There was a curious purple light shimmering across the venerable wood panelling by the door of Gidleigh Park’s dining room. On closer investigation, the source of the light was a temperature- and humidity- controlled cabinet containing shoots, not cheroots. It was an incubator for micro-salads, those tiny, winsome, cress-like leaves that flavour and decorate many a modern plate.
It was the first time in 20 years that I had eaten at this magnificent mock‑Tudor pile on Dartmoor. Back then, a postprandial cigar and a brandy in the lounge was de rigueur; Michael Caines was head chef; and the food was resolutely rich and French.
No longer. Earlier this year, Michael Wignall, previously head chef at Pennyhill Park, Surrey, took over Caines’ reins and his thoughtful, light, intricate food is a joy to behold – and to eat. There is a playfulness in Wignall’s cooking: blistered, intense little cubes of eel, Granny Smith apple in various forms, and Exmoor caviar perched on aerated white chocolate, like the middle of a Wispa bar. It is a combination I first tried at The Fat Duck and – weirdly – it works.
Then, meltingly tender rabbit loin alongside a kind of porridge made with rolled oats and spicy homemade rabbit chorizo. And umami, a distillation of the so-called fifth taste: chicken cooked in a Chinese‑style master stock, garlic pannacotta, seaweed and crisp shards of chicken skin. Wignall has a Japanese approach to presentation and flavour, and this dish encapsulated both.
Next, some pink, sublimely flavoured slices of duckling, around which were strewn trompettes, black quinoa and assertively peppery nasturtium leaves, and “Snickers” for pudding, a cleverly deconstructed version of another chocolate bar. Wines were as intelligently eclectic as the food, spanning eight countries, and included Japanese sake and Uruguayan port.
On the other side of Exeter, the old Combe House hotel has had an even more radical update: it is now the latest arrival in the litter of Pig hotels. Its signature 25 Mile menu, featuring local produce, is on offer in the main house, but I headed straight for The Folly, a dressed-down bar and terrace with fabulous views over the east Devon countryside.
The impressive wood-fired oven knocks out splendid flatbreads (English for pizza, apparently) topped with chorizo, charred peppers and black garlic oil, or tomatoes and basil from the outstanding kitchen garden. I had both.
The Folly also boasts an excellent selection of cigars: it is reassuring that in the brave new world of country house hotels, the old ways haven’t been entirely abandoned.