Jeff Cooper visits this special Elizabethan Manor, where food provenance and a friendly service prevail
Combe House Devon is currently closed for refurbishment. It will reopen in 2016 with the new name 'The Pig at Combe'.
It’s people like Ken and Ruth Hunt, proprietors of the award-winning Combe House in Gittisham, that make my job an absolute pleasure. Not only because you are spoilt rotten when you visit this beautiful Elizabethan Manor set in 3,500 acres of picturesque countryside, but because the couple really understand what it means to source locally and support Devon.
Using their own vegetables and local suppliers to create delicious dishes, restoring their Victorian kitchen gardens, making their own jam, scones, chocolates, bread (and soon artisan loaves), are just a handful of ways in which the couple embrace the all-familiar ethos of cutting back the food miles and looking to the county to stock their larder. Apart from cheese, everything is homemade at Combe House.
“We think in food metres, not miles” laughs Ruth, whose warm welcome and enthusiasm were evident on first meeting her, as we were taken on a guided tour of the kitchen gardens before dinner. Ken and Ruth have concentrated on re-stocking the vegetable plots over the past couple of years. The plots are nurtured by Head Gardener Charlie O’Reilly and supply the restaurant with around 70% of its requirements. “We asked the chefs what they wanted us to grow, and we now have a supply of fresh, seasonal vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers,” Ken explains.
As my wife and I were led through the beautiful walled gardens on the bright summer’s evening we visited, we asked Ken, who was busy watering what was no doubt about to be served on our plates, what was growing. “There are turnips, beetroot, radishes and artichokes – Jerusalem and globe,” he said. Ruth pointed out a greenhouse where strawberries and vines are growing and said that the restored vine dates from the 1800s. My wife noticed bundles of sweet williams and roses piled on the table in the pantry, which Ruth says attracts all-important bees and butterflies and helps cut down her costs and ‘miles’ the flowers travel.
It’s no surprise that the couple have won a string of awards: Devon’s Hotel of the Year 2010, Most Excellent Innovation in Sustainable Hospitality and most recently Best Green Marketing Initiative in the Considerate Hotel of the Year Awards.
We sat down to dinner in one of three dining areas with views of the mile-long drive and green pasture. Ruth explained that when updating the property, keeping reminders of its past was important. In this room the walls are covered with a painting of scenes depicting the house and gardens by a mother and daughter who lived here years ago. “Why would we want to white wash over that?” Ruth asked. Huge fireplaces, the Georgian kitchen, great hall and flagstone floors add to the house’s character. The result is a lived-in feel that has developed over the years.
We ordered from the table d’hote menu dreamt up by Master Chefs Hadleigh Barrett and Stuart Brown and, as Combe House has such an extensive wine cellar, we left our wine choice in the capable hands of the sommelier. After canapés, then cleansing our palates with a tangy amuse bouche of chilled beetroot soup, I chose the sweet scallops with cauliflower and coconut to start, while my wife had treacle-cured salmon, presented with pea-sized portions of avocado puree. My tender lamb and polenta main course was only exceeded by my wife’s exclamation that her velvety sea bass with crushed potatoes and asparagus was the best she’s had. Our desserts – my dark chocolate delice and my wife’s espresso parfait – were equally pleasing to look at and taste. We relaxed in the bar with coffee and Combe’s own chocolates, reluctant to leave.
Always seeking to better their service, Ruth described her latest project: “We bake our own bread for the restaurant but we plan to start baking artisan loaves from the kitchen for guests to buy,” she said.
Whether you are dining, staying, getting married, having a cream tea, or a meeting, coming here you are transported to another era, but with the warmth and hospitality of friendly hosts, who genuinely want you to have a wonderful time. And that we did. An unforgettable evening, in unforgettable surroundings.
Published 20 June 2011
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