I first became aware of The Earl of March when they won the ‘Best Sussex Eating Experience’ at the 2017 Sussex Food Awards – earning itself a place on my list of ‘must try’. And so when it came to arranging a well overdue lunch with our publisher Maarten, it was an obvious choice.
Dating back to the early 18th century, The Earl of March is in a stunning location set against the picturesque backdrop of the South Downs, in the village of Lavant. As you pull into the car park, you are met with sweeping views of the glorious Sussex countryside – so glorious in fact that this is apparently where William Blake wrote the words to ‘Jerusalem’ in 1803.
Described as ‘country plush’, the pub was taken over in July 2007 by Giles Thompson, the former Executive Head Chef of the Ritz Hotel in London. He has impressive credentials, having trained at the Connaught in London before earning two AA rosettes and an RAC restaurant award at Danesfield House, Buckinghamshire. During his tenure at the Ritz, he received a Royal Warrant from The Prince of Wales, St James Palace and an accreditation from The Soil Association for commitment to organics at a time when this was unheard of. I had high expectations.
As for the venue itself, it’s fairly pleasant as in it’s inoffensive, following that formulaic blonde wood and cream walls combo that so many ‘gastropubs’ have succumbed to. It was packed with locals with almost every table full on a Wednesday lunchtime. Clearly they are getting it right.
We were immediately acknowledged by the Restaurant Manager and host, a charming gentleman who had previously worked with Giles at the Ritz and now lives in the village.
Maarten and I enjoyed a glass of Laurent- Perrier while we perused the menu, which is extensive. I assume they have a large kitchen team to be able to deliver this menu at the expected level of quality.
A selection of various breads were brought to the table but without explanation. We were later told, when we asked, that they were sourced from a local baker which is perfectly acceptable if the bread is good. This bread was ok, a bit bland and a bit dry, maybe it was yesterday’s.
The main menu is divided into ‘deciders’ – nibbles to have while you peruse the menu (nice touch), starters, seafood shack (with classics such as devilled whitebait, mussels, oysters, lobster or crab thermidor), mains and desserts. There is also a separate kids menu and a daily specials board, which we were not shown.
Unaware of the specials we stuck to the á la carte menu. For my starter I chose their ‘signature’ Terrine ‘Maison’ of duck, pistachios, truffled field mushrooms, The Earl’s Relish, cornichons and crostini (£9.50) and Maarten chose soft poached Hallgate Farm duck egg, wild garlic and asparagus maple jelly (£9.00).
Terrines can often be disappointing; over chilled, bland, or at worst, tasting like a slab of compressed dog food. Not this one. Each element of the terrine was distinct with the quality of the produce and flavours shining through and working well together. The whole even greater than the sum of its parts as it were. The crostini was excellent – less like toasted bread and more like a giant crouton – crisp, dense with a buttery, nutty flavour. Maarten’s dish delivered much more than the menu suggested. The egg perfectly poached, alongside charred buttery asparagus, wild mushrooms and an addictive quenelle of mushroom ‘cream’ which I couldn’t leave alone.
By now I was drinking the local Tinwood Estate sparkling, this is not one I’ve tried before, and it stood up well to the Laurent- Perrier that had preceded it.
My main of whole roast lemon sole, sweet potato, foraged sea vegetables, romanesco, local shellfish and citrus butter (£23.50) was a generous and impressive plate of food. The sole well-cooked but the skin made soggy by virtue of the rest of the ingredients being piled on top. The sweet potato was a little mushy rather than caramalised. A minor criticism – overall the dish was lovely – wholesome, fulfilling yet light. Accompanying vegetables were cooked in butter and quite right too. The truffled parmesan fries were perfectly crisp and moreish.
Maarten’s pork belly was even more impressive – a huge slab of crisped pork, clearly good quality meat and cooked perfectly so that the fat rendered away. It was the fault of the truffled parmesan chips that we had little room for dessert, which is a shame as they have two of my favourites; a sticky toffee pudding with salted caramel sauce and coffee ice cream and also a triple chocolate brownie, chocolate sauce and toffee and honeycomb ice cream (both £7). I chose the latter for us to share. The texture was spot on, soft and gooey in the middle and crisp on the outside. It would have been perfect were it not for it being a tad too sweet for me. I like quite an intense chocolate in a brownie and this was bordering sickly. That might have been personal preference.
All in all I would heartily recommend The Earl for a business lunch or a special occasion. Presentation is impressive and they are keen to please. There is a good ambience and in the summer, the outside dining area is a huge asset. This is also an ideal spot for a Sunday lunch after a long hike in that glorious countryside.