Lime Wood, the country house hotel that doesn’t take itself too seriously, has introduced a few new courses to its cookery school. It was all the excuse we needed…

On arriving at Lime Wood, hotelier Robin Hutson’s impeccable country house pile in the New Forest, we wandered around the gardens while waiting for our room to be ready. Settling into some surprisingly comfy chairs on the patio, it was one of those moments when you realise you have nothing to do other than exhale, and let wherever you just arrived from slowly seep out of your system. The only thing missing was… ‘Hello,’ said the waitress, appearing from a rabbit burrow somewhere. ‘I saw you arrive and wondered if you’d like a drink? And I’ve brought you some snacks.’

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Lime Wood is no longer new, but six years in there is no sign of either ageing or complacency. The staff, many of whom are young and local, are impeccable; the food is outstanding; the spa exactly as good as you would hope; while the look and feel of the place – from the David Collins Studio interiors that manage to be equally stylish, elegant and unpretentious, to Martin Brudnizki’s restaurant and bar which are both just FUN – is spot on.

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It was the food that I was here for – both the eating and the making. Hutson has form in this area – from his Hotel du Vin chain which put quality food and bev at its heart, to The Pigs, the five fantastic boutique hotels he created almost as a sideline after setting up Lime Wood, with their 25-mile menus and kitchen gardens, to his regular days out fishing with friend and chef Mark Hix, food and drink are central to Hutson’s idea of a good time. And God bless him for that.

Sharing that love, Lime Wood opened a cookery school in the basement a couple of years ago to spread the word of its two co-head chefs, Angela Hartnett and Luke Holder. Both share a philosophy of championing produce above all, resulting in big flavours with an Italian influence. ‘Fun dining not fine dining’, as they say in these parts, although it is also very fine indeed.

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New courses at HH & Co (the Hs denote Hartnett & Holder) pop up often, as indeed do pop-ups from visiting guest chefs. I was sampling part of its new series of ‘Get the most from your meat’ classes, run by Iain Longhorn, a genial and accomplished chef in his own right but now Lime Wood’s resident tutor and a dab hand at herding a group of wannabe cooks towards culinary greatness. His kitchen is an extremely pleasant place to work a shift: stocked with floor-to-ceiling Le Creuset, with a long wooden table laid for lunch and with regular wine refills, it felt a little more relaxed and informal than other school kitchens, but no less well patrolled and instructional for it. After carving up a number of lamb quarters, we worked our way through pot-roasted lamb shoulder with beans, lamb neck and lentil curry, kofte, and a traditional Thai salad. It was hungry work.

Fortunately those with appetites are well catered for here. There are three restaurants – the spa has a Raw & Cured bar, which will offer you wraps, nori rolls and salads, all of them fresh and delicious. Just the thing after a long morning lying by the pool, or shuttling slowly from sauna to steam room. Pleasingly its menu also includes wine and bubbles – not too ‘spa-y’ then. In the atrium bar, where afternoon tea is served, the food is small plates of this and that, or bigger fare, such as a silky macaroni cheese. 

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And then there is the jewel, Hartnett Holder & Co. Over two days, dishes that wowed included a bread pie, containing Norfolk quail, fennel sausage, nduja ragout, topped with a crust, a steamed cod and crab concoction, and a chocolate and hazelnut tarte which did more for my sense of calm and wellbeing than any spa. Charmingly, the kitchen also prepared a special menu for my pregnant, vegetarian wife – from which she chose what she said was one of the most beautiful risottos she’d ever had. They didn’t have to, but it’s touches like that that make Lime Wood what it is. The best country house hotel in the country? I can’t think of one better. limewoodhotel.co.uk

Paul Croughton