Bountiful Harvest Breakfast at Gravetye

Gravetye Manor Hotel is one of those wonderful hotel gems that you would rather not tell everybody about as you so want to keep it as a special secret for yourself. However, despite its many well-deserved accolades and international reputation, the atmosphere always manages to make you feel right at home with its great country house hospitality. Once home to the naturalist gardener, William Robinson, the garden is central to the whole ethos of Gravetye. The team remain faithful to his vision and are truly dedicated to maintaining and nurturing this historically important garden.

Talking to Head Gardener, Tom Coward you get a real sense of the passion he has for progressing the garden in homage to William Robinson’s experimental style of gardening and how integral the kitchen garden and garden produce is to the highly acclaimed Michelin Star restaurant, the Dining Room that now overlooks the stunning garden.

“Everything we grow here is used by our chef. That’s why our dishes are packed with deliciously fresh flavours. Our cropping schedule and variety selection has been developed over the past six years to provide unique flavours, which can only come from a garden.”

With an autumn chill in the air and the prospect of a bountiful harvest, I was lucky enough to talk to Tom about a topic close to his heart, apples.

“As well as planning for next spring there is plenty of work for the present. We have many crops to harvest for the kitchens, and one of our biggest tasks has been the completion of our apple harvest. We grow over 30 varieties, which we have been trying out over the last 10 years; each one has its own specific use and quality.

The season starts in August with varieties such as ‘Discovery’, ‘Sun Rise’ and ‘Golden Hills’. The first ripe fruits are always a treat fresh from the tree in late summer. But the best fruit always comes at the end of the season. The bulk of our crop tends to be ready around mid-October and is blended to make juice. ‘Bramley Seedling’, ‘Falstaff’, ‘Egremont Russet’ and ‘Howgate Wonder’, has proved to be a beautiful mix, with a balance of sweetness and acidity along with notes of nuttiness and spice. It always makes me smile to see it being enjoyed for breakfast; just a few minutes’ walk from the orchard that produced it.

Although most of our fruit is made into juice we always hold a few crates of fruit back for chef to work his magic with. This year he has made the most beautiful desert; with sage, cider jelly, crème fraiche sorbet and a ginger crumb. I like to think that the finishing touch to this lovely dish is the wonderful, sharp, pink-fleshed apple we have grown called ‘Grenadine’, which is as delicious as it is beautiful.”

Harvest Home Run at Ridgeview

Ridgeview’s story began in 1995, when Mike and Chris Roberts decided to realise a vision, nurtured from a love of England and a passion for wine. Research into the English wine industry pointed them towards traditional method sparkling wine made from the three classic varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. At the time, sparkling wine production in England was largely unexplored and unproven so the dream to create world class sparkling wine in Sussex was certainly a risk.

Nestled at the base of the beautiful South Downs with their ideal chalky soils, the ridge with an unforgettable view was identified and it was here the journey began.

Over 20 years later, production has increased to more than a quarter of a million bottles and Ridgeview is sold across the world, including the USA, Scandinavia and Japan, and proudly served at Buckingham Palace State Banquets and No. 10 Downing Street.

Preparing for this year’s harvest, Vineyard Manager, Matt Strugnell at Ridgeview took precious time out to share his thoughts and insight on this year’s “Home Run”.

“We were lucky the weather was kind to us for flowering this year which helps determine our crop size. August was a bit hit and miss, so we had to work hard to keep the vine canopy neat and tidy; by tucking the shoots into foliage ‘catch’ wires, and by trimming the tops and sides.

Tidy vines make them look great, but it also plays an important role in helping our grapes ripen to a perfect condition. By keeping the canopy neat we are reducing shade and humidity which helps reduce the risk of fungal diseases. Also, the canopy is capturing as much sunshine as possible which is essential for ripening the crop.Weather plays such a critical role in the ripening process – Hot weather increases phenols in grapes as they ripen. Wet weather can dilute the juice during ripening, it also increases the risk of fungal infection of bunches.

Moving through August we saw the start of another change, which in the viticulture world is called, veraison. Veraison is one of the signs to know harvest is on its way. This is easy to spot on the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier as the skins start to change colour from green, through pink to red. By the time they are harvested they will have turned almost black. This is not so obvious in Chardonnay, but they will start to turn from green to a golden colour and the berries start to have a more translucent appearance. The end of veraison signals the start of ripening, and therefore we are on the home run before harvest begins.

