HIS restaurant name invokes connotations of warm, hearty dishes packed to the brim with earthy flavours and ingredients – all organic and as locally-sourced as one can get.

So it was no surprise to hear TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had plans to bring River Cottage to Winchester. Already renowned in the culinary world as being a big-draw for such names as Raymond Blanc, Jamie Oliver, James Martin and, most recently, Rick Stein who has plans to open his new eatery at the former Union Jacks on the High Street.

So what is it about Winchester and its produce that is quickly making it the place to eat?

“It’s a great city and I’m sure people are coming for the same reasons we are,” Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall replies. “It’s emblazoning a great deal of food produce for a long time and it’s got one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the UK, of which I once had a stall a long time ago.

“There’s so much here to go on in the outlining area – a great foodie hub for the South-West and it’s a city with a real buzz to it. I’m only just getting to know it but it’s got so many lovely little corners and its farming heartland.”

His project – the recently refurbished Abbey Mill – was completed in July following a year of extensive renovation works.

At a cool £1million, not a single stone within this building has been left unturned following its two-year refurbishment. It has been transformed into a three-storey treasure trove with an open kitchen, delicately restored beams, a bar on the second level and al fresco dining.

Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall said the decision to open his first restaurant in Hampshire was largely based on the discovery of the archaic mill.

“It’s about the fabulous building, which had been short on love for a few years if I might say, and we’ve transformed it into something that will last for decades to come,” he says. “We’ve invested in the long term and I’m so thrilled with it. At every stage I was really delighted about it.

Hampshire Chronicle:

“However many architects and designs and artists impressions we’ve been presented with, until you see it done you don’t know quite what it’s going to feel like. It’s such a complicated building, so higgledy-piggledy. It’s such a clever use of its light and the space with so many different parts and character.”

With a little help from the newly-appointed head chef, Mark Price, the Abbey Mill menu has been created using Hampshire-only ingredients wherever possible, ranging from the New Forest to the South Downs, while working to build solid relationships with local suppliers.

And this is the time of year when Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall thinks the mill will come into its own. As the dark clouds close in with the coming of autumn now is when hot puds and thick-spiced soups will be just what the doctor ordered.

“There’s a lovely beef brisket with heritage roots that’s going to be a favourite if the weather’s bad,” he says. “One of my favourites is our mushroom stew with herb dumplings, which is from my River Cottage veg book. We like to have a wide choice of vegetarian dishes and not just to cater for vegetarians. Not everyone wants to eat meat when they go to a restaurant and I want to get a really good balance and deliver really good flavours and the mushroom stew is cracking. I’m really delighted to see that our organic lamb is on the menu, from Laverstock Farm, and we’ve got an egg producer from the wonderfully named Mrs Fluffit on the edge of the New Forest.

“The sharing boards they are good too. Last week they included a Mackerel escabeche which is always delicious.

Hampshire Chronicle:

“I think the puds are outstanding. For chocolate lovers there’s a chocolate, lime and salt. I wasn’t sure I could manage a pudding and I had a bit to go with my coffee. Well it was gone within about 10 seconds, it’s often the way, just trying to fit it in! I also love the yoghurt panacotta. It can be very rich and claggy but that little spoon of yoghurt helps it slip down."

He adds: “The feeling we have got so far is people appreciate what we do. It’s early days but it’s really positive. The most important thing is we offer really great food that reflects the local landscape and changes with the seasons but always delivering people’s expectations – that has to be the basis. We need to bed down and get that kitchen working really well. Touch wood that’s happening.”

Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall will be signing his new book, River Cottage Light and Easy, on Thursday, October 16, from 10.30-11.30am at Abbey Mill.