House - Quintessentially English, utterly
our initial visit in 1999, we've
been back twice, most recently in
June 2004. Lots of improvements have
been made to the layout, decor and
plumbing in the bedrooms. The old
Georgian kitchen has been painstakingly
refurbished and the original range
restored to working order. It is
used for special occasions and for
private functions. Philip Leach,
a Master Chef of Great Britain, is
still in charge of the kitchens,
such continuity is a rare asset these
days. The hotel is run like clock
work by the hands-on care and enthusiasm
of proprietors Ken and Ruth Hunt.
Powling, the well known West
Country travel writer, has recently
reviewed the restaurant again for
us in September 2004. Click
here for Margaret's review.
review is still available below,
updated with material from later
visits. The prices and certain details
were updated in June 2004.
House - Dine Online Country House
Hotel of Choice 2004
Some friends suggested that we visit Combe House, which is in the very pretty
village of Gittisham, just outside Honiton, itself about twenty minutes from
Exeter on the London side of the
They had enthused about how the hotel is set in
several thousand acres of parkland. And how there's a palpable feeling of
history that pervades the ancient house and estate which has existed for
a thousand years dating back to the Domesday book and beyond. They warned
that we might find certain aspects a little old fashioned, so we worried
a bit about what the plumbing might be like - but that didn't put us off
booking a two night weekend break.
We arrived, as one does on a Friday evening in
winter: tired, late, fractious, and in the dark. But as we drove carefully
over the cattle grids and saw the lights of the house beckoning across the
rolling acres the tension already began to slip away. Combe House was beginning
to work its magic. Even the news that our friends had been even more delayed
than we and that dinner would not be until about nine o'clock could not dismay
us. We were shown to a huge, comfortable bedroom with lovely antique furniture,
and restorative tea and sandwiches arrived within minutes.
We needn't have worried about the plumbing. OK,
so our bathroom, with its slightly bizarre wallpaper, was an odd shape, so
obviously carved out of a too large adjacent corridor at a time when such
alterations were expedient rather than luxurious or even well thought out.
But the proportions and style of the bedroom had not been disturbed, and
the bath filled up rapidly with very hot water any time we felt like a hot
soothing tub. Best of all, it didn't feel in the least like part of an hotel.
I know it's a cliché to go on about feeling as if you are in someone's home,
but that really is the way things are at Combe House.
public rooms have a gorgeous air of decadent, slightly shabby gentility,
like a faded dowager. It's extraordinary that people pay fancy decorators
a great deal of money to achieve such a look, it's called "distressing" I
believe. At Combe House you can enjoy the real thing.
There's a great hall with an enormous Elizabethan
fireplace, a grand piano and very comfortable furniture into which you sink
gratefully in front of a roaring log fire. I've just noticed that, since
the picture on the left was taken, the soft furniture has been replaced by
rather better pieces.
Chef Philip Leach is achieving miracles with a
relatively small, but keen brigade. The menu is just the right length, with
6 or 7 different starters, mains and puddings. Every day sees a different
chef's special dish - yesterday it was monkfish tail stuffed with a crab
mousseline. Looking carefully at the dishes on offer I concluded that every
spare moment of the day must be spent in preparing those little touches that
define the difference between competence and brilliance. So, for instance,
care had been taken not only with a properly home-made light and fluffy boudin
blanc made from chicken and wild mushrooms, but with the rich and caramelised
onion tart that it was set upon. A crab raviolo was perfection in itself,
but the dish was made by the compote of fennel and tomato. And who would
have thought of making little scotch eggs out of quail's eggs - surrounded
not with ordinary old mincemeat dusted with those terrible yellow bought-in
breadcrumbs - but with a gamey forcemeat made from local wood pigeon, dressed
with a star anise flavoured jus? Any competent chef can sear excellent plump
scallops, but how about setting them on caramelised oranges? The crisp wafer
of caramel is crunchy, and the palate is immediately refreshed by the tang
of orange, a flavour that goes with scallops like a marriage made in heaven.
