I recall visiting Rathfinny for a tour of the site near Alfriston about a decade ago. The first vineyard planting had begun but it was hard to visualise then what the estate has become. Now one of the largest single wine estate’s in Europe there are acre after acre of vines rolling in every direction, literally as far as the eye can see.
The drive into Rathfinny immediately transported me to a different place and time. Fond memories came flooding back of pre-Covid trips to the wine regions of Australia and New Zealand, and – of course – a well-known area to the south of Paris that is renowned for it’s sparkling wines too.
Passing the renowned Tasting Room Restaurant headed by chef Chris Bailey, our target on this visit was the Flint Barns – a complex of accommodation and informal restaurant surrounding a walled courtyard. That week we were experiencing a heatwave so were welcomed at the door then – thankfully – escorted to the open-sided marquee instead of being seated in the rather stuffy main dining room. The marquee is clearly an amazing event space and I can well imagine some pretty special weddings and celebrations taken place there.
Quicker than you could say ‘pop’ a glass of Rathfinny’s pinot noir dominant sparkling Classic Cuvée 2018 was in our hands and savoured to the max: flavours of apricot and creme patissiere with just a touch of soft lemon. As we perused the menu, our table afforded incredible views of one of the fields of vines and the knowledge that over the crest of the next hill lay Cuckmere Haven and the cool breeze from the English Channel; the cares of the day evaporated and it was clear this would be a special experience.
Our fellow diners were mainly couples although I dare say that was due to it being a midweek night with many also taking advantage of an overnight stay in the barn’s rooms. It didn’t appear that there was any attempt at a dress code – floaty summery dresses, shorts and flip flops abound – so I commented to my sister, who was joining me for dinner, that we were the best dressed people in the room. Well, there’s a first time for everything…
Now I’ve been visiting a lot of restaurants recently and more often than not I find menus a bit dull and repetitive, especially when it comes to the moniker of ‘modern British cuisine’. The menu at Flint Barns is the first I’ve opened in months where I would have happily ordered every single dish. Clearly that wasn’t feasible so I opted for torched mackerel to start then pork belly for main. My driver – aka my sister – chose burrata with local asparagus followed by sea trout.
There’s nothing worse than really ‘fishy’ mackerel but thankfully this dish wasn’t having any of that. The flesh of the fish flaked into moist mouthfuls at the mere nod of my fork. The natural oiliness balanced out by the freshness of apple and cucumber, a sprinkling of sea salt and a sauce of wasabi and creme fraiche that wrapped all the other elements in a luxurious blanket of deliciousness.
The pork belly was an outstanding example of what can be done with this cut of meat; and trust me – naming no names – I’ve seen a lot of very bad, blubbery attempts. From the fat layering clearly the beast had a good life and chef certainly knows how to prepare with care to maximise the taste and texture, including the wafer-thin delightfully crisp yet chewy layer of crackling skin. The accompanying bean cassoulet with lardons was a triumph and I could quite happily have just had a bowl of that.
As traditional method sparkling wine takes time to ferment and develop character, the first wines coming from Rathfinny Estate were stills under the Cradle Valley name. If I didn’t know better then the glass of the still Pinot Gris that accompanied my pork dish could have come from a much warmer climate. This is one of the most rounded English stills I’ve quaffed; I enjoyed it so much that I bought one to take home, which is high praise indeed.
Dessert was ice cream sandwiched between two wafers of white chocolate cookie with pecan and apricot. I gave it a go with my fork and spoon but ended up using my fingers as that seemed eminently easier. My sister had a beautifully plated savoury goats cheese with figs on malted bread; so simple yet so elegant.
Although I guess you’d say this is gastropub-style food, the quality of ingredients and the accomplishment of the kitchen takes it to a higher plane. And the price point – for the food and wider dining experience – is hard to beat with two courses priced at £30 and three courses at £35. The wine list clearly focusses on Rathfinny’s own wines – again accessibly priced with still from £6.25 a glass and sparkling from £9.25. From a cursory glance at the pricing of menus of some renowned Sussex food-led pubs, Rathfinny comes in significantly less.
As I alluded earlier, there is another fine dining restaurant that’s open at the weekends. For more informal experiences you can swing by the new ‘Hut’ food truck open daily from 10am until 5pm for pastries, coffee, savoury grazing platters and, of course, wine by the glass.
Rathfinny Estate is perhaps Sussex’s most magical food and drink experience.
Flint Barns at Rathfinny Estate, Alfriston, East Sussex BN26 5TU
01323 87 00 22 • www.rathfinnyestate.com