If there is one thing that the UK hospitality industry does better than anyone else, it is country house hotels.
The quintessentially British manor, with vast lands from which local gamekeepers bring home pheasant, deer and rabbit – the picture postcard.
In the past 20 years, these oft-historical estates have carried the torch for high-quality dining in the hotel industry, even when more urban hotels weren’t so concentrated on delivering fine cuisine.
Driving around the countryside you never have to look too far before you find one, and many have long been graced by renowned chefs, rosettes and stars.
Perhaps the level of dining has stayed so high because they are, by their very nature, often in the middle of nowhere, making decent gastronomy essential to attracting guests to make a visit and stay for a meal.
Whether it be scouring the industry for the best chefs to poach, or whether they are looking to be the first point of call for the best countryside cuisine suppliers, competition between these rural juggernauts is fierce.
Deep in the New Forest in Hampshire, among many a country house hotel, Burley Manor is doing something different.
Of course, the picturesque 40-room pile still sits in the middle of fields surrounded by deer, while wild ponies block the road in.
It has the dark wooden staircase, the lounges are adorned with portraits and stained glass, and the open fires and the warm welcome are country house hotel to a tee. But there is a distinction, and it’s in the kitchen.
You will find pigeon, venison, guineafowl and beef on the menu but perhaps not in the classical guise you might expect.
Under head chef Ben J, the menu has been transformed to become a Mediterranean haven.
A wood-fired kitchen, complete with rustic flatbread oven and plancha grills, serves up dishes more affiliated with an Italian trattoria or a Greek taverna than an English country house hotel.
“We like to call ourselves a restaurant with rooms,” says general manager Alex Stiller. “The restaurant is a big feature for us and we want to emphasise that we are doing something different with the cuisine.
“So, we are not the typical country house, as such, we have a different twist to us – especially in this area of the country – and I think this comes across quite well.”
Friendly and approachable service staff arguably offer a more relaxed approach than that which can be experienced in other hotels of this ilk. Everyone seems to buy into it, including the wedding party who are using the spectacular events facility that is The Barn on the weekend I am visiting. And why wouldn’t you? It has the grandeur, the setting and the attention to detail, without the fustiness that can sometimes come with a property of distinction.
“You get customers expecting this country house hotel in this very traditional style,” says Stiller. “But we wanted to mix it up and to do something different.”
One way they are doing this is with their colour schemes, decoration and furniture. Rich purples and deep yellows work well with the classic wood-panelled walls, while a mixture of simple wooden European furniture is mixed with floral wing-backed chairs and specifically spotted olive trees and bowls of lemons bring it home.
Chilli oils, balsamic vinegars, wooden coasters,short glass tumblers, large pepper mills and terracotta dishes form functional decoration in both the entrance of the restaurant and the private dining area.
Just off the main restaurant, it is known as the Butler’s Pantry, offering a view into the flaming kitchen as well as a decorated set, comprising sunset yellow brickwork, hanging herbs, spices and pans – straight out of the Med.
The long wooden table and benches are intended to push those making use of the space to huddle together, while open portholes allow passing guests to see just what they are missing.
“The Pantry is specifically designed that way,” says Stiller. “It is a private dining option, so people can have time eating with their family and friends, and the chef comes out and explains the dishes and everything is prepared in front of them. It’s a real Mediterranean atmosphere for dinner.”
The restaurant is open for breakfast – continental and made-to-order hot a la carte – lunch and dinner seating up to 70, and an extra eight in the Butler’s Pantry.
“Weekends are very busy. The property is very weekend-based,” says Stiller. “We have The Barn, which is where we host more business guests during the week. But our weddings and events,don’t interfere with our day-to-day operation of the restaurant.
“Weddings and events all have Mediterranean influence. Of course, we try to please all customers, but it has all the influence of our cuisine and recipes. People tend to enjoy the fact it is slightly different.”
The menu states that Burley Manor’s food is designed to be “enjoyed together in relaxed, spectacular surroundings”, and there are dish options to promote exactly that.
