Friday night getaway
Slaloming through the narrow twisting roads of a village high-street; this was different from the usual Friday night either sitting in front of the TV with a takeaway or unleashing my gladrags for a rare appearance! Different is by no means bad – in fact quite the opposite. Both my dining companion and I agreed this was an idyllic way to spend a bitterly cold December evening, where the temptation to hit the town with bare legs (resembling wobbly ten-pin bowling skittles) was not at its height. We were driving through Alfriston; the charming and quintessentially English settlement populated by cosy, picture-postcard pubs and compact medieval buildings made from local stone. Had it not been dark by this point, we’d have been wide-eyed and in awe of the rolling landscape of the South Downs surrounding the village.
But Founders of the estate, Mark and Sarah Driver, are onto something beyond the local ambitions of their counterparts. The husband and wife duo not only seek to contribute to the unique spirit of this breath-taking part of the South Downs, but to take advantage of their location which sees the perfect climate, chalk, soil and aspect to form world-class sparkling wine.
A sun-soaked bowl of 600 acres of land, further shielded by cliffs of National Trust land and a haven for wildlife, the estate has developed with sustainability in mind. This way, the appetite for business has never exceeded a concern for the environment. The team have validated their eco-credentials by constructing buildings with locally-sourced materials, using sustainable technologies such as photovoltaic cells (basically giant solar panels) and wastewater recycling, while implementing a programme of improvements to enhance wildlife habitats.
A polished country setting
We arrive at the stylishly restored Flint Barns; once an 1860s farmhouse with all imposing stable doors and vaulted reclaimed-wood ceilings, which are met with an enclosure of glass windows to let in an abundance of light. Inside is decked with chic soft-furnishings and hints of festive ornaments to give the indulgent feel of an upmarket B&B. These homely interiors complement the hearty, gastro-style offering at the Flint Barns restaurant.
The laid-back sibling of the Rathfinny family
Sister to the Tasting Rooms, The Dining Room at the Flint Barns is the more casual of the two restaurants at Rathfinny. Nevertheless, it still felt the treat to step inside and admire the towering beams and the open-plan kitchen which was soon to be feeding our empty bellies. It was an especially nice touch to be greeted with a lovely slab of Flint Owl Bread, Glastonbury farmhouse butter and a glass of the Rathfinny 2017 Classic Cuvee. This was light ochre in colour with a refreshing appley taste. Truthfully? I know very little about wine, but what I can say is that it was very easy to drink and paired well with the earthy flavours of our meal.
I was flirting with the idea of Onion Soup as soon as the December sample menu was online, so I was unusually quick in choosing my starter. My friend on the other hand was stopped in her tracks with a decision between the Venison and Boudin Noir Sausage Roll (which we’d already seen being ferried around to other tables) or the Potato Gnocchi with Pumpkin, Sage and Truffle Butter. On the recommendation of our lovely waitress, Emily, my friend decided on the gnocchi.
The onion soup was ripe with gently caramelised onions which hugged onto the hearty, savoury stock. Usually, of course, onion soup is an unpolished dish served gratinéed with croutons or a chunk of bread, topped with cheese oozing out of a ceramic dish. The Rathfinny version, on the other hand, was slightly more refined with a large, clean bowl of tangled onions (which were delightful to dip into with that stocky Flint Owl bread) and the traditional, gluttonous topping being replaced by a sweet-tasting onion stuffed with barley and Gruyere rarebit. Both starters were superb (in fact they were our favourite dishes from the entire meal!), but I have to say the gnocchi was the star of the table with its contrasting flavours of sweet pumpkin melded with nuttiness from the truffle butter.
Our mains arrived timely after our starters; both carefully presented and fortunately not over-plated like you sometimes find with Gastro-style food (because we’d already cast an eye over the desserts at the beginning of our meal!).
I had the Slow-Baked Cod which was delicate and fell apart at the touch of my knife; very different from the compact dill fishcake alongside it. The textures of the two worked so well together that you could almost spear them on the end of your fork like a fishy (albeit rather fancy) Souvlaki, and dip into the bouillabaisse sauce for a subtle, floral finish. The Confit Duck Leg had more rich flavours to it with a pairing of puy lentils, chestnuts, pancetta, and a port sauce.
You could have spun a wheel and I’d honestly have been happy with any of the desserts, even the Stichelton blue cheese board for round two of cheesy goodness. It was only right that I chose something different from my friend, so I decided on the After Eight Chocolate Fondant with creme fraiche while she went for the Deep Fried Mince Pie with brown butter ice cream (yes, I was secretly envious but I did get to try a few bites).
Both desserts were impressive in their own right: the fondant in that the mintiness was slight and not at all overpowering as you cut into the molten centre, whereas the mince pie was just the epitome of Christmas indulgence – lip-smackingly good as you bit into the teasing, warm golden batter and dipped your fork into the brown butter ice cream. Again despite the naughty connotations, the dish displayed sophistication and finesse by the accomplished chefs behind the Flint Barn’s kitchen.
Our wholesome evening had sadly come to an end, but we both agreed we will definitely be back in the warmer months to admire the unblemished, striped vineyards and breathtaking vistas while we dine. The menu is reasonably priced at 2 courses for £30 or 3 courses for £35, making this perfect for either an afternoon or an evening. A glass of Rathfinny’s finest sparkling wine can’t go a miss.