There’s no two ways about it, Ockenden Manor in Cuckfield, East Sussex is one of our favourite hotels. Just a short taxi ride from Haywards Heath station with its direct line from London Victoria or Brighton it is a great destination for a luxurious overnight stay – or preferably longer!
The hotel is part of the splendid small Historic Sussex Hotels group, in turn part of the Pride of Britain Hotels, both renowned for elegance and comfort.
Period or Modern style rooms
At Ockenden Manor the bed rooms are either in the original house, dating back to Elizabethan times, or above the spa a couple of minutes’ walk away from the house. Choose your preferred style – charming period rooms in the old building or more modern but equally charming purpose-built Spa rooms.
We loved the pretty mugs and tea pot on the hospitality tray.
The heavy door of the main building’s porch opens onto a reception area made even more welcoming by fresh flowers and newspapers on a side table.
Leading off from the corridor is a cosy bar and drawing room, a panelled private dining room and most importantly for foodies – the restaurant. (Incidentally food is also served in the Spa.)
Dinner that night was an absolute treat
It was the food and beverages that had once again lured us to Ockenden that spring weekend. The restaurant is under the direction of award-winning, and very charming, Head Chef Stephen Crane.
Stephen insists on knowing as far as possible the provenance of his ingredients and believes in supporting his local suppliers to the utmost.
Dinner that night was an absolute treat.
Wines from the Albourne Estate
Wine was supplied by the Albourne Estate, which later we were to discover would play another important role in our introduction to Ockenden Manor’s food suppliers. Albourne Estate at Albourne in West Sussex is a family run venture – a small wine producer with just over 26 acres of vines.
Delicious whites and a sparkling red
Their wines include a deliciously light, refreshing frizzante and a still white wine; both endearing themselves to me because not so far back in my family history we share the name of the grape – Bacchus.
Not that we can take any credit for producing that grape varietal. It is actually of German origin and obviously does really well in English soil and climate.
The fork-tender lamb was complemented by a sparkling Albourne Pinot Noir – Rosé de Noirs 2015. This glorious rich, fruity, red wine certainly had my vote.
New to Albourne Estate is the production of vermouth – 40 Vermouth. Maybe not to everybody’s taste and I confess to approaching it cautiously. But after a sip or two this semi-dry vermouth had won me over.
It is highly aromatic – think spices, citrus and herbs. It is said to go well with strong cheese, cured meats or dried fruit. I liked it on the rocks.
Why the ‘40’? The 40 are the herbs, spices and citrus peels that go into it.
By the way the Albourne Estate offer bookable tours most Saturdays May – Sept, and the tasting room is open on Saturdays between 2pm and 5pm (not 3 Aug) until 21 Sept.
High Weald Dairy cheese
The vermouth would probably go well with one of the award-winning cheeses from High Weald Dairy. Maybe their Tremains Organic – a cheddar-style hard cheese with a tantalising bite to its strong flavour?
High Weald Dairy started in the ‘80s with a flock of sheep providing milk for a local cheese maker. In time the dairy began using the milk themselves for their own cheese and yoghurt and in 2003 moved the cheese production to larger premises at Tremains Farm, Horsted Keynes.
Award-winning cheeses and a cheese making course
They now also produce cow and goat cheese. The cow’s milk both regular and organic is locally produced whilst the sheep milk comes from an organic flock in Dorset.
They offer a wide range of truly excellent cheese made from pasteurised milk all of which are suitable for vegetarians which includes ricotta to halloumi, feta to cheddar style , soft to hard, and blue to chilli hot.
Apart from making cheese owners Mark and Sarah also run one day cheese making courses. Our introduction was certainly informative and fun. Apart from a homemade lunch, cheese tasting and a tour of the dairy, participants (no more than eight at a time) learn to make a soft and hard cheese to take home.
Bee-Friend the Bees
Dessert at Ockenden had been described on our ‘Bee-Friend the Bees’ menu as a ‘Bee Urban Honey Tart’. It sounded intriguing. Not only was it intriguing it was also delicious combining flavours of passion fruit with coconut sorbet and honeycomb.
Instruction in bee keeping
Our next visit to a supplier was to learn more about the bees, or their colleagues, that had played such a crucial role in our dessert.
Albourne Estate is not only home to the single estate vineyard wines that we had enjoyed so much at dinner, it is also home to several bee hives. The next day suitable kitted out in protective clothing our bee keeper for the morning, Amy Newsome, escorted us past the vines to a sheltered part of the estate.
Bees essential for life
Carefully and gently Amy demonstrated her love for these little creatures so essential for life and our existence on this fragile planet.
As she demonstrated handling the frames, pointing out the Queen Bee and checking the health of the hive she chatted away about bees and their lives.
I hadn’t realised that the busy, industrious, little creatures forage in a three mile radius from the hive. The queen, she told us, usually lives for three to four years, her colony can contain thousands of bees, and they can produce their coveted honeycomb, depending on size, within a week or so. It is sobering to learn that one third of all the food we eat is pollinated by bees, and honey is the only food containing all the enzymes, vitamins, minerals, etc necessary to sustain life.
Hiver and Honey Beer
Honey, we were later to learn from the onsite Hiver Experience, can also play an interesting role in the production of beer – the honey is used as a brewing ingredient in the fermentation process, rather than as a flavouring.
And Hiver are experts in honey beer, truly delicious beer too. The brewing process gives a very subtle aroma and flavour to the beers. We sampled a honey blonde, a honey ale and a honey IPA. All are available in cans or bottles. Maybe the honey blonde was my favourite, but I’m really not sure. They were all good.
At Albourne Estate the Hiver Experience also includes a beer tasting and a food matching session as well as the fascinating introduction to bee-keeping.
Ockenden Manor along with its sister Historic Sussex Hotels are true champions and exponents of the field to fork movement, and long may they continue; the Flavours of Sussex are truly superb.