Several weeks ago I booked the only available table at the Ox Barn, the latest restaurant to open at the privately owned Thyme, Southrop. Ox Barn was launched about two years ago with Charlie Hibbert as Head Chef. It is very much a family business with his mother, Caryn, as founder and Creative Director on the entire estate and her daughter, Milly, who also works for the business co-coordinating various projects.
I visited Thyme for an early dinner reservation at 6pm on the same night as the re-launch of the hotel since Covid-19. I visited with a colleague from Slow Food named Emma Schwarz. Emma is founder of the Rare Brand Market and chair of Slow Food Sussex based in Chichester. As you can imagine everyone was busy, however, on request I was able to have a tour by Steve, their Head Gardener, who toured us around the estate’s market garden which helps supplement the ingredients for Ox Barn and the estate’s other venues.
Steve has an excellent relationship with the kitchens providing them with fresh produce only a short walk between kitchen and garden. Our tour of the garden was on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Steve was apologetic that the garden was not at its best- there were weeds and some areas were more productive than others, however, this barely showed. Steve explained that he still had a skeleton team as many of the gardeners had been furloughed during lock down. We were shown several plants we had never seen or tasted before such as agretti, also known as “land seaweed” which tasted similar to samphire. We also tasted wineberry which looks similar to an unripe blackberry and is now considered a super-food. Our tour very quickly became a culinary adventure of both taste and sight of far flung foods from across the globe.
Slow Food was founded on the belief that life as homo-sapiens is too “fast paced” and that our defence of a more slow life should begin at the table. Slow Food advocates the “flavours and savours of regional cooking” and nothing could reflect this more than the growing and cooking at Thyme.
The Ox Barn restaurant is, as the name suggests- in a converted barn. The ceiling reveals the exposed wooden rafters with an opposing modern concrete floor and open- planned kitchen. The mix between old and new gives the room a contemporary feel. The restaurant over-looks pristine gardens with chocolate box dry stone walls, olive trees and purple lavender- with plenty of outdoor seating. Thyme at Southrop also includes a small hotel, spa, private bar, village pub (yet to re-open) and a cookery school.
I dined at the Ox Barn with a colleague from Slow Food named Emma Schwarz. Emma is founder of the Rare Brand Market and chair of Slow Food Sussex based in Chichester. The menu is intentionally very short with only a choice of four starters, four main courses and four desserts. I don’t mind this limit at all- whenever, I see a long menu I think of microwaves defrosting frozen meals and rows of deep fat fryers!
To begin our meal, we ate two little snacks- crushed broad beans and peas on toast and a small plate of English charcucterie with corncichons. Then, as a starter I chose a beautifully flavoured pork terrine with prunes and toasted sourdough. Emma ate a salad of peaches and goats curd. Both dishes were simply presented and allowed the individual ingredients to sing. Charlie’s style of cooking is simple in both design and ingredients. It is bold and there is no-where to hide- no swipes of a puree or perfectly placed peashoots/leaves. It is honest cooking and it tastes delicious.
Following our starter Emma ate roast pork and I chose the fish dish- a perfectly cooked piece of Brill, garnished with fresh watercress and served with new potatoes rolled generously in a butter and herb emulsion (similar to making mayonnaise). The pork was thinly sliced and locally sourced, served slightly pink with what Emma called a “thin jus”.
My fish was well executed with a crispy skin. It was probably unnecessary, however, we also ordered two side dishes- a small bowl of triple cooked chips and a plate of french beans tossed in more butter and herbs. The beans were al dente- in fact I insisted to Emma that they may have met the water for a moment and been brought out again. Emma suggested that they didn’t even make the water but were instead tossed in a pan with the butter and served. However they were “cooked” matters not- there was no mistake- as they tasted beautifully fresh.
For dessert we both ordered an almond tart served with whipped cream and ice-cream. We also tasted blackcurrant sorbet and gooseberry rippled ice-cream. The sorbet was smooth and brightly coloured with a slight acidity. The tart was amazing! Charlie visited our table towards the end of our meal and gave us the recipe which he recited by heart- equal amounts of butter, sugar and nuts, 8 eggs and cooked in a raw pastry case for 2 hours on a very low heat. The result is a crisp pastry (no soggy base) and a nutty, in places chewy filling.
Charlie initially trained as a chef in New Zealand and Ireland where he attended the Ballymaloe Cookery School run by the super talented Darina Allen. Once back in the UK he worked at a popular London restaurant called Quo Vadis. Now, Charlie seems quite literally at home at the Ox Barn where his cooking is brave and perfectly partnered with the ingredients from their garden. We will certainly both be back and perhaps next time we might even stay overnight in one of their magnificent rooms.
Michael Little, Slow Food Sussex.