With family living in Dorset Anna Hyman had driven through the New Forest many times to reach them. And that was the problem; on the whole she had never stopped long enough to investigate this wonderful National Park with its wealth of attractions, gorgeous scenery, to say nothing of the famous ponies which graze there.
There’s a lot to see in the New Forest
A little research revealed that there are over 190,000 acres of woodland, some 26 miles of coastline, delightful small towns and picturesque villages, fabulous gardens and a rich heritage dating back centuries in the New Forest.
Its history is fascinating. Mankind has been living there since before the Bronze Age. But it was not until 1079, or thereabouts, that it was given its name ‘the New Forest’ by William the Conqueror who designated it as an area for hunting.
However, it was not an interest in history that drew me to linger in the New Forest – it was the love of good food, for the New Forest is a food lovers’ paradise.
The Bell Inn proved to be a delight
The Bell Inn, in the tiny village of Brook, has been family owned since 1782. The ground floor is a delight of cosy corners, big fire places, comfy sofas and old beams, to say nothing of a welcoming and friendly bar. My room was elegantly, and comfortably, furnished and quickly became ‘home’; and the delightful, helpful staff became friends. I hated saying goodbye to them, especially Ellie and Tao.
From the beautifully cooked and served breakfasts to the delicious evening meals The Bell is a food destination in its own right. I would often be up early so I could savour the quiet, homely atmosphere of the breakfast room without noise and bustle whilst Tao bustled round bringing me my freshly cooked bacon, scrambled eggs and excellent toast.
Mark Young is passionate about cooking
The kitchen is under the direction of talented Head Chef Mark Young, who is passionate about good food, and as he puts it ‘nose to tail’ cooking, thereby ensuring that nothing is wasted. He is also a believer in using fresh, local produce.
If the Lymington crab brûlée is on the menu – go for it. It is absolutely delicious, as was the four-way Swallowfield pork. And come to think of it the passion fruit parfait was outstanding too.
A cookery lesson at Chewton Glen
Anybody seriously interested in cooking as well as food should include a visit to the Chewton Glen Cookery School.
Whether you are a serious cook, a beginner, adult or child there is a course for everybody. The school opened in 2017 and has a superb, fantastically equipped demonstration kitchen.
Rob Cottam is a great tutor
Chef Tutor Rob Cottam guided our class of about eight, all with varying cooking abilities.
Rob started with knife skills before demonstrating how to make a beetroot, goats cheese and truffle honey tart starter, followed by instruction on how-to-cook-the-perfect venison steak with a madeira sauce plus red cabbage, polenta and kale, and for dessert a sticky toffee pudding.
To accompany coffee he rustled up some Florentines.
Rob is a great tutor, making everybody feel at home and dispensing handy tips and advice as he demonstrated each part of the menu before sending us off to do our own cooking.
Help was always on hand for those of us who couldn’t even master how to turn on the hob or had forgotten what they should be doing from his two lovely colleagues Polly and Jan.
We ate our creations for lunch with a glass of excellent red wine – and jolly good it all was too – perfect dinner party creations.
A Grape & Grain Tour
It is not every day I find myself up to my elbows in minced pork. But then you never know quite what you will be doing or experiencing on a Grape & Grain Tour.
Grape & Grain Tours is owned by Joel Eastman and his aim is to introduce his guests to various food and beverage producers in the south of England. It is a task he undertakes with knowledge and enthusiasm.
Up to my elbows in sausage meat
The lesson in sausage making and charcuterie took place when we called in to Parsonage Farm – a small family run farm in the rolling northern Hampshire countryside.
John and Sarah Mills took over the family farm in 2000 and set about rearing and selling free range beef, pork and lamb. However, they no longer sell fresh meat concentrating instead on producing charcuterie, salami and air dried meats from their own livestock. I now know from experience that mixing several lbs of minced pork, seasonings and beer by hand is exceedingly hard work.
Apart from selling their produce to individuals and local restaurants John and Sarah run several workshops throughout the year. Classes are small so that individual tuition can be given – and on the whole day workshops, lunch is also included. We really enjoyed our morning session, and whilst I doubt any of us will ever put the knowledge to practical use we can quite see that if we ever decide to make our own sausages or charcuterie a Parsonage Farm course would be invaluable
Lunch at The Crown at Upton
We were a bigger group than usual so our workshop took place in the local country pub The Crown at Upton.
