Andrew Thomason is the 62-year-old managing director of Gravetye Manor, the 17-bedroom hotel with a Michelin starred restaurant attached, that occupies 35 acres (14 ha) within the 1,000 acres managed by the William Robinson Trust in the heart of Sussex, the trust being named for the famous Victorian gardener who did so much for this historic property.
Sun poured in through the windows on to the wood-panelled drawing room as two of the six part-time florists he employs busily rearranged the vases full of spring flowers. Having described himself as a ‘restaurateur at heart but a hotelier by default’, he continued, ‘But what I am most proud of is that we have just closed last year’s accounts. Our turnover was £3.3 million and I believe that the hotel might have made a small profit.’ Thomason permitted himself a large smile.
This is a very different situation from five years ago when Gravetye was in administration. With the death of Peter Herbert, the professional hotelier who had nurtured it since 1958, it was facing a very uncertain future when a long-term guest, fund manager Jeremy Hosking, stepped in. His substantial investment has been an obvious factor in the hotel’s renaissance but so too has been a decision taken by Thomason, and enabled by the hiring of George Blogg as head chef in August 2014, to put a different emphasis on what Gravetye stands for and to re-emphasise the importance of its restaurant.
‘The hotel side has always been limited by the number of rooms and the fact that demand is so seasonal’, Thomason explained. ‘For seven, perhaps eight months of the year we can barely cope but the rest of the year it is effectively a “dark zone” when few choose to stay overnight despite the fact that Gatwick airport is only a 20-minute drive away. Our restaurant stood empty. So we brought in Celine Leslie as our marketing manager, hired George as our chef, and when he was ready we contacted the local newspaper.’
On the basis of a reader offer an article appeared and the turnaround was swift. In the year just finished, the restaurant served 27,000 meals. A wedding breakfast had just been winding down when we arrived the previous evening, with a further 60 booked for lunch after we left. Reader offers have now become part and parcel of the hotel’s make-up, although it is increasingly focused on food and wine. The ever-improving quality of English wines, several produced from vineyards nearby, is championed by sommelier Sean Arthur and his equally enthusiastic Polish deputy Michal Gielas.
The location,the celebrated informal gardens and the presence of Tom Coward, whose role as head gardener is even acknowledged on the menu, have all inspired Blogg to lift his creativity to new heights. And the menus that he has written are a joy both to read and to listen to, both of which pleasures I managed to enjoy.
The former took place at 7.30 pm in the calm of the hotel’s drawing room with a glass of fino sherry and a glass of 2010 Chassagne from Bernand Moreau in hand. I was struck by the menu’s careful words; the colourful combination of protein, vegetables, herbs and spices each conjured up; and the fact that together they promised far more than each on their own. Jancis ordered the scallops as much for its miso glaze and accompanying kohlrabi, while I was intrigued by the pickled pear and a crisp made from black truffle pig’s ear that came with the braised port cheek, an unusual but, ultimately, very tasty combination. The same principle dictated our main courses. It was as much for the cuttlefish, ink macaroni, celery hearts and gem lettuce that I ordered the poached brill while the presence of fermented turnip, sprouts, Morteaux sausage and preserved blackberries were as big an attraction for Jancis as the squab pigeon.
All of this, and more, we subsequently listened to in the intimate dining room. We were just finishing our first courses when a couple were shown in to the next table, handed their menus and aperitifs, and proceeded to read out every single dish to each other. It was rather charming to hear particularly the wife’s voice resound with surprise at some of Blogg’s dishes. I could not help but overhear a considerable note of indecision. Should she or he choose the guinea fowl with pak choi, caramelised cauliflower and mead sauce? Or the haunch of local venison with baked pumpkin and a Chartreuse sauce?
The arrival of our main courses returned my attention to what we had ordered, as did the increasingly attractive aromas of the 2009 Nuits-St-Georges La Charmotte from Thibault Liger-Belair (£95). Its appetising sweetness even matched a rhubarb soufflé and a slightly overworked blood-orange posset.
Gravetye Manor seems happily in the best of hands. Only one aspect of our meal bothered me and that was the obvious and significant age gap in the dining room between that of the customers and that of the young, enthusiastic waiting staff. When I put this to Thomason, he acknowledged the issue but said that they were working on it. ‘I don’t believe that with the hotel’s wifi, there is a better place to sit, work and enjoy a gin and tonic than in our garden.’
Gravetye Manor Vowels Lane, West Hoathly, Sussex RH19 4LJ tel +44 (0)1342 888644