The classic English country escape now includes inventive regional cooking.
The leafy back roads leading to the village of Kingham wind through the deepest English countryside—a blur of green hills, rolling hedgerows, and tiny villages with names that read like pastoral poetry: Milton-under-Wychwood, Great Tew and Little Tew, Upper Oddington. When you finally arrive at Kingham, you may wonder about your destination: The hamlet consists of a shop, a church, two pubs, a long green surrounded by 18th-century cottages, and not much more.
Yet on weekends it fills up with Londoners attempting country chic in Burberry and Wellingtons. Follow them to the end of a curving side street and a handsome golden stone house, and the lure becomes obvious. This is the Wild Rabbit, a country inn that has become one of southern England’s gastronomic treasures.
In the last 20 years, London has emerged as one of Europe’s culinary powerhouses, and the countryside followed suit with a few hot spots of its own, including Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. But mostly, for food lovers, the English shires were rustic dead zones.
Not any longer. Serious rural restaurants have opened in almost every one of them, particularly in the south. Largely dedicated to celebrating the British larder, these country kitchens forage close to home and update the best regional culinary traditions. And most of them are folded into pastoral hotels, often in grand manor houses and coaching inns, which means one can pass the time until dinner steaming in a sauna, sampling spa treatments, taking cooking classes, or rambling through the local village, indulging in a cultural immersion that is reinventing the great British country weekend.
The Wild Rabbit is a leader of the countryside culinary revolution, though there are no spas or state-of-the-art gyms here. Instead there is that village green if you want an organic jogging path, a small but airy inn, and chef Tim Allen, who previously cooked at two Michelin-starred kitchens, Launceston Place and Whatley Manor. Allen calls the surrounding West Oxfordshire countryside and neighboring Dayles-ford estate a very rich gift. “The best organic meat, fruit, and vegetables are available right on my doorstep,” he says. He uses them to create starters such as juicy leeks studded with dabs of goat curd and sourdough croutons, diver scallops and Wootton pork jowl with sweet squash and tangy green apples, or partridge breast heaped with bacon and grilled pickled onions. A traditional dish of stewed Cox’s apples drizzled with caramel makes a fine finish, but most diners prolong the meal with a cheese course that maps England: Oxford blue, Daylesford cheddar, double Gloucester.
About 18 miles north is Foxhill Manor, one of Britain’s newest and most glamorous gourmet retreats. An Arts and Crafts landmark in the Cotswolds, near the chocolate-box village of Broadway, its impressive culinary program even allows diners to design their own meals with chef Iain Dixon, who previously cooked at the Michelin-starred Nut Tree in Oxfordshire. “We don’t have set menus here,” Dixon says. “I meet with all the guests on arrival to discuss their likes and dislikes and to personalize their dishes, which can range from a top-notch four-course supper to burgers, steaks, or even beans on toast.”
Guest can also eat most anywhere they like—in the lounge, on the terrace, in their rooms—but most gather in the candlelit dining room and let the chef decide. Dinners may start with pork rillettes or smoked-salmon croquettes and continue with tender Cotswolds lamb with all the trimmings or roast chicken dressed with shallots, leeks, and lemon.
That mix of local produce and proudly English dishes resurfaces in another Cotswolds retreat, Soho Farmhouse, located near the village of Chipping Norton. It resembles a sprawling hipster summer camp, with a central 18th-century farmhouse surrounded by 40 recycled-wood cabins, every imaginable amenity, and an orchard dense with quince, apple, and pear trees. Most of the retreat’s food is sourced, smoked, cured, and pickled on-site.
“Even the honey comes from the farm’s own beehives, and much of the cheese is produced in our cheese house,” says the head chef, Ronnie Bonnetti, who previously worked at London’s River Café. “Three local farmers produce our beef, our free-range chickens come from down the road, we smoke our own salmon and mackerel, and the Soho Farm garden supplies our herbs, peppers, beets, tomatoes, lettuce, squash, and heritage carrots.”
