Unique pairing of superb Sussex cuisine and meeting the producers

So there we were, suited from head to foot in impenetrable white suits stepping cautiously across unfamiliar terrain toward a lifeform arguably more intelligent and accomplished than mankind.

Hannah Rhodes, founder and MD of Hiver, the honey beer
Hannah Rhodes, founder and MD of Hiver, the honey beer

If for a fleeting moment the scene appeared to resonate with a sci-fi movie then that was not entirely unexpected.

But the truth was firmly rooted in Mother Earth.

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Sussex abounds with a unique array of producers of local food and drink - everything from sparkling and still wines, to local lamb and cheeses.

Alison Nightingale with the first bottle of Bacchus Frizzante 2018 at the Albourne Estate

These enterprising and innovative small businesses who share a passion for all things organic, wholesome and local are increasingly exploring new ways to highlight the sheer quality and excellence of the food and drink they produce - and are partnering with one another to raise their individual profiles.

To that end, a group of journalists - myself included - were invited to Ockenden Manor Hotel and Spa at Cuckfield to test out a unique pairing of superb cuisine based on local produce combined with some visits to the producers themselves.

Having enjoyed a stunning Bee-Friend the Bees dinner, the following morning we were shuttled to the nearby Albourne Estate for some first-hand lessons in beekeeping.

Duly suited in white we were privileged to oversee the arrival of some new hives - and given a unique insight into the highly sophisticated and hard-working world of the honeybee.

The bee keeping experience at Albourne Estate

Women the world over should take inspiration from these tiny bees who dispense with their male counterparts as soon as their reproductive contribution is complete and run honey-producing communes that have been revered since the days of Ancient Egypt.

Honey, or course, can be consumed in its natural state or used as a key ingredient in many other wondrous products.

After spending time with the bees we met Hannah Rhodes, the founder and MD of Hiver Beer - which is brewed down the road south of Horsham.

But this is no ordinary beer - it’s honey beer - a drink of enormous variety depending on the type of honey used with a rounded softness, but not sweetness, that sets its apart from your normal pint.

The bee keeping experience at Albourne Estate

Hannah bursts with passion for the product as she describes her own unusual journey into the world of brewing. Having left Hull and come to London some 12 years ago she took advantage of free beer samplings to supplement her household budget.

It drew her into the brewing industry where she gained a wealth of expert experience before launching Hiver.

Today, her brand produces nearly a million bottles a year and is at an advanced stage of breaking into the Chinese and Australian markets.

Wow, what a success story. Those hard-working and focused bees in the corner of a Sussex field are doing more for the British economy than all the MPs wandering aimlessly around the House of Commons at the moment.

Ockenden Manor Hotel and Spa at Cuckfield

It’s not just the bees.

The Albourne Estate under the inspirational direction of vineyard owner Alison Nightingale is producing some of Sussex’s renowned new generation of wines.

Her sparkling has a huge following but she is also determined to make a success of still wine too. Her still Bacchus won English wine of the year with its 2014 vintage. On the day of our visit she unveiled her new Bacchus Frizzante - a lighter fizz than sparkling and consequently contained in a standard screw-top bottle.

So not only easy to access but a national flag bearer too - it’s England’s first Frizzante.

We quaffed it with some delicious cheese from the nearby High Weald Dairy.

Ockenden Manor - part of the family-owned Historic Sussex Hotels - was one of the first premiere establishments to showcase local produce although many others do too. But in packaging spa and dinner stays with visits to actual producers it is playing a critical role in revealing to a wider audience the sheer scale and supremacy of Sussex produce.

Ockenden Manor Hotel and Spa at Cuckfield

This will be great for Sussex tourism and the producers themselves for whom the journey to profitability is rarely without challenge.