a line.

For dessert - a simple raspberry soufflé with a raspberry and mint coulis and vanilla ice cream - both inserted within the soufflé at the table in highly theatrical style.

For more information visit www.gravetyemanor.co.uk or call 01342 810567