From the Sharing section, Moroccan-spiced lamb tagine incorporates rarer cuts of meat – lamb breast and lamb shoulder – and is a spectacular dish to see served up, while the harissa-marinated chateaubriand of beef is a Middle Eastern twist on the classic French dish.
“Obviously Mediterranean gives you so many options,” says Stiller. “There are so many countries and flavours that can be incorporated. So, there is a much bigger playground for the chef.”
With a focus on using locally sourced ingredients the Forest & Coast section includes wild mushroom and truffle tortellini, Lebanese monkfish and cumin-roasted pigeon.
Starter highlights include the tiger prawns al pil pil (Basque-style) and the fig and coppa ham carpaccio, while the Mains section offers Burley venison with zhoug (a spicy Middle Eastern herb paste) and vegetarian options like parsnip and gorgonzola fritters and salt-baked beetroot fregola (Sardinian-style pasta).
The Vegetables & Salads offer an amazing array including patatas bravas, fattoush salad with sumac onions, chorizo lentils, sweet potato and piqua pepper or slow-cooked butternut with honey and fennel.
But it is the tapas list that steals the show, with the beer- and sherry-cured beef with chorizo migas (like a beef hash) topping the chef’s favourites list; mackerel escabeche (marinated in vinegar and coloured with paprika), charred chicken skewers and mojo pico, crispy squid and chilli mayo, or spiced cauliflower tabbouleh.
“You have your Lebanese influences or traditional Italian, Moroccan and Israel to play with,” says Stiller. “The kitchen never get bored because they can bring new ideas out and try new things all the time.”
Rather than a traditional snacking menu that you might expect in a bar, from midday-6pm every day guests can order an authentic house-made, stone-baked flatbread straight from the oven.
Diners can choose from Italian (buffalo mozzarella, sun-blushed tomato and basil), Moroccan (spiced chicken, almonds, coriander and preserved lemon), French provençal (octopus, squid, mussels and clams), Lebanese man’oushe (za’atar, tomato and spiced lamb), Greek (feta, olive, garden spinach and tomato), Turkish gozleme (halloumi and mint), or Spanish coca (chorizo, sobrassada, piquillo peppers, artichokes, asparagus and chard).
“They can order to the rooms, or have it in the bar or lounge area; they even get ordered at weddings,” says Stiller. “Having this makes us slightly different again.”
Arguably the jewel in the innovative Burley Manor crown is the take on afternoon tea. While diners are able to order finger sandwiches and sweets – all be it with plenty of chorizo involved – the Afternoon Tapas menu offers a very different experience.
For £20, and served on its own stand, guests can enjoy a selection of tapas dishes, sweet treats and a glass of prosecco.
“I love the tradition of afternoon tea and the whole sitting down for a relaxing meal and social time,” says Stiller. “Being able to play around with that for the Afternoon Tapas is great.
“People like to try it and it’s nice for the employees to do something unusual that nobody else does. It looks nice, there is a slightly different stand, and plates and slates. It looks very interesting.”
The set menu for spring includes lamb kibbeh (Lebanese dough) with cucumber and yoghurt, salt fish croquettes and lemon, cumin hummus with dukkah and flatbread, and wild mushroom and mozzarella arancini with Puntanesca olives.
The sweet selection includes blood orange jelly and rosewater trifle; kumquat pistachio, raspberry bakewell and olive oil ganache; Amalfi lemon tart, white chocolate meringue and salted lemon zest; and chocolate pave, toffee and hazelnut powder.
“It’s growing really quickly,” says Stiller. “We kept an afternoon tea, but again we put a little Mediterranean influence into that, too. Both offers have picked up really well.”
There is no feel of gimmick or passing fad about the ideas. And Stiller is focused on making sure that it doesn’t become that, either.
“It is important that we get the idea to the people, to show them that there is a country house in a beautiful location that is doing something different.”
Stone-baked Flatbread Menu
buffalo mozzarella, sun-blushed tomato and basil (v)
spiced chicken, almonds, coriander and preserved lemon
octopus, squid, mussels and clams
za’atar, tomato and spiced lamb
feta, olive, garden spinach and tomato
halloumi and mint (v)
chorizo, sobrassada, piquillo peppers,
artichokes, asparagus and chard