The boutique hotel Abbots Court has been a labour of love for family owners of the award-winning The Tickled Pig favoured by Mary Berry and Tom Parker Bowles. Annabelle Hood is the first journalist invited to check in.
If you think that “pigs might fly” is pure porcine fantasy, you haven’t witnessed feeding time at Abbots Court: One minute Jez the owner is tapping a bucket of pig nuts to an eerily empty pigpen, the next moment, six spotted Oxford Sandy and Black pigs fly out so fast, I fear they’ll take off like Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig.
“This rare breed are very good all-rounders” Jez beams. They look very round to me – but I daren’t think about it, as Charlotte’s Web is my favourite children’s book. Besides, it feels churlish to reveal my affection for Wilbur the pig now, being the first journalist invited to review the hotel.
Abbots Court, a large Dorset farmhouse situated in Winterbourne Kingston on the Drax family’s Charborough Estate, had become an overgrown tangle of weeds, but it didn’t stop husband and wife team Jez and Niki Barfoot falling “instantly in love with its potential”.
The hotel, which opened in January, follows their successful “brisket and local ales” pub The Tickled Pig in Wimborne Dorset (featured in the Michelin Guide within four months of opening. And no, there’s no connection with ‘The Pig’ hotel chain).
Young Tickled Pig chefs Mike Parry (“amazing palate for someone who has only been in the industry for eight years,” says Jez) and the "mind-blowingly good" Alex Naik, now job-share the role of Head Chef at Abbots Court. Luckily both are ego-free, so the partnership works.
Abbots Court has a country guesthouse feel to it: Welcoming wellies lined up at the door and the sitting room’s open log fire smells of proper peaty woodsmoke (no sterile firestoves here). It's important for us that guests feel they can relax,” says Niki, who oversaw the hotel’s décor, collaborating with local sponsors Farrow & Ball.
Within minutes, I’ve sourced a young black Labrador up for adoption from Birch Hill Dog Rescue, since the only thing Abbots Court lacks is a friendly Fido to greet and lead guests round the farmland (I’m politely rebuffed, as the children want a puppy).
Self-professed “tree hugger” Jez excitedly tells us how he cleared away a thicket of trees and weeds so dense that it concealed a vast walled kitchen garden they didn’t even know was there. It is now hemmed in with a six-foot high “living wall” of chopped sycamore logs piled high enough “that deer cannot easily leap in to it,” Jez assures us.
Over time, the logs will be used for wood fires. Part of an eco ethos at Abbots Court with elements being recycled, restored, or morphed into something else. They even make their own compost.
“Starting this Spring, we’ll be working to restore the walled kitchen garden to how it was a hundred years ago,” chirpy Niki tells us. “Local people in the village will be helping out, in return for free veg.” She’s not joking. I try to imagine being paid in carrots…
“We’ll be growing indigenous heirloom vegetables,” adds Jez, reeling off tomato varieties, brassicas, salads and herbs “that you just cannot buy in the supermarket”.
Jez himself is no stranger to professional cooking, having been only one burnt pan from joining the Semi-Finalists of MasterChef seven years ago (“Sadly I’d practised on gas, they didn’t tell us it we’d be cooking on induction hobs!”).
As if their to-do list wasn’t long enough, the couple plan to keep sheep, ducks and chickens, and to install a smokery for dry-curing pork, with a view to producing their own charcuterie brand.
Their trendy Tickled Pig Events van is parked outside ready to cater for estate shoots and dinners. But a raft of shepherds’ huts and bell tents will now host private events from weddings to themed parties. “We’ll be installing a vintage marquee and an outdoor fire pit – I love smoking food and the idea of everyone eating al fresco around a round table, Magnus Nilsson-style,” says Jez, eyes twinkling.
“We feel it’s important for good food to be accessible,” he adds. “We want to run courses here, from fish-filleting to barbecuing workshops. There are horrific legalities around food production and we feel that people need to know where their food comes from – that excess Roundup (weedkiller) kills the soil's nutrients, for example.”
After a bracing walk around the estate, my companion and I warm up with an aromatic ‘house style’ G&T by the log fire, nibbling dehydrated rice crisps flavoured with crushed fennel, sumac and paprika; sage and parsnip root vegetable crisps; and dehydrated then deep-fried pork scratchings, prawn cracker-like in texture.
We move to the moodlit dining room. “Abbots Court is small but perfectly formed,” explains Niki, showing us to our table. “With a maximum of 14 house-only guests dining at any one time, it means we can lavish more time and attention on guests”.
Awaiting our nine-course extravaganza, we smooth chive butter on to a fresh granary and caraway seed bun, and a miniature ‘white bloomer’. The Tasting Menu comprises not-so-mini versions of the menu’s à la carte dishes, focusing on local, seasonal availability.
Our first generously portioned dish is a bright beetroot and sage soup, followed by New Forest venison carpaccio and a truffle emulsion with Old Worcester shavings and capers. So pretty that I forget to photograph it.
The Jerusalem Artichoke comes topped with chicory, the plate smeared with white- and braised red cabbage sauces – “Pure Alchemy isn’t it?” whispers my companion.
Curried Cornish mussels and spiced Puy lentils topped with a mini onion bhaji was a touch over seasoned for me. But the salt-baked heritage carrots cooked five ways and gnocchi (“cloud-like puffs of pleasure” coos the companion) are a colourful ode to rainbow carrots, lifted with a dash of tarragon emulsion.
“Fish pie” is a deconstructed trio of Dover sole; sashimi-like torch-scorched Trout on a bed of fennel twirls; and a solitary Scallop on kale and potato cubes.
My favourite ‘main’ course is the butter-soft Hay-smoked duck, pearl barley and leek cooked in one of four of the Barfoot’s state-of-the-art ‘Rational’ ovens (Forget asking for one for Christmas, they’re around £18k). You’d be quacking mad not to order the duck if dining à la carte.
My companion and I chuckle as we stand up to do subtle ham-string curls in a bid to get the circulation going after 3-hours of chomping (a Tasting Menu record for me). However, what follows is one of the most astonishing puddings of my career to date: Cardamon and bayleaf pannacotta with beetroot-poached rhubarb. I still catch myself fantasising about its silk-smooth texture and lingering pang of tang and spice…
Apparently a chocolate & chestnut ganache, pear, stem ginger and candied walnuts arrived shortly afterwards, but my tastebuds only had buds for the dreamboat pannacotta.
It was time to turn in to our L-shaped family suite with its big bathroom, Spy cartoons and view of the ‘Living Wall’. The rotund pigs were contentedly kipping in their woodland pen, and we were soon to follow suit.
That night, with the sound of owls hooting distantly in the trees, I dreamed that six silhouetted pigs flew past the vast Cardamon-and-rhubarb infused pannacotta moon that I was merrily gorging on… Sweet dreams are made of this.
For more information go towww.abbots-court.co.uk
Tel. 01929 448638
Annabelle Hood’s website is www.LuxuryJournalist.com