Was the further addition of a mingling of vivid green basil oil and bright
red pepper oil going a little too far? No, it added the visual finishing
touch whose flavours added another dimension. These dishes were all first
courses, by the way.
Leach's presentations are attractive without being
towering symbols of chef-importance. An outstanding signature main dish is
his roasted saddle of rabbit filled with wild mushroom mousse - the meat
was tender (rabbit can be dry) and my neighbour enjoyed the accompanying
quennelle made from a puree of dried green peas. Very English.
Grilled seabass came with a gorgeous confit of
fennel and a spicy "Asian" pesto. The ribeye steak was a tender island in
a deep glossy reduction, studded with well roasted shallots and cloves of
garlic, supported by some bubble and squeak that had been tweaked with a
touch of horseradish - a great idea that I can't wait to try.
Every dish has its own carefully chosen vegetable
accompaniments that both match and enhance: you won't find those horrid all
purpose little side dishes with boring broccoli florets and plastic baby
sweetcorn. To drink we started with the excellent house Champagne - Mercier
Brut at £27.70, followed by a bottle of the crisp local Sharpham Estate
Vineyard down the road in Totnes (£19.00). For a relatively inexpensive
red, I can recommend the Chateau Cap de Faugeres 1995 from the Cotes du Castillon
(£20.95). Castillon was where the hapless Connetable Talbot lost the battle
that resulted in the return of Aquitaine and Bordeaux to the French. Ah well,
I suppose they would have got them back sooner or later. At least we can
now enjoy wines from Castillon that often taste as good as clarets costing
twice as much.
Staying at Combe House
Our bed was a cocoon of soft luxury and we slept
well and awoke to a perfect autumn morning with clear blue skies and a dusting
of frost on the lawn outside. The view from our bedroom window was breathtaking.
Pheasants were strutting their stuff, cows meandered about in front of the
house and Arab brood mares and their young stock grazed peacefully on a nearby
hillside. We continued to soak up the view from our breakfast table. I almost
wished I had missed out on dinner as I had little appetite for what looked
like a tremendous hunt breakfast. I nibbled puritanically at a piece of toast
whilst telling myself how much hungrier I'd be by dinner. On our second morning
I managed some scrambled eggs and the most marvellous bacon.
On Saturday evening we joined other friends at
a table for eight for dinner back at the hotel. The kitchen was under pressure
with two parties of twenty in each of the sumptuous private dining rooms,
as well as a full complement of other guests. Dinner was excellent, the organisation
was faultless and there were no long pauses, given the requirements of the
two simultaneous groups who were dining from entirely different menus. The
only thing that suffered a little was some risotto, which was a bit stodgy
Here are just a few of the highlights we enjoyed:
Seared scallops on a cod brandade - they had
that naturally sweet taste that really good well-seared scallops have, beautifully
set off by the saltiness of the cod.
A boned out quail stuffed with a chicken mousse
- that's serious culinary art!
Duck confit - I had that as my main course, nice
and crispy on the outside with delectably unctuous flesh falling off the
service at Combe House is exemplary, you are made to feel that nothing is
too much trouble to make your stay a delight. This trickles down from the
very hands-on approach of the proprietors, Ken and Ruth Hunt. Ken is laid-back,
but always around checking that his guests are being looked after. He is
a great wine enthusiast and he recommended some wonderful wines from New
Zealand and Australia, including some outstanding Sauvignon Blanc from Jackson
Estate, as well as a full bodied red from the Australian producer, Hollick.
They are fortunate to have excellent local wine merchants like Christopher
Piper Wines to supply their cellars.
Clifford Mould, November 1999, February 2000
and June 2004 See Ken's Folly!
Counting the cost:
Table d'Hotel three course lunch £22.50, dinner £36.00
Double Rooms from £140 (standard) - £190
to £295 (superiors and suites) per night including the full Devon Country
Combe House, Gittisham
Honiton, Devon, EX14 0AD
Tel: 01404 540400 Fax: 01404 46004
For detailed menus and the wine list take a look
at the Combe House website