What it's really like to eat at Combe House Hotel
The first 3 kids were delivered to school by Mum as usual – all done on foot by 9am.
I’d been working feverishly from home since 7:45, trying to clear as much as I could before our deadline to leave – 11am.
As per usual, 11am arrives and there’s still more to do. Just one little task, should only take 5 minutes...which means 15. All the same it’s done, and we leave.
Round to Nana’s to drop off baby Buster. Nana’s nervous that Buster won’t be able to cope without Mummy for the afternoon, but we’re sure he’ll be fine. He has to be fine. We’ve got this appointment that’s just too good to miss. A guided tour, then lunch, at Combe House Hotel.
Ever been? It’s the stuff of legends round our way, and rightly so.
We wiggle down country lanes that make our car feel so BIG, it’s terrified of meeting a tractor or speeding postman. Thankfully all we need to avoid is a stray chicken and a couple of pheasants.
Combe House is well hidden, but thankfully it’s also well signposted. Every turning and tree seems to have a sign to help us find our way. We haven’t got time to view the pretty fudge-box-cover that is Gittisham Village (just outside Honiton) – we need to make our 12 o’clock appointment. We enter the Estate and it’s impossible to speed around the luxurious winding single-track path which takes us to the door of Combe House. We slow down from our already slow pace, to allow for a couple of horse riders. Closer to the house and there’s wild horses roaming aplenty – apparently they’re of Arab descent and pretty special. The huge house looms out of the Devon fog – it must have stunning views on a clearer day. We park and approach the old mansion... we wonder if we’re underdressed...I fumble for my invitation.....but there’s absolutely no need for that. The door is opened for us, and we are met with broad smiles, and welcomed by our first names. I thought that only happened in my village pub. We are immediately at ease.
Relaxed hotel guests and diners alike sit comfortably around the choice of lounges – each room seems to boast a huge roaring fire. Outside it was a cold, damp, late winter’s day – inside it’s like Christmas Day today, and I guess it is like that every day at this time of year.
The cheerful Manager Mark Lovell welcomes us warmly, and we soon find we are chatting like old friends. He introduces us to Ruth Hunt, the owner, who proudly shows us around the House and Hotel, the renovation of which has clearly been a massive undertaking. There are up to three choices of venues for a wedding, and these must be memorable weddings. One huge room is flanked by Oak panels and huge portraits – showing family members that used to own this historic house. We pass through a sleek modern bar which wouldn’t feel out of place in an exclusive nightclub.
We are taken into the old staff quarters, where we see a wonderful old kitchen – complete with flag stone floor and one massive central table. The end wall of this huge room is spanned by a single metal stove which must be over 12ft long. The stove is warmed by jumbo logs (all sourced from within the estate, of course). There is no electricity in this old kitchen, so lighting is by candle chandeliers. I understand that this room is used for intimate family meals the night preceding a wedding, it must be incredible.
Upstairs we get a glimpse of what it’s like to stay here. Most suites seem to overlook the wonderful estate, and all are impeccably decorated with a wonderful range of styles to choose between. From traditional elegance to modern and understated. If you want you can even hire the private thatched cottage with its own private walled garden.
Outside, there must be as many gardens as there are rooms. The enormous croquet lawn doubles up as the marquee site for weddings. The back garden leads us to the recently restored vegetable garden which provides 40% of the restaurant’s food. Rows and rows of carefully co-ordinated planting ripens on a weekly basis to keep fresh supplies coming to the kitchen. There isn’t too much veg on show at the moment as we eagerly await Spring, but there is more parsley than I’ve ever seen in my life.
On the way back to the house we do a double-take, as we pass an outdoor bath under a thatched roof. Rainwater is harvested then heated in a water tank over an outdoor wood fire. This is plumbed into the hot tap of the al fresco bath. Honestly.
As we enter the house again, we enjoy the same wonderful welcome we did when we first arrived. By now we recognise half of the staff, as we’ve been introduced to each one as we’ve passed. They’ve all greeted us with genuine, welcoming smiles, which make us feel close to Royalty.
