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Food + Cooking

Eat Your Way Through Great English Gardens

These days, the famed English garden is going beyond the merely ornamental. Raphael Kadushin showcases five culinary gardens in England’s countryside, where top-notch dining and lodging are making the most of nature’s edible offerings

Clockwise from top left: The Tuscan Temple at Barnsley House; the Pig Hotel’s vegetable garden; and a nighttime view of the grounds at Le Manoir.

When Shakespeare wrote his love-struck valentine to England, calling the island “This other Eden, demi-paradise/This fortress built by Nature for herself,” he couldn’t well have predicted that Nature might eventually cede the fortress to developers. But in spring, wide swaths of England still resemble Shakespeare’s blooming arcadia, especially when the typically contrary sun stays fixed in the sky and all the British gardens seem to suddenly blossom at once sometime in April.

Until recently those gardens were mostly great photo ops. But as we enter the third decade of the storied English gastronomic revolution, the best of the country’s rural chefs have kicked off a garden-to-table trend. At England’s new wave of culinary country inns—an exploding species of boutique digs that let you sleep off that dinner in a grade A historic landmark—the garden isn’t just scenery, it’s also a preview of dinner. Planting herb gardens, fruit orchards, and kitchen gardens in growing numbers, England’s chefs are looking to the great English garden as a prime source of ingredients and inspiration, and forcing those fertile patches to do double-duty like never before. The traditional culinary tour of the shires, with its dowdy tea rooms serving dead-weight scones and drab diners slinging shepherd’s pies the sheep wouldn’t eat, has evolved into a supremely fresh taste of the English countryside.

Start your garden drive at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Long considered the model of the classic English garden, Sissinghurst’s were planted in the 1930s by the writer Vita Sackville-West (known for her novels, her garden writing, and her love affair with Virginia Woolf) and her diplomat husband Harold Nicolson. Snubbing the stiff formality of the French garden, the couple planned an homage to the raw beauty of a wild English spring, with azalea banks, rose gardens, and arched hedgerows. The result, though carefully designed, feels like it sprouted organically.

Until recently, you could only visit the Sissinghurst garden during the day alongside the bus tour crowds. But as of this spring, the National Trust rents out the Priest’s House for long weekends or midweek stays, so you can have the whole blooming place to yourself once the crowds leave. The brick Elizabethan banqueting house is all wood beams and fireplaces, and the leaded windows frame an ethereal view of the White Garden, its beds of irises, ferns, white tulips, and hostas glowing in the dusk.

At the manor’s Granary Restaurant, which sits just outside the garden walls, Sackville-West’s grandson Adam Nicolson and his wife Sarah Raven have been working for the past five years to update the menu from grim self-serve cafeteria to locavore landmark, serving a pristine echo of the gardens. The restaurant uses estate ingredients as well as produce from an organic vegetable plot in its revival of venerable Kentish recipes, and serves a more-than-ample supply of local wines, ciders, and juices. A salmon pâté is accompanied by a Sissinghurst salad prepared with the vegetable plot’s own peppery mizuna, and a free fall of Kentish carrots, beetroot, broad beans, watercress, organic eggs, and berries rouse diners’ palates. Best of all are the classic British puddings with nursery-room names, such as the whim-wham: sponge cake, cream, caramelized almonds, and orange rind.

Heading north from Kent to the Cotswolds, you’ll find another classic English garden framing its own boutique hotel and restaurant, the Barnsley House. The life’s work of dogged, mud-spattered gardening doyenne Rosemary Verey, Barnsley was designed in the 1950s to suit her vision of the supreme English garden, and the blooming 11-acre epic is a variegated sweep of formal lawns, meadows, knot garden, a laburnum walk, and fruit, vegetable, and kitchen gardens.

Everything at Barnsley House bows to Verey’s gardens. While the hotel’s 18 guest rooms, renovated in 2011, veer toward the contemporary (Verey wouldn’t know what to make of the plasma TVs in the bathrooms), the Cotswolds-goes-Chelsea vibe is mitigated by rustic four-poster beds, stone fireplaces, and generous views of the grounds, with the prevailing whiff of flowers meeting you at every turn. The flavor of the gardens is evoked most fully at the hotel’s Potager Restaurant. The banquettes in the recently refreshed dining room face the hotel’s main lawn, where you may see head chef Graham Grafton (a veteran of London’s acclaimed Caprice and Bibendum) tromping off to pluck dinner from the vegetable plot.

Grafton’s seasonal menus balance British ingredients and Italian flavors, showcasing just-picked produce homegrown at Barnsley. Lunch may feature a kale and leek risotto or vegetable fritters, though you might want to wait for dinner’s more baroque carpaccio of beetroot with goat cheese mousse and hazelnut salad. The estate also sources from local farmers, producers, and butchers, so the Badminton Estate venison haunch with muscade pumpkin, the Ozleworth Park pheasant with savory cabbage, and the Cotswolds lamb (admittedly hard to eat after having watched lambs gamboling in the estate pastures) all map the local backroads.