After veraison and towards the end of September, we were measuring the ripeness and acidity levels of the grapes, taking samples from across the site. We are looking for 3 things to trigger harvest; Sugar level, acidity and general cleanliness of the crop. Once the grapes have reached the perfect balance of acidity and sugar ripeness, the harvest begins.

Usually our Pinot Noir and Meunier are harvested first, as they ripen earlier than Chardonnay. The Chardonnay ripens later because it carries a heavier crop. It also seems that it takes longer for the acidity in Chardonnay to fall.

This certainly won’t be like 2018 which has been described as a once in a generation year, however it is looking incredibly promising!”

Battle for the Best Autumn Garden Gems

As the leaves start to turn and take on their vibrant autumn coats of red, orange and gold, we are spoilt for choice across the gardens of mid-Sussex with the variety of autumn displays. Much of this is thanks to the living legacy of the great Victorian plant hunters who travelled the world returning with the seeds of rare and exotic trees that were planted over 100 years ago in the great gardens just on our doorstep and that we can enjoy in their mature splendour now.

I asked the Garden teams at South Lodge Hotel, Borde Hill Garden and High Beeches for some of their personal favourites for autumn colour …

Paul Collins, Head Gardener at South Lodge Hotel & Spa highlighted:

  • Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’, which is a native of North & Central America and Mexico and more commonly known as the American Sweet Gum tree, with its maple-like leaves delivering long-lasting autumn colour with orange, crimson and purple hues.
  • Parthenocissus tricuspidata or Boston Ivy, so called as it grows on older buildings, particularly in Boston and it is said that it’s how the ‘Ivy League’ universities got their nickname although it is also native to Eastern Asia, China and Japan

Sarah Bray, Curator at High Beeches Woodland and Water Garden is justly proud of their award-winning Nyssa sylvatica ‘HighBeeches’ that performs spectacularly each autumn.

  • Nyssas are North American Fall trees, more commonly named the Tupelo Tree and although Nyssas are to be found in many gardens,  the one at High Beeches was awarded the FCC (First Class Certificate) by the RHS as being the best of its kind in the country and subsequently recognised by being given the name ‘High Beeches’

Andy Stevens, Head Gardener at Borde Hill Garden was hard pressed to choose his favourite within the grounds of the magnificent garden and its 200 acres of glorious parkland but he pointed out two unusual plant hunter imports:

  • Gladitsia japonica, known as the Honey locust tree, is native to North America and Asia and displays radiant yellow fern-like leaves in autumn. It was originally a gift to the founder of the garden, Colonel Stephenson Clarke from the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey. Unusually, the trunk of this deciduous tree is armed with spines and the insect-pollinated tree produces distinctive long seed pods.
  • Phellodendron amurense or the Amur Cork tree bears distinct contrasting black berries and yellow leaves at this time of year. Interestingly the oil and bark from the tree has been used in Chinese medicine. It is native to North America, Eastern Asia, China, Japan and Korea.

All in all quite a legacy and a real round the world tour of the horticultural world right here in Sussex!

Partridge at Ockenden Manor Hotel

Game on at Ockenden Manor Hotel

Autumn heralds the start of the game season and you start to see pheasants strutting their stuff in the fields and the ‘pop’ of guns on misty and chilly mornings. So, what better time than to indulge in some truly local comfort food and where better than in the welcoming and cosy comfort of the Ockenden Manor Hotel tucked away in the heart of Cuckfield. As Head Chef, Stephen Crane, prepares his menu for the autumn, he gave us the opportunity to preview one of his seasonal game dishes that are going on the menu, their Balcombe Estate Partridge, which brings together a delicious combination of partridge breast, stuffed cabbage, roasted pumpkin, Brussel sprouts, pancetta and chestnuts, as well as providing some tips for handling game birds:

Top Tips for Preparing Partridge and Game Birds

  • For all small game birds, always remove the legs first as they will need extra cooking.
  • Always cook the breast on the crown as this will allow you to keep the game both pink and moist.
  • Take the legs off and either braise them, use them for stock or for confit
  • For confit – press the legs in a salt, garlic and fresh herb marinade for 24 hrs. Then wash for 20mins. Confit the legs at 70 -80 degrees in duck fat on the stove until tender.

Talking more about the dish, Stephen clearly has a passion for sourcing local ingredients and I was heartened to hear that all the produce is locally sourced from Sussex – the partridge coming from just down the road in Balcombe from the Balcombe Estate and all the veggies in the dish from Pulborough. To find out more about the importance of provenance at Historic Sussex Hotels and their ‘Flavours of Sussex’ map go to: https://www.hshotels.co.uk/flavours-of-sussex