Great English wines, fresh seafood and Michelin-star restaurant - Sussex is a great place for a foodie weekend away
What makes this place such a great foodie destination?
Freshly landed seafood, highly prized English wines and a slew of innovative local producers make Sussex a rich source of gastronomic pleasure. Add to this the South Downs National Park, charming villages, South Coast beaches, and Ashdown Forest (home of Winnie-the-Pooh) and you have all the ingredients for a great weekend getaway.
How far from London is it?
An easy 45-minute train journey from Victoria to Haywards Heath, then a 10-minute cab ride to the pretty village of Cuckfield, home to Ockenden Manor Hotel & Spa, where we were staying. If you’re driving, it’s around an hour and a half from central London. Jet setters may like to note the hotel is only 20 minutes from Gatwick.
Where to stay
Ockenden Manor is an Elizabethan country house surrounded by nine acres of gardens, with a Michelin-starred restaurant and a gleaming modern spa. Combining antique and modern, it’s like two hotels in one – traditionalists will love the four-poster beds, gilt-framed prints and rich textiles of the 22 rooms in the main house, while those with contemporary tastes will be drawn to the six open-plan suites in the spa, which opened three years ago.
In stark contrast to the main house, with its manicured lawns, terraces and high hedges, the spa is a striking rust-coloured cubist complex with roof gardens and views over green fields beyond. Bright sunshine and blue skies set it off a treat on the spring weekend we visited.
Our spa suite was a beautifully light and airy, modern living space, with sliding doors that opened on to the roof gardens. The bathroom, with its walk-in shower and freestanding stone bath, could be separated from the rest of the suite by big wooden shutters, although we kept them open to maximise the open-plan feel of the space and enjoy a view of the telly from the tub. We appreciated the teapot and fresh milk that meant we could brew a proper in-room cuppa after lolling around in the spa’s hot tub, sauna and steamroom.
Where to eat
Ockenden Manor’s restaurant has had a Michelin star for an impressive 12 years. Head chef Stephen Crane used to work at the Halcyon Hotel in London, where he met Martin Hadden, a Roux scholar at the age of 19 and now the executive chef of Ockenden Manor and its two sister hotels (www.hshotels.co.uk).
Sussex born and bred, Crane lives in the next village to Cuckfield and sets great store by local provenance. His cooking style may be classical French, but the ingredients are proudly rosbif, with the kitchen sourcing as much as it can from a radius of about 10 miles.
We were treated to a tasting menu that showcased local produce with a selection of fine Sussex wines. After canapes on the lawn, we moved into the Burrell Suite, a 15th-century pannelled dining room with capacity for groups of up to 40 (the main dining room can seat 96, with views over the immaculate lawn across to the South Downs).
A starter of Selsey crab lasagne with cheese straws was paired with a cheery glass of Victoria Rosé bubbly from the local Ridgeview Wine Estate (who says the fizz has to stop when the food starts?), a creamy, fruity coupling that got things off to a rich start.
Next up was a lighter plate of smoked mackerel (smoked on the premises) with beetroot, apple, horseradish cream and crackers. One of our favourite dishes of the evening, it took a bunch of strong flavours and magicked them into a perfectly balanced whole. This was served with another sparkler: a citrussy Blanc de Blancs from the nearby Bolney Estate, a winery that recently lost 5,000 bottles in a robbery, which is a bittersweet endorsement if ever there was one.
The meat course was grass-fed beef from Trenchmore Farm in the village of Cowfold (you couldn’t make it up), with root veg, celeriac puree and wild garlic leaves, a natural resource we’d seen growing vigorously in the woods around here. Crane believes you can taste the difference in beef from cattle that’s been humanely reared, and the sublimely tender fillet and rich oxtail in this dish seemed to bear that out. A jammy Pinot Noir from Bolney Estate was a fragrant match.
After pepping up our palates with a sharp and tangy citrus fruit plate of grapefruit, orange, lemon and meringue, we pushed the boat out with the Assiette of Chocolate – five tantalising confections, including white chocolate vanilla cream, dark chocolate sorbet and a macaroon with caramel glaze.
After this, some might argue that the petit fours accompanying our coffee were surplus to requirements, but we can’t face down homemade fudge or a hazelnut tuile when it’s placed before us, so a gesture was made and our efforts sweetly rewarded.
The next morning, we shamefully opted for The Manor Grill (the hotel’s plentiful version of the Full English), but scrambled eggs and home-smoked salmon would have been the more moderate choice.
Still, we’re not really ones for holding back, and a fitting finale to our foodie break was a splendid afternoon tea taken on the sunny terrace overlooking the lawn. Rendered genteel by the sight of a table laid with pretty white china, crisp table linen and a three-tier cake stand, we lifted our little fingers and piled into warm scones, delectable berry tarts, eclairs, finger sarnies and another helping of fudge and macaroons. Moderation be damned.
For English Wine Week (23-31 May 2015), Ockenden Manor has created a six course tasting menu with wine pairing for lunch and dinner for £140 per person inclusive of wines and spirits – all of which are made in Sussex.
Staying at Ockenden costs from £239 per night for two people in May, including three-course dinner, breakfast and use of the spa. As well as à la carte dining options, there’s a fixed-price three-course dinner for £60, three-course lunch for £25, and tasting menus from £40-£90. Afternoon tea costs £25.
Food and drink shopping
If it’s a fine day, watch the fishing boats come in at Hove Lagoon at the eastern end of Shoreham Harbour, then stock up on seafood at Brighton & Newhaven Fish Sales (open Monday to Saturday, 8am- 4pm). South Coast plaice and lemon sole are particularly recommended. On the morning we visited, a fisherman was just unloading a catch of ink-spattered cuttlefish, which are in plentiful supply in these waters.
Replenish your wine cellar at Ridgeview Estate in Ditchling. Tour their vineyards and sample a selection of sparkling wines in the beautiful tasting room, which has a glorious outlook over the vineyards to the South Downs. The shop is open Monday to Saturday, 11am-4pm, and guided tours run on Saturdays. The Bolney Estate in Bolney also has a wine shop and offers vineyard tours and tastings.
Staff at Ockenden Manor can arrange a raft of bespoke foodie activities if they’re given notice and a bit of flexibility. Depending on which suppliers are on hand, you could Nordic-walk to a tasting at Bolney Estate (with a lift back later), visit Lurgashall winery to sample specialist brews such as Silver Birch Wine and Bramble Liqueur, mountain-bike to a microbrewery, visit a gin distillery, or plan a day’s walking around a picnic. Occasionally, Martin Hadden can take guests foraging in Ashdown Forest –‘It’s like walking into a giant outdoor larder,’ he says.
If you plan your break for between 20 May and 1 June, you can also explore the county’s food culture at the buzzy Brighton & Hove Food and Drink Festival.
Hot Dinners were invited to Ockendon Manor. All prices correct at the time of writing.