Fine dining in England’s north
In the first episode of the first series of The Trip, Steve Coogan slurps his tomato soup – the soup of the day at The Inn at Whitewell where the Queen once had a pub lunch – and declares, “Well, it tastes of tomatoes.” Coogan is reviewing six of northern England’s finest eateries and had hoped his foodie girlfriend would help with the assignment. Instead, they’ve parted ways so his dining companion is Rob Brydon who, when he samples the pumpkin and Gruyere amuse-bouche at L’Enclume near the Lake District, says, “Mmm, that is delicious – my bouche is amused.” I feel about as sophisticated as Coogan and Brydon when I join food writers and a chef on a gourmet gallivant across the top of England that includes two of the series’ establishments and a constellation of Michelin stars.
I’m filling a last-minute vacancy – so last-minute that I arrive a day behind everyone else. The professional foodies started in York but I catch up with them in Helmsley, a market town bordering the North York Moors National Park. I’m bug-eyed with jet lag but lunch awaits at the Black Swan Hotel, home to a twee tearoom. Who can resist ordering an exceedingly pretty afternoon tea presented on a tiered silver stand? Not I – even though I received my very first cholesterol results before flying out of Australia. The idea was that the news (which was, as expected, less than admirable) would help me refuse the more decadent treats of the week. Yet here I am, straight off the plane, slathering clotted cream and jam onto scones I’ve twisted in half while eyeing off the rest of the stand. “This is really good coronation chicken,” Foodie No. 1 announces from across the table, nibbling a tiny round of bread piled with the savoury-sweet chicken salad that salutes the Queen’s 1953 coronation, an event that occurred decades before FN 1 was born. “Mmm, that is delicious,” I say, as though I’m on close terms with the dish.
There’s a hush over Helmsley when we visit but, come August 12 each year, tweed-suited game hunters flock en masse. The date, known as the Glorious Twelfth, marks the opening of red grouse season (followed by duck and pheasant seasons). Guests occasionally present braces of birds to the kitchen at the Feversham Arms where they’re cooked to order by chef Norman Mackenzie and his team. Contemplating the menu, I figure Mackenzie knows a thing or two about cooking game birds so the best choice is his moors pigeon with a heart and liver sausage roll, squash, salsify and barley granola. “Mmm,” I say, taking my first bite, quickly deciding that less is more when it comes to my commentary on the cuisine. I’ve already managed to not ask out loud what girolles might be (the chanterelle mushrooms accompany my starter – a tangy slab of goat’s cheese panna cotta crowned with a foraged leaf or two). The dessert menu confounds, too, with a mango and Chaource cheesecake (Chaource, it turns out, is a soft French cheese). It is undeniably cakey and cheesy.
I don’t know it yet but I’ve just completed the easiest dining day of our trip. The day that nearly does us in is a Friday. Late-season snow has frosted the Forest of Bowland, one of three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty that cling to the fringes of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Our van slips and slides as it tries to exit The Inn at Whitewell. Its troubles, surely, have nothing to do with the previous night’s outing to the Freemasons at Wiswell where we downed duck-fat chips, fish-finger hot dogs and an experimental bowl of ramen noodles made entirely from pork fat.
Our host announces we’re heading over the fells towards an 11-course lunch at Parkers Arms. No, we beg. We can’t. Please, something less extravagant. Phone calls go back and forth but we roll up to find chef Stosie Madi will indeed present her planned lunch. “She’s a feeder,” shrugs our host. I ask Foodie No. 1, who does these sorts of trips all the time, how she isn’t the size of a house. “Three bites of each dish then cutlery down,” