A country restaurant, rammed on a Wednesday, run as slick as a greased weasel thanks to a phalanx of attractive young people in flannel shirts, jeans, Converse and butchers’ aprons.
It’s The Pig at Combe, near Exeter, a country house hotel where you can choose to stay up here at the Elizabethan manor, in a converted stable round the back or down there, a two-minute Land Rover ride across the 3,500 acre estate, in a full-scale cottage.
And it’s a proper English cottage, the sort that Miss Marple might live in except for the fact that all her feminine frippery has been replaced by masculine tweeds and velvets: where she would have had porcelain sherpherdesses, we have crystal decanters and Dualit toasters. Our sofas are hardy, the pictures old and distressed, the mirror mottled. It is perfectly perfectly done.
Back in the restaurant – because the whole Pig concept (this is the fifth in a series that started back in 2009 when people very high up in hotels got together to create something cosy, cool and affordable) is based around the food. The food, fresher than your average daisy, is sourced from within a 25-mile radius (including their own garden) and is different every day according to what they’ve brought in. And we have a mixed crowd in tonight: a young white guy with dreadlocks, a pair of lesbians in heels, an older lady with all the right earrings. Certainly not the Daily Mail-reading country codgers you might expect.
Famous for their meat, we have lumbered The Pig chefs with a pair of vegans and – without so much as a twitch of annoyance – they pull out a choice of nine dishes veering from nettle soup through apple herb salad to rhubarb, all so fresh and healthy it’s like you’ve licked a field. The sommelier – as young and crisp as a chilled sauvignon blanc – talks us through tertiary notes and layers of flavour, coming up with Soaves that are barely there and smoky reds that just waft up your nose.
This dining room, like the rest of the place, is country chic: a stag’s head on the wall, some pinned-down butterflies, roaring real fires that you can poke to death, a view out onto a wall of green with some neighbouring Arabians cavorting. By which we mean horses.
It’s the feel of a country house in excellent nick but which hasn’t been taken over by a global chain, fitted up with all the same details and filled with every media twat from a hundred-mile radius, no names, no lawsuits. It feels authentic, down to the bunnies jumping past our door and the partridges strolling around like they own the place.
With Lyme Regis within lunching distance, the coast just six miles away and country walks through woods and across fields right on the doorstep, there’s plenty for the energetic. Then there’s a little Georgian folly out the back where you can have amazing flatbreads and a muscular red around a fire pit to recover from any of that activity.
So what is it that makes The Pig at Combe work so perfectly? Is it the combination of sophisticated cocktails and authentic country style? The extreme rural beauty of it all? The quality of that food with herbs still breathing as they hit your plate? Probably all of those things but the manager gives a bit of a clue when we get into how hard it must be to get big-city service in the middle of nowhere. ‘It’s about how we select our staff,’ she says. ‘Some people come with all the right experience but they’re just not Pig-gy.’
Piggy staff! Who could ask for anything more?