It is hard to believe Homewood has been around as long as it has. Sitting just outside the Unesco World Heritage site of Bath, the luxury hotel should have been a destination of choice for well-heeled tourists. But the beautiful Georgian building had suffered from a lack of investment and failed to attract much attention.
Its fortunes changed in August 2018, however, when the property was sold and underwent an extensive refurbishment over almost two years. Today, the only two things unchanged are the name and the address. Everything else appears brand new and it is now fulfilling its potential, running at 94% occupancy since May. Its new rooms and suites (including an irresistible Hot Tub Suite) have pulled in staycationing Brits from all over the country. They come for the quaint surroundings, attentive service and the charming spa, but the most successful aspect of this new-look boutique hotel is its restaurant, Olio.
Influenced by Mediterranean cuisine with a commitment to hyper-local, seasonal ingredients, Olio has slowly garnered an excellent reputation throughout the region. Its dishes are simple yet inventive and in harmony with the hotel’s countryside surroundings. With the help of a flourishing kitchen garden and a (sometimes) sun-drenched terrace, Olio has transported diners to the Mediterranean at a time when they most needed it.
The Chef / Gardener
When the new owners took stock of the hotel grounds, they pinpointed a patch of land that had been largely underutilized. Their idea was to cultivate that land and provide the kitchen with high-quality seasonal ingredients. On top of that, it would be cost-effective and environmentally friendly. All they needed was a willing gardener and the time to do it.
Fortunately, at that very moment Darren Stephens, a chef in the kitchen, was considering a career change into horticulture. Then, a national lockdown granted an unexpected break from the everyday norm. “It’s a lockdown story,” Stephens tells Elite Traveler. “It was a great time to do it. It was a joint idea. I found out about the owner’s aspirations and he asked me to spearhead it. It was just a great opportunity.”
Having never curated a vegetable garden before, Stephens approached it with an outsider’s view. He discovered a new and exciting concept, a no-dig garden, which was not only more sustainable but would provide better produce. As the name suggests, it consists of leaving the soil as undisturbed as possible, allowing nutrients to develop and move in a more natural way.
Stephens says: “There are so many benefits to it. It’s a new way of gardening but it is incredibly simple. The old way of digging a garden has been so ingrained over generations that no one has thought about doing it differently. It’s only recently where people have done more research into soil health and realized that digging the ground is not beneficial, you should just leave it alone and grow on top of it. It benefits sustainability, it improves soil health and keeps carbon in the ground, but also it’s practical because it makes less weeds and plants grow more efficiently because they can find water and nutrients easier.”
The results have been impressive. In his first full summer, Stephens has been able to provide the kitchen with a wealth of herbs, fruits and vegetables. Olio’s head chef Jamie Forman has been the beneficiary of the freshest possible ingredients to work with. Dishes are regularly created with produce picked minutes earlier. Even so, Stephens has bigger ambitions and admits the ultimate vision is still very much a work in progress.
“There is a growing process at the moment,” he says. “We didn’t know exactly how much we were going to harvest. Next year we’ll have more knowledge of what is going to come and how much we are going to get. Certain items are labeled just to highlight what is cropping the most at a particular time. It was a slow start this spring and I am still building the garden. Considering that, the no-dig method has really helped. I’ve supplied the kitchen with substantial amounts of certain crops and I have learned so much which will stand me in good stead. Next year it’s just going to be bigger and better.”
So how are those ingredients being used? Stephens has a daily conversation with the kitchen about what is available from his garden. Then it is up to Forman to utilize it. His dishes have all been designed to get the maximum out of a few hero ingredients. It is also committed to using only meat, fish, fruit and vegetables from the South West.
Many dishes are simplistic, containing just three or four ingredients with the aim of championing the quality of the produce. The salt and pepper Brixham squid garnished with just rocket and chili is the perfect example. Most restaurants will cover their backs by lathering squid in a tartare sauce, but not here.
It is a display of confidence from Forman, who leaves himself little place to hide if it is under-seasoned or overcooked. It was, of course, perfectly cooked for us and full of flavor. Similarly, the serrano ham is served with a sprinkling of local cheese and honey, which adds just a touch of sweetness to the dish without taking anything away from the main ingredient.
As for the no-dig method, those keen to try on-site ingredients can find those two little words within several dishes, indicating they were lovingly grown just yards from your dining table. Even the meat and fish has not traveled far. We enjoyed a beautifully fresh Cornish lobster, supplied by some of the best day boats in England’s most bountiful seafood region. Again, there was nothing superfluous or superficial on the plate. It all had a role, which was to bring the best out of a precious main ingredient.
The dining domes
As well as Olio, diners can also enjoy a private experience in one of the hotel’s domes that sit on the manicured lawns outside the hotel. Seating up to eight people, each dome comes with its own Big Green Egg barbecue and a dedicated grill butler. With a menu focusing on meat, fish or vegetables, the grill butler cooks an array of high-quality ingredients (or shows you how) which is served with a selection of fresh, seasonal salads. The shining light was the rainbow slaw, filled with mixed vegetables and an insatiable dressing. Most of the ingredients would have been picked from the garden, which explains its vibrancy and freshness.
We were fortunate enough to enjoy some summer sunshine during our stay, so dined on the charming Olio terrace. Offering views over rolling hills and the hotel’s beautiful lawn, the terrace succeeds in transporting you to a European destination. Of course, as the nights draw in the terrace will become less appealing, but the dining room itself is a worthy alternative. With high ceilings, original period features and ornamental lights, it has the same random yet purposeful assemblage as the rest of the hotel.
Hot Tub Suite from £500 (approx $700) per night, BBQ Dining Domes from £75 (approx. $105) per person.