The Horse Guards Inn, Petworth
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Photography: Fiona Digby-Jones
The Horse Guards Inn offers a timeless slice of country life, a sincere passion for local produce, visual appeal in spades and simply outstanding food...
Despite the obvious bias in our name, we at The Guide 2 Surrey recognise that our beloved county is hardly an island. So when rumours reached us of a country inn a stone’s throw from our border doing all sorts of wonderful things with food and drink in a building loaded with character, and run by a tight family unit with a fiercely independent vision, we knew we had to scout the barbarian wastes of West Sussex to discover it for ourselves.
We certainly wouldn’t be the first, of course. In the ten years since Sam Beard and partner Mischa took over the 300-year-old Horse Guards Inn in the tiny hamlet of Tillington outside Petworth, word of mouth has sent customers streaming here in an unceasing tide, be they locals, day trippers from the city and neighbouring counties like ours and even tourists from Belgium and Germany, all drawn by Head Chef Mark Robinson’s honest yet inventive food and the building’s heartfelt love letter to a bygone rural England.
Sam Beard’s evident pride in their establishment is well-earned. A “lifelong slave to hospitality,” Sam left London pubs behind to find one of his own in the Sussex countryside. “We came to see this place on a sunny September day ten years ago and immediately fell in love with it. It’s not the most inspirational pub from the outside, but as you come in it’s very different. We saw loads of potential. It’s been an organic process; it took about five years to get it to where we wanted it to be, but now it’s our baby. We love what we do, and I think we do what we do very well.”
That they do. There is a ridiculously lovely cottage garden hidden out the back whose half-wild, half-manicured spirit manifests even more acutely inside the pub itself. There isn’t a corner of this inn that doesn’t offer something curious and charming to gaze upon, be it antique prints of rural life; someone’s fastidious collection of glass carafes, urns and soda spritzers; twin facing upright pianos; doily bunting; antlers; random stirrups; copper lanterns and dried flowers – if there’s rhyme or reason to the Horse Guard’s décor it’s hard to follow, but it all lends the place a vintage tea-room nostalgia that should be irresistible to anyone with a beating heart.
In many ways, the Horse Guards Inn goes further than mere nostalgia, and recaptures the traditional role of the village pub by offering food supplies and provisions, much of it homemade. There’s also a heartfelt commitment to provenance on behalf of the kitchen, who source almost all their ingredients from Sussex’s rich larder, whether from local suppliers, dug out of their own vegetable patch or foraged from the wild hedgerows nearby. This makes them one of the most agile kitchens we’ve yet come across, changing up their menus as often as twice in the same day depending on what lush new produce lands in front of the chef.
"Mark’s fantastic at sort of pushing the boundaries of what customers think they want," says Sam. "The food is very wholesome, homey, there’s nothing particularly gastro or fancy about it. Just excellent flavours letting the raw ingredients speak."
To prove his point, pork from nearby Calcot Farm arrived first, teased into a luscious, creamy rillette, accompanied by colourful pickled veg and some robust grilled rye sourdough for a dark, earthy crunch. Now, I like a tomato as much as the next person, especially late summer, but I’m unlikely to go for a dish that puts it at top billing. But when you promise new season garlic, gently confited until its allium bite turns soft and mellow, and the cloves burst, buttery and unctuous from the half-bulb to spread over fat, juicy hunks of bright orange Brandywine tomato, flecks of basil and sourdough, well, I was instantly sold. That little plate of sunshine was gone within a minute.
Next came an achingly attractive plate of pigeon breast; flawlessly cooked little sheaves of tender rosy meat draped over a tumble of sweet golden raisins and plump haricot beans given some dusky Moroccan spice from cumin and paprika. Subtle splashes of jus pooled around dabs of cool yoghurt, but the genius stroke came from the addition of preserved lemon; tiny candy crumbs and a lick of fragrant oil cutting through game, vegetables and beans with a perfectly judged citrus sharpness.
Yellow Brandywine Tomato, confit garlic
No less deft was a dish that paired flavours of the forest and the ocean thanks to sea trout - it’s crisp skin barely clinging on to meltingly tender, flaky fillet - and locally picked mushrooms. Perched over nuggets of ratte potato, and dripping in parsley and garlic butter, it showed just what this kitchen can do with a few simple, quality ingredients and faultless execution.
South Downs Pigeon Breast
A Greek filo tart, the crisp cinnamon-laced pastry blooming like a rose with fat strawberries and raspberries in the centre, drizzled with Sussex honey, could have easily brought Instagram to its knees (if I wasn’t so inept at the platform) and was a beautiful tribute to the waning summer.
Despite visiting late August, I was already hungry for autumn and heartier, homey fare. So a banana and pecan sponge proved the perfect tease, and the first of a great many sticky toffee sauces to come, if previous years are anything to go by. It might, however, have been the most conventional pub dish on the Horse Guard’s unconventional menu, which matters not a bit when everything they turn out is of such a high standard as this and every other dish we fell on during our meal.
Greek Filo Tart, berries, Sussex Honey
The Horse Guards Inn really does tick every box: there’s a timeless slice of country life, a sincere passion for local produce and sustainability, a warm family ambience, visual appeal in spades and simply outstanding food. If ever there was an excuse to
venture out of Surrey, this has to be it.
Food Total for 2 = £71.50
The Horse Guards Inn is at Upperton Road, Tillington, Petworth, West Sussex GU28 9AF