Notes From The Pig
Published in Circus Journal
A strong look
If the high life and the good life had a love child, it would be called The Pig. Located just outside Bath, The Pig near Bath (don’t know where they got that name from) is a self-styled ‘restaurant with rooms’, although really that’s being modest. For starters, it’s signposted by one of those brown road signs, so you know it’s going to be A Thing.
11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in June, and a guest is at the cocktail bar ordering a Bloody Mary – this is a strong look! In the bar room and beyond, the décor is an embrace of eclecticism. On a bookshelf sits a taxidermied red squirrel guarding a copy of ‘Who’s Who 1998’, and in reception, the lepidopterist’s pièce de résistance: a glass cabinet of pinned moths. Portraits that were on the walls of the 29-room country house before The Pig took over in 2014 have been kept, the staff referring to their subjects as extended family. “But we’ve got no idea who they are,” laughs hotel director, Sarah Holden.
How does your garden grow?
On a summer’s day, the kitchen garden is where it’s at. Lines of resplendent vegetables, herbs and fruits are tickled with colourful cottage flowers, and fruit cages nurture plump red summer berries. Reassuringly, there are indeed actual pigs at The Pig. Some have no names (The Pig serves delicious pork, by the way). But the two ladies of the manor – Lola and Truffle – have their own special pen, because they’re pets and school children like to scratch their backs.
There’s plenty else to explore in the grounds, including a resident deer herd, beehives, and a lily-padded pond. After lunch, people relax with a glass of wine on the terrace and flatbreads are served from a wood-fired oven. Holidays. It’s easy to forget that it’s a generic weekday afternoon. This must be what the brown sign is for.
As its name suggests, The Pig near Bath isn’t the only Pig – there are four others around southern England. So what makes a Pig a Pig? What is (yeah let’s go there) ‘pigicity’? According to Ollie Hutson, senior kitchen gardener for The Pig Group, a Pig is “a great big melting pot. It’s the staff. The team feeling”. Their operations director Tom Ross echoes this: “Obviously the menu, wine list and garden are common themes, but ultimately it’s about the people”. And hotel director Sarah Holden gives this answer: “The right mix of people…it IS a family”. There’s a theme emerging here. It’s the people, isn’t it?
The Pig invests heavily in its staff. Tom Ross explains: “We’ve got an amazing group of people here now and to see them having their minds blown by something new in the kitchen or a new wine they have tried; that’s a nice measure of our success”. And happy staff means happy guests. A ‘spirit of generosity’ is alive, well, and reciprocated. The Pig near Bath gets handwritten thank-you letters from its guests.
Finding common ground
Aside from the people-centric culture at The Pigs, they’re also unified by their kitchen gardens, which govern what’s on the menu. This isn’t always easy to achieve. Chefs like things just so, and gardens, what with Mother Nature’s penchant for unpredictability, aren’t always ‘so’. How do they provide garden-grown produce even in winter? Ollie concedes that “it’s a bit more difficult then. It’s a good little tug of war we have with the kitchen”. Group chef director James Golding explains how the running stays smooth: “Once you’ve got a common thing that you’re passionate about, which is obviously the vegetable and the dish, then you can always find common ground”.
The Pigs’ gardens are show gardens and working gardens at the same time. They’re where form and function get chatting over a G&T and decide that they can exist together at the same time after all.Ollie explains that “[they’re] not 100% RHS. We do things our kind of way”. And their way is sustainable. The gardens welcome beneficial insects, slow worms, frogs and hedgehogs like they do hotel guests. The Pig ran the first sustainability awards with the Sustainable Restaurant Association a few years ago, “not through planning on being sustainable but because of what we do,” says James. Still though, it seems the main reason they grow the way they do is “because it tastes different. It’s about flavour, flavour, flavour”.
This little piggy rarely goes to market
The Pigs have a 25-mile menu. They aim to source everything they serve either from their own gardens or within a 25-mile radius of each hotel. Of course, they have to take a pragmatic approach; southern England is hardly renowned for its black pepper vines. About 80% of everything on the plate fits the 25-mile bill. And, given that it’s called ‘The Pig’, are veganism and vegetarianism dirty words? Nope. The menu caters for all. James concedes that plant-based diets are “demanding for chefs but it’s a good challenge. And actually the more you do it, it becomes quite good fun”. So that’s good then.
How to grow a…chef
The Pig Group is also referred to as Home Grown Hotels. Because it likes growing things. Plants, a loyal fan base, chefs. Wait, say what? Sarah recalls struggling to find chefs de parties a few years ago: “The calibre wasn’t out there, not for what we were looking for. Or maybe they were good but just not the right fit for The Pig. [So we thought] let’s turn it on its head and concentrate on the entry level, and create our own”. So they did. And it worked. They run bespoke Pig apprenticeships, which alongside the standard NVQs includes a Pig qualification where apprentices learn things like beekeeping, kitchen gardening, charcuterie making, smoking, and “all that fun stuff” says James. The chef de partie drought is no more. “We grow them within the kitchens”. Problem solved.
A sense of community in and out of their grounds is important to all the Pigs. At The Pig near Bath, the local deer keeper’s father used to tend to the same herd. A local lady with forage knowledge goes collecting for them, and a beekeeper from nearby helps with their hives. The Pigs have no airs and graces. People from the local village pop in for a coffee. Ask what their typical clientele is like, and you wont really get an answer. Sarah notes that while they usually see a fair few London weekenders who are escaping to the country, in general “there’s not really a demographic – just everyone who loves food and drink. It’s such a mix – it’s the nicest thing”. Oh but while we’re here, we might as well mention the Glastonbury crew who nest down at The Pig near Bath around festival time. Name dropping? Oh go on then. Cara Delevingne, Alexa Chung et al send their love.
Pigs are flying
The Pig is getting metaphorically fat. With five hotels already open and three more in the pipeline, homogeny could become a problem. And no one likes brand bland. But pigs will fly before this happens, apparently. There is no one supplier for the group. Nothing is standardised and because each property has close ties with its local community, it will always be different to the others. Plus, the interior décor for each one is done by one lady and one lady alone: Judy Hutson. Tom confirms that homogenisation is something they’re aware of and are at pains to avoid “You’ve got to work at it constantly”. And considering their ‘can do’, ‘have done’ success so far, it doesn’t look like that brown sign will be disappearing any time soon. Anyone for a Bloody Mary?