Most guests gather at the two-story Main Barn, which functions as the property’s central dining room and showcases Bonnetti’s signature dishes, developed with chef Tom Aikens, such as chicken-liver pâté spread on pillowy brioche, salmon fish cakes crowned with herb mayonnaise, Burrata heaped with roasted squash and garden herbs, smoked mackerel dressed with sweet beets and horseradish salad, and pheasant topped by woodsy wild mushrooms. If you are feeling lazy, you can take one of the truffle pizzas back to your lakeside cabin and just settle in for the night.
Just southwest of the Cotswolds, in a fold of the Mendip Hills, the feast continues at the Pig near Bath. The name of the inn may be a bit gamey, but the Pig country retreats, proliferating in southern England, have become emblems of good taste with zealously loca-vore rules: Anything that is not plucked from a given hotel’s kitchen gardens and orchards is sourced within a 25-mile radius.
Here the celebration of the local larder spills over onto the sprawling property, a maze of kitchen gardens, greenhouses, fruit cages, and smokehouses. At dusk, guests gather on the terrace, around the wood-fired oven, for pizza and croquet. But the mallets get dropped when the greenhouse dining room opens its doors and begins serving James Golding and Kamil Oseka’s daily menu. A vibrant salad of purple mizuna is tossed with garden pickles and chargrilled chicken, while a rhubarb mousse served alongside poached rhubarb and buttermilk sorbet is typical of the fruity desserts. A signature of ham hock and black-pudding mash crowned with a fried duck egg and fresh pea-shoot salad is the kind of passionate English cooking that can revive a whole tradition.
A little farther east is Lime Wood Hotel, perhaps the last word in rustic fantasia. Dedicated to creating a fully outfitted 21st-century bucolic retreat in the middle of the New Forest National Park, Lime Wood has assembled a master class of top chefs, architects, and designers. Head chef Luke Holder’s kitchen turns out locally sourced forest dishes drawing on Hampshire producers, though the plates are infused with an unexpected Continental twist. That is partly the result of London chef Angela Hartnett—known for her eponymous restaurant at the Connaught—being Holder’s partner and helping to design the menu for Lime Wood’s Hartnett Holder & Co. restaurant. The duo’s smoked salmon produced from the property’s smokehouse, the cod twinned with smoked-mussel chowder, and the lamb shoulder nudging up against broad beans all taste like pure English fare, while Hartnett’s signature crab risotto and chicken agnolotti add a taste of Tuscany. But the afternoon cream tea remains an ode to pure tradition, and cooking classes focus on classic British cakes and nursery-room puddings. The lessons make the perfect finale for a journey through the soulful cooking now ribboning England’s greenest heart.
The Best of the New Inns
This eight-bedroom Cotswolds inn is a study in quirky British design, with sherbet-colored settees, mounted butterflies, whitewashed armoires, a discreet butler, and a view that stretches to the Welsh Black Mountains. (foxhillmanor.com; $400–$700)
Lime Wood Hotel
A grand country retreat in Hampshire’s New Forest National Park, Lime Wood offers guest quarters in the original Regency country house, as well as new pavilions, coach houses, and garden lodges, featuring designer David Collins’s tasteful woodland interiors. (limewoodhotel.co.uk; $440–$1,360)
The Pig near Bath
Kitchen gardens, greenhouses, fruit cages, and smokehouses surround the main house, along with a herd of 80 fallow deer, stables, and cottages with an impeccably rustic chic style. (thepighotel.com; $200–$390)
The mammoth resort bordered by
a lake and a stream features a central 18th-century farmhouse and 40 recycled-wood cabins, each tended by a butler. Amenities include a Cowshed Spa, boathouse, exercise studio, cinema, golf course, and stables. (sohofarmhouse.com; $465–$2,590)
The Wild Rabbit
The 12 guest rooms feature exposed stone, oak beams, and poster beds made with tree branches. The pub serves craft beer beside a pair of fireplaces. (thewildrabbit.co.uk; $200–$390)