Gravetye Manor – Friday 28 June 2019
We celebrated my Mum’s 89th with lunch at Gravetye a little over two years ago. Mrs Cheoff and I have since experienced Gastronomic Gravetye on my birthday. In between those two events I spent one glorious day pretending to help in the kitchens and I had an equally magnificent invitation to a rare George Blogg ‘Masterclass’.
We decided that our latest visit would be a repeat of the first - except that it would be a lunch taken in the flush of summer.
“Quintessential country house hotel, Michelin-starred dining and world renowned garden.”
The Gravetye Twitter bio sums it up really. Your interest has been piqued and you just need to book now. No need for me to elaborate, eh.
Strap in - you know I don’t give up that easily!
A now familiar drive saw us crunch safely onto the gravel of what is surely the most welcoming of Sussex car parks. Only the embarrassing offer of valet parking to negotiate. I handed over the keys with a large grimace and offered the guilty admission that I had washed the bodywork but neglected the interior valeting before setting off.
How Do Their Gardens Grow?
Best to work up an appetite for lunch with a stroll outside. Any season at Gravetye demands this. Our day needed nothing but light attire. English summer means English summer here. Instructions for the easiest way to the elevated walled vegetable garden were followed and we were soon walking through its gates and exploring row upon row of vegetable, fruit and flower bounty.
The prospect of seeing so much of that produce appear in the dishes on our lunchtime menu was a glorious one. The kitchen here constantly take the freshest of ingredients and the finest inspiration from produce just outside their back door
Down to the croquet lawn. A smooth, manicured, controlled surface edged by wilder, longer grasses, complete with shy spikes of dainty pink common spotted-orchids. There are combinations and contrasts which challenge and excite everywhere in the Gravetye garden.
And, as we sat for a while in shade, Head Gardener Tom Coward brought a group from London College of Garden Design onto the green court to describe and explain elements of the William Robinson legacy which he and the garden team protect and develop with such skill and care.
Below Tom informs and entertains with his lovely quiet authority during one of the ‘Garden Tours’ which you may book here.
Snippets of his wisdom drifted across to us but we were less inclined to learn scientific names and continued down to the flower garden to bask in its displays through a mixture of our senses and wordless, wondering thoughts.
Beyond the south wall the meadow slopes down to the lake below. We walked to look over and take in yet another example of what happens when deliberate human interference and control goes only so far and then leaves nature to take over.
Many guests were scattered around the gardens taking refreshment. Passing by one particular couple we recognised Marcus and Jane Wareing who both once worked at Gravetye. Recognised only. We quietly moved on and left them to the less obtrusive and much more appropriate attentions of Gravetye staff. Besides, those attentions had already begun to be given to us in equal measure. Every guest is awarded a star here.
Just to the right before the opening into the Little Garden is a nook set out with bench and chairs and sheltered by that large-leaved tree. If only we had lingered with Tom Coward I could tell you its common and Latin name. Never mind.
We settled there and were soon ordering our first drinks. A repeat of the Ridgeview Estate ‘Bloomsbury’ fizz enjoyed on our first visit for Mum’s birthday lunch. A non-alcoholic ‘Sour’ for me as I was driving. Simple but seductively oily and herby olives along with smoked almonds all helped to prepare our taste buds for the complexity of the main menu. We made our choices and were gently led to our table in one of Britain’s most stunning dining rooms. If you relish great design, architecture, build quality, decorative arts and the sympathetic use of ceramics, wood and fabric you may well have to slow down service in order to linger on the feast of visual delight which has surrounded diners since the new restaurant opened in May 2018.
Food? The food was wonderful. And that is where I’ll end comment on it here. It was complicated and accomplished enough to deserve another post of its own. Too much distraction all at once would divert me from my main thrust here - the quality of people who make up the Gravetye family.
I cannot reference every member of the team who make up that family. There is a natural flux as individuals gain experience and decide to develop and grow elsewhere. Some are regular features (hello, Brian!). But five visits have confirmed to me that everyone responsible for our experiences presents with polished professionalism and a very real desire to do something thoughtful and generous for each guest.
I do try to avoid ‘favourites’ so all I’m doing next is to pick out two people who insist on being acknowledged. They are at the very top of their profession and Gravetye is daily enriched by their presence. Of course they do not, cannot, attend to every guest’s needs. But they, and other key members of the team, lead by such an example that everyone is in tune with the inspiration through excellence which they example.
‘Managing Director’. I suppose those two words suffice as a convenient job description for Andrew Thomason. He certainly manages and directs. But that can’t begin to encompass all he does. At some stage you will be looked after by him personally or ‘second-hand’ by someone he has prompted or trained effectively to be a chip off his not-yet-all-that-old block. His attention to detail spreads from a hand-written greeting for guests who have booked rooms to the quick remembering that a jacket in the cloakroom is ready for collection and not for forgetting. It is quite possible that he does not recall absolutely everything about you from any previous visits but I would not discount that. At any rate, he makes easy and immediate connections which confirm your small but very significant membership of the ‘Gravetye Family’.
Gravetye is inescapably a commercial enterprise and Andrew must have to be a hard-nosed businessman at times. I imagine he delivers even that aspect with the softest of touches. He appears to have a rare desire to care for the wellbeing and comfort of everyone he meets. Even his customary sharp tailoring cannot hide the gentle man beneath.
The kitchen have their Michelin star which is awarded for the quality of food alone. That star arrived soon after George Blogg became Head Chef. His present title confirms a step back from constant control. But, having himself been mentored by hugely intelligent and talented chefs, George has now trained and instilled a team with the confidence to express and interpret his thoughts about food and to continue to do justice to the produce of the Gravetye gardens. A recipient of the Matt Campbell Extra Mile Award, he continues to help young chefs to develop their careers in the industry’s other kitchens.
On this day our gooseberry soufflés were delayed by the arrival of an unexpected pre-dessert. After a quick double-take we realised that George Blogg was serving them to us! We managed to discuss the merits of ruby chocolate, the rigours of chef competitions and balancing time for the rewards of a life bringing up a family with those of a fulfilling but oh-so-demanding profession.
Our conversation was all but silenced by the realisation that someone else was being served their soufflés. We watched as, with an admirable degree of calm, Commis Pastry Chef, Henry, delivered his work to Marcus and Jane Wareing’s table. We earwigged for the review from a rather well-qualified judge - “I hope this is on the menu again next year for my 50th birthday!”
Soon, tasting our own gooseberry soufflé with ginger ice cream, we readily agreed that Chef Wareing’s appreciation had been spot on.
George had left us by then. His visit was such a kind gesture to our table. Mum, already delighted by her experience, was now utterly enchanted.
You will certainly leave wrapped in the richness of your experience. Whatever the season all those generous human qualities which create perfect hospitality are beautifully interwoven at Gravetye with a centuries-old history and the wild and the tamed nature of the surrounding garden and landscape. With so much on offer, you could also leave wondering if you might have overlooked and completely missed something in your stay. What a perfect reason to return.