Following our lesson we sat round a huge table almost groaning under the weight of food-bearing platters for lunch. Along with a selection of different salami and chorizo made by Parsonage Farm – Sarah and John like to use local produce along with their own meat such as local watercress, gin and beer – we also ate a selection of incredibly delicious dishes from The Crown’s own kitchen under the direction of Head Chef Lewis Spreadbury.
I made a mental note that next time I am in the area it would have to include a meal at The Crown. I liked its rustic but chic and welcoming ambience, and having sampled Lewis’s cooking we can see why it is so popular. Much to my delight tucked round the corner I also found its farm shop selling local Hampshire produce.
Award-winning Hattingley Valley Vineyards
After lunch Joel escorted us to the award-winning Hattingley Valley Vineyards not far from Alresford for one of the most interesting and delicious tasting sessions I have ever experienced.
The vineyard was founded in 2008 and now covers some 60 acres. We were taken round by the charming Cláudia Lopes who explained the company’s wine making processes to us before we adjourned to the all-important tasting room.
New and traditional methods of production
She explained that the wines are made in the traditional method used for champagne and that a small amount of each years wine is put into oak barrels to ferment before being aged on lees in stainless steel tanks – a procedure which makes for a softer, finer bubble – before the wine is bottled for its second fermentation process.
Hattingley Valley has also invested in high tech machinery, including a disgorging machine which quickly and efficiently removes the dead yeast which has collected in the necks of the bottles. Less romantic, but far more time efficient than doing it by hand.
Red, white or rose, Hattingley Valley produce sparkling wines for every palate and occasion and also offer a delicious dessert wine and an Aqua Vitae. I liked them all!
Warm chocolate chip cookies at the DoubleTree by Hilton…
We spent a final night at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel on the edge of the New Forest, and a mere 10 minute from Southampton centre .
As we drove into the carpark I was overcome with a strong sense of déjà vu. Then I realised I had stayed there about 23 years ago. I liked it then, but in the intervening years a massive refurbishment programme had taken place. And very comfortable our overnight stay was too. The welcome goody bag of a warm chocolate chip cookie is a nice touch and much appreciated.
…and dinner at Chesil Rectory
Dinner that night was a splendid meal at the historic Chesil Rectory in Winchester’s city centre. The building itself dates back some 600 years and is a delight of beams, narrow stair ways and low ceilings.
But first, Twisted Nose gin
But before we adjourned to the ground floor dining room we congregated upstairs in the Merchant’s Lounge bar for a cocktail and to learn about the locally produced gin from the Winchester Distillery.
It’s called Twisted Nose.
The Winchester Distillery produces hand-made small batch premium spirits using, by and large, local botanicals – in this case the local watercress.
Watercress grows abundantly in the local clear chalk streams. Its botanical name is Nasturtium officinale (no relation to the colourful garden nasturtiums) and one of its old country names happens to be Twisted Nose.
Classic dishes with a modern twist
The Chesil Rectory’s Head Chef Damian Brown is a wizard in the kitchen creating delicious dishes from local produce –classic dishes with a modern twist. That night the likes of home-cured sea bream with a tangy mayonnaise and bacon crumb, melting pork belly and pear tart tatin with ice cream and caramel sauce were on the menu. The food along with the charming service definitely makes Chesil Rectory another ‘must return to’ venue.
The restaurant’s website bears the legend ‘Fresh Delicious Local Independent’. Fresh and delicious it most certainly was.
But to be honest – that pretty well sums up the whole foody experience of the New Forest – everywhere we had eaten the produce was, as far as possible local, certainly fresh, and oh boy it was delicious.
Chewton Glen Cookery Lesson: chewtonglen.com/the-kitchen
Grape and Grain Tours: grapeandgraintours.co.uk
Parsonage Farm : parsonage-farm.co.uk
Hattingley Valley Vineyards: hattingleyvalley.co.uk
Winchester Distillery: winchesterdistillery.co.uk