There are more incredible function rooms and guest rooms – each with their own identity and history. We are speechless. As well as the history of the hotel and its different rooms, we learn of the history of Ruth and Ken the managers. They have worked throughout the world running and marketing the finest hotels (and the finest chains of hotels). At Combe House Hotel they have pooled their experience to create one single, independent masterpiece. Guests to the hotel aren’t just from well-heeled corners of London. The hotel is also incredibly popular with locals from within Devon seeking the same escape that we are enjoying this afternoon.
We enjoy aperitifs beside a roaring fire, and choose from an astounding menu. We are not in a hurry, and we are not hurried. It’s like Christmas Day with someone else cooking. And the people cooking happen to be Master Chefs of Great Britain.
From the menu alone it’s clear that the food is local. Game and fish are well represented, as are seasonal vegetables (from the back garden). We make our selections and enjoy our canapés, still beside the crackling fire. We are then invited through to our table – inside a bay window overlooking the grounds (and roaming horses). We are given a selection of homemade bread, all exquisite, and an extra introductory course.
The luxury is overwhelming us, and the real world is creeping back into our consciousness. Go away real world, let us relax and enjoy this, we deserve this! We work so hard - at work and at home with our four children -please give us an afternoon off! We should have planned better. We should have taken the whole afternoon off. But who’s going to take Daisy to dancing? Who’s going to take Alfie and Soren swimming? Nana can’t cope with baby Buster all afternoon, she was terrified of a couple of hours to begin with.
Starters arrive and the real world recedes. Starters are amazing. We don’t get out much, but when we do it’s never like this. We try to eat quality local food at home but we never serve it like this. We don’t think to put this with that. This is outstanding. Portion sizes are perfect – not too generous but not too mean. We are able to stop and appreciate each mouthful. We’d love to ask what each element of each dish is, but we just enjoy the incredible flavours. I’m enjoying the taste of the food so much that I barely remember to sip my delicious wine, and that never usually happens. We start to relax into this incredible escape we’re enjoying.
Service is impeccably timed, friendly and unobtrusive. Mains arrive and mine surpasses my incredible starter. I’d love to make a description like a judge on MasterChef, but I wouldn’t do the food justice and I’d sound stupid. My main course looks and tastes incredible. Unfortunately the real world is now catching up with us and we need to check the time. Could anyone else pick up the kids if we were to let this adventure continue a little longer? Probably not. It’s our fault, we’re the ones who chose to have four children. We have to pick up the pace on our main courses, which is a crime to my pork belly on sour cabbage, to my black pudding croquettes and braised onion. I’ve stopped to reminisce about it again, now as I write this, my mouth is watering.
The unwelcome intrusion of my wife’s mobile phone allows Plan B to come together, which buys us an extra 10 minutes, allowing us to take dessert. Now this is really good. If desserts were always like this, I’d have desserts more often. My favourite part of my dessert is the Griottine cherries. Right now they taste better than a glass of the finest dessert wine. I stopped at my first glass of wine because the real world will need to be faced again soon, and drunken Dads aren’t usually that rational or patient.
As we said our thankyous and left, it felt like we were leaving our host family from a cultural exchange, or that we were leaving our rented holiday home. My wife was even given a complementary goody bag of sumptuous Combe Estate preserves – a wonderful touch. We’d been there for less than 3 hours, but Combe House Hotel was already a wonderful memory within my life story, an escape that was over so soon after it had begun.
...and then it hit me, we were home, the adventure was over. That same saddening feeling you get when you return from a holiday and realise that it’ll be a long time until the next one. We will return, we already yearn to. Lunch was extravagant but not unaffordable – in fact good value for a treat which will last for a long time in the memory. We know we could even just call in for a relaxing morning or afternoon tea or coffee, which will encourage us to show off our new favourite place to visiting guests from ‘upcountry’, as they say in Devon...but the only problem with doing this is that it might show up the service at our own home as not quite as welcoming as that at Combe House.