If Barnsley and Sissinghurst earned their landmark status as gardens first, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, a drive east from Barnsley near the Oxfordshire village of Great Milton, demonstrates what happens when a chef designs his own gastronomic dreamscape from the fertile ground up. The chef in question is the vaunted Raymond Blanc, who bought the Great Milton Manor in 1984 with the idea of turning it into the first and last word in culinary country-house retreats. Blanc’s restaurant earned two Michelin stars in its first year, and Blanc’s pioneering emphasis on local, seasonal sourcing—one of the first sustained salvos in England’s coming locavore revolution—had a lot to do with the immediate acclaim.

Blanc and his gardeners cultivated beds growing 70 different varieties of herbs, from Vietnamese mint to lemongrass, ginger, coriander, sorrel, and Jamaican broadleaf thyme; in addition, they planted a 2-acre plot sprouting more than 90 different vegetables, including Swiss chard, celeriac, and purslane; a mushroom garden thick with shitake, maitake, and parasol; a fruit orchard planted with more than 800 apple and pear trees in the spring of 2011; a fruit hedge ripe with 15 varieties of sloes and plums; and a Japanese tea garden.

The results are evident in the ambitious, opulent menu, where rustic English cuisine meets haute French: oak-smoked salmon confit; quail’s egg ravioli, spinach, and Parmesan in poultry jus; roasted wild woodcock with a celeriac fondant; braised Cornish turbot; and a vegetarian beetroot terrine with dill cream. The on-site Raymond Blanc Cookery School offers a four-day marathon course that seems more like boot camp (novices should probably just sign up for the one-day course)—a rigorous counterpoint to the hotel’s luxurious 32 country-chic rooms that will cater your every need.

Looping south from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, you’ll eventually reach Hampshire’s New Forest National Park, where two sister hotels—Lime Wood and the Pig Country Hotel—contend for the title of English Country Inn of the Moment. The more opulent of the two is Lime Wood, a renovated Regency country manor with 29 rooms and suites as exquisitely outfitted as any English boutique bolt-hole—a whirl of antiques, locally sourced ash and stone, freestanding clawfoot tubs, and organic accents, including a cleanly whittled pine toothbrush in each bathroom.

The guests at Lime Wood tend to be just as stylishly composed, and the prevailing sense of on-point, of-the-moment detailing extends to the hotel’s formal Dining Room. Lime Wood claims its own smokehouse, where head chef Luke Holder and his team smoke their own salmon, sausages, and hams. The property’s Herb House Spa is crowned with an olive tree–lined rooftop herb garden, which the cooks strip clean. Add the estate gardens—fragrant with homegrown purple sage and lemon verbena—the local butchers, and the nearby Laverstoke Park Farm with its prize-winning mozzarella, and you pretty much have dinner. The mozzarella shows up in a squab pigeon baked under bread and black olives; other signature dishes include a wild salad of smoked oyster and pickled hedgehog mushrooms, cress, and scurvy grass; char-grilled leeks and beets; an herb-crusted loin of lamb paired with white sprouting broccoli and wild garlic; and a cheeseboard starring the best from New Forest’s four-legged cheese suppliers.

End the trip on an idyllic, affordable note with a detour to the Pig. The smaller neighboring B&B strikes a more homegrown and stylishly downmarket tone, with 26 gently priced rooms (rates start at £125, or $200) overlooking garden and forest. The bucolic property is meant to be explored, and includes a walled garden (lush with strawberry spinach, rainbow chard, beet leaves, and berries), a pigsty filled with actual pigs, and a surrounding raw landscape that often makes its way onto a plate. Chef James Golding (a veteran of New York’s Soho House) has both a forager and kitchen gardener on staff, and the group offers what it calls the 25-mile menu: 80 percent of the fresh ingredients are sourced from local turf.

Just when you think you can’t face another root vegetable, these committed locavores start making things interesting. The kitchen’s signature dishes flaunt a wild sensibility: wood pigeon salad; garden mint mousse; cured beets; home-smoked haddock and poached hen egg salad with chicory leaves, walnuts, and cider dressing; Hampshire red wine salami and Dorset olives; farm duck egg and black pudding; and every possible iteration of a carnivorous porky plate, including a slow-roasted pork belly with poached pear and roasted squash. Naturally, a new menu is printed daily, depending on whatever gets dug up last or looks freshest at dawn. And that may be about as close as you get to landing face-down in the tireless British garden.

Raphael Kadushin writes for a range of food and travel outlets, including Condé Nast Traveler, Epicurious, Out, and National Geographic Traveler. His last piece for Gourmet Live was 24 Hours in Bali: A Culinary Tour.