The Pig, Brockenhurst
The New Forest was designated a National Park a few years ago, and not before time. “New” is a misnomer, as its darker corners contain stands of spectacular ancient woodland. Perhaps more importantly for a dining destination with aspirations, they also contain high concentrations of disposable income. The Pig, in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, was packed solid on the Tuesday evening we arrived – happy, glossy families, all Boden and Jack Wills, and a smattering of older chaps of military bearing, sporting blazers and martyred wives. The relaxed spirit of Babington House battles with the last stragglers of the Hampshire Rotarians, and it’s looking like a rout.
The dining room is probably one of the most charming I’ve sat in for a decade. It’s a huge conservatory plugged on to the side of the house, spacious and light, and as the sun sets over the croquet lawn and behind the cedar, it approaches sublime. The young staff, exemplars of friendly and knowledgeable service, fielded some admittedly mischievous questions about provenance and cuisson without hesitation or rancour.
“The 25 Mile Menu” (80 per cent of ingredients sourced within that radius) comes on a large sheet of recycled paper. The back is covered with descriptions of each supplier, their goods and their distance from the kitchen door. The claim that “everything on the menu is seasonal and local” is now so ubiquitous that we routinely ignore it, but The Pig earnestly offers evidence to back it up.
We began with a pork liver pâté and sourdough toast, a perfect example of doing something very simple very well. New season pea and smoked ham soup couldn’t quite pull off the same trick, being so full of rigorously extracted pork flavours and rich gelatin that any pea-ish freshness was smothered. Like the brittle blonde at the next table it was rich but obviously unbalanced. The pressed tongue and cheek, though, served with a stonking piccalilli and the pleasing challenge of a pickled egg, wrenched proceedings back on course.
The cooking at The Pig has a pedigree traceable through Hix and Soho House, a philosophy of robust handling of excellent quality British ingredients. With the main courses, though, the kitchen seemed to lose the courage of its convictions. A slow-roasted pork belly should be a cheap cut made yielding and soft by its cooking. It should collapse on the plate and look, frankly, messy. It’s blowsy, generous food. Trimming it to a smart rectangle and searing the outside might make it look more sophisticated, but it feels like it’s not in the spirit of the thing. It needs to melt, be very, very fatty and not look like it’s been doing Bikram in the sty.
The roast loin of venison from the nearby Beaulieu estate was lean, without a trace of gaminess, and moistened by a technically perfect juniper sauce. The smoked garlic mash was restrained in flavour and fiercely policed into smartness on the plate. It had the look of a traditional restaurant main course in a way that would silence any cavil at the reasonable price, but it somehow lacked a spark of joy.
OK. I admit, I’ve got a personal thing about garnishes. One of my first restaurant jobs was “prepping the garnitures” – heartbreaking little mounds of lettuce leaf, pinch of cress, lemon for the fish, tomato wedge for the steak. The chefs could grab one in the heat of service and use it to fill blank space next to the chips – space that, were the punters of a Bournemouth hotel in the 1980s ever to see it, would provoke worse scandal than the glimpse of an actress’s ankle a century before.
It’s why I still feel awkward about “microgreens”. Tiny leaves of immature plants don’t feel as if they were torn from the soil in the heart of the New Forest. Like the physalis of old, they’re out of context, a mimsy frippery, and I wish they weren’t there. That isn’t just a pet peeve, it sums up my only problem with The Pig. The food is brilliant, the room jaw-dropping and the chef, James Golding, extremely talented. There were just places where the presentation felt like it had net curtains and a doily in deference to the notional sensibilities of the locals.
If I could do one thing to The Pig it would be to encourage the chefs to take the brakes off. Food like that makes me want to dive into it with rude gusto, to celebrate its rich, rustic plenty. I reckon those well-dressed young families are up for it, and if you gave them half a chance, the old blokes in the blazers would be too.
Tim Hayward is editor of Fire & Knives and the FT’s regular restaurant critic in Nicholas Lander’s absence.
Beaulieu Road, Brockenhurst, Hampshire SO42 7QL
01590 622354; www.thepighotel.co.uk
Open for lunch 12–2.30pm Mon–Sat, 12–3pm Sun, and dinner 7–10pm daily