A brilliant Italian agriturismo – in Devon: Glebe House review

I do love an agriturismo. Independent, family-run, in peaceful countryside and serving homemade locally sourced food, they represent the best of Italian hospitality.

An agriturismo stay might be tricky to organise just now, but a new restaurant-with-rooms four miles inland from Branscombe in east Devon could be a very acceptable substitute. Hugo and Olive Guest have taken over a Georgian vicarage that Hugo’s parents ran as a B&B for years, renovated it and, importantly, added a bakery, a temperature-controlled ageing room and a polytunnel in the six-hectare (15 acre) grounds. They opened fully on 17 Maggio, with five bedrooms, a restaurant operating Thursday to Sunday, and “simple suppers” for guests the rest of the week.

We arrive for Sunday lunch and – some plummy English accents aside – the atmosphere is that of a pranzo in famiglia: wine flows, toddlers yell and about 30 diners at socially distanced tables tuck into four courses of fantastic food. And just like in most agriturismos, it’s a set menu of whatever is good that day, so no agonising choices and no menu envy.

Olive and Hugo have spent a lot of time in Italy – they got married there; Olive’s parents have a place in Le Marche – and believed the agriturismo idea, with its focus on local food, would translate well to Devon’s rich soil and farming traditions. Hugo is a trained chef and has worked in well-regarded London restaurants, but took himself off to Tuscany for this project, learning to do wonderful things with a prime pig from a group of norcini, traditional Italian pork butchers.

This is his USP and it shows as soon as the antipasti arrive: usually hard to find in the UK, porchetta di testa is boned, cured, rolled and slow-cooked pig’s head – and however revolting that sounds, it is gorgeous. Served in thin slices, its fat melts in the mouth like the best lardo. (In Italy the pig might have been reared on site, but Hugo buys whole rare-breed Berkshires from Devon-based Real Pig Co.)

I expect the other antipasto – grilled little gem from the garden – to pale against all that piggy unctuousness, but perfectly charred edges, crunchy parmesan crumbs and delicate lovage mayo make it a great foil. The crusty homemade sourdough – by River Cottage-trained baker Sam Lomas – is soft and chewy inside thanks to added porridge, and comes with a pat of salty home-cultured butter.

The impressive thing about Italian country cooking is the way cheap ingredients – like pig heads – become something delectable, and the pasta course is a paragon of thriftiness. A bolted crop of purple sprouting broccoli from the garden, chopped small, is the base for a memorable sauce to coat homemade pappardelle, with confit anchovies and home-fermented chillies. The joy is in contrasting textures – crunchy veg, silky pasta – as well as salty, spicy, umami flavours.

Lunch continues with hogget (year-old lamb) from an organic farm three miles away, served on an orzotto of pearl barley and fennel with salsa verde, then a delicate elderflower custard tart, homegrown strawberries – dusted with fresh elderflowers that Sam gathered on his way into work – and ice-cream made of reduced milk, a sophisticated take on childhood “evap”.

When we can tear our eyes from our plates, the views from the dining room window are almost as luscious as the food. Glebe House sits in Shire-like country of green hills covered in a patchwork of fields and lined with deep lanes and little river valleys. We’re encouraged out of the door by Glebe House’s handy “Walk Book” of nearby routes – maps drawn by Olive’s mum – and walk lunch off with a five-mile hike through woods to Blackbury Camp hillfort.

Rather than slavishly copying the agriturismo model, Hugo and Olive have added great British touches: the porchetta, per esempio, comes with crunchy beer-pickled onions. And while bedrooms in an Italian agriturismo tend to be either austere or flowery, here antiques, bold colours, great beds and interesting art make for creative, welcoming rooms.

And of course you’d never get a hot breakfast in Italy: cake, frutta, cheese, ham – but no fry-up. We come down to bowls of poached rhubarb with lashings of the creamy yoghurt Hugo makes by the gallon every week from high-fat local milk, then simple plates of bacon and egg. The bacon, naturally, is like none we’ve ever tasted. This porkmeister cures his home-butchered bellies then braises them overnight before crisping thick slices in the Aga. It’s beautifully tender and not too salty. The smear of fruity brown sauce is homemade too, but you probably guessed that. Sets us up for that day’s hilly stretch of the South West Coast Path …

My favourite agriturismo in the world is Foresteria San Leo, run by the bravissima Maria Giovanna Allegretti on a mountainside in Baslicata, but I think Glebe House could just make second place.

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