This year I was fortunate enough to have two of my all-time favourite meals. Yes, even better than Christmas, Easter and the first solid food you can eat after having a tooth out - the birthday lunch.
I've already written about the first here, whilst the second was a semi-surprise arrangement, concocted between my lovely wife and my lovely friends, at the Pig in Brockenhurst. (I'm not going to speculate further on my friend's additional motivations for wanting an excuse to go for lunch at the Pig too closely...).
This is the original Pig - there are now several incarnations, including the Pig in the Wall and the Pig on the Beach, spread across the South - and the converted house, built in the early 1900s includes a 29 room hotel, several treatment rooms and a bar, alongside the multi-roomed restaurant.
We were shown to a lovely bright table in the corner of the conservatory, which made the pictures of the food look better and the pictures of us look worse. Nothing like the natural light to really highlight those imperfections.
Cocktails to start included icy cold Chase vodka martinis, with a healthy lick of olive brine and a green olive. There was also their version of a rum and cola, which was fabulous but, with ingredients including 'acorn aromatic' and 'honeydew sage', probably remains out of the scope of most amateur mixologists.
A big basket of warm, fluffy bread - with the addition of yet more chopped olives - was excellent. Plus extra points for serving it with both oil and butter (or both, if you're the birthday girl, or just greedy. I was both).
From the piggy bits menu we ordered sharing plates of crackling shards with warm apple sauce and mini sausage rolls with mustard mayo which went down (along with retro mushroom vol au vents and salmon pate on toast) as you may imagine, very well.
There were also raptures from the rest of the table over the 'brock eggs'; mini scotch eggs made by wrapping quail eggs in shredded ham hocks before being breadcrumbed and deep fried. If you weren't an oeuf-avoider you would probably have enjoyed these. But I am, so couldn't comment.
I started things proper with a pretty (if a little bijou) plate of Solent mackerel tartare with fennel and trinidad peppers, topped with edible flowers from their gardens. At one point the trinidad was claimed to be hottest chilli in the world, but even I was glad that there wasn't any real heat to take away from the delicate flavours of the spanking fresh fish and gentle aniseed twang from the fennel.
While the menu changes seasonally the pièce de résistance is the tomahawk pork chop, a beast of a cut served with roast beetroot and a creamy mustard sauce. Move over Homer Simpson, this was damn near my perfect meal. The vast hunk of meat had been chargrilled on the outside while still juicy within, and the thick ribbon of crisp fat and rind (absolutely the best part) left intact. Earthy beetroot and a creamy mustard sauce with a decent punch completed things nicely.
Chips were commendably good, and I'l forgive them for being served in a flower pot as it fits in with the kitchen garden schtick. We also had some of their home grown steamed greens, fresh from the garden, and a plate of the excellent tobacco onions; crispy deep fried curls of lightly battered allium that did somewhat resemble a pouch of old shag tobacco.
After the fanfare with the pork, the Ewing was slightly underwhelmed with her choice of Beaulieu Estate venison haunch with crushed celeriac and pickled pear. While it looked the part, and each constituent element was well executed - especially the venison, which was butter-soft - overall it felt a little timid to really wow.
Thankfully she didn't completely miss put on the tomahawk and did manage to get her hands on a good bone (steady) to gnaw on when some of us were rendered defeated by the vast hunks of meat. Which you can clearly see she relished getting properly stuck into.
After wanting to try a queen of puddings - an old school dessert consisting of baked breadcrumbs mixed with custard, spread with jam and topped with meringue - for pretty much my whole life, just like buses, two have now come along at once. The first was made for me by the Ewing a with some allotment rhubarb, before it turned up again a few weeks after here at the Pig.
While it wasn't quite up to the standard of my wife's (and not because she is going to be reading this for typos later), it was pretty bloody great - chewy burning meringue segueing into a wobbly, custardy cakey layer, finished off with a base of warm jam.
The Ewing chose the chocolate mousse with honeycombe, boozy prunes and yet more flowers. Expecting something a bit more robust (and dare I say, more generous) the delicate pudding that appeared - like the previous daintier plates - was less successful than the old school, heartier helpings.
There was also a little dissonance around the table when one party member realised, a little too late, that the divisive dried fruit came with the mousse. As with the surfeit of chops, the Ewing felt the benefit here too, after being gifted the unwanted dehydrated plums. And with the added advantage of keeping things regular.
Now the Pig is well known for it's grounds - including kitchen gardens, smoke house, wild flower orchard and a chance to see future chops, in the form of their own pigs, snuffling around - which you are free to wander around (they even provide a range of welly boots if you don't have yours with you). But for once I was thankful for the inclement weather, which gave us the perfect opportunity to retire to the bar at the front and sit and enjoy a post-prandial in front of the log fire.
In this case a notorious P.I.G; made with bourbon, blackberry liqueur, Frangelico and apple juice. A perfect ending to the perfect afternoon. (I won't go into further details about how the rest of the night unravelled, but it may have involved more espresso martinis while trying to learn the moves to Cameo's Candy, which we then performed en masse like drunken line dancers at a wedding. And that's what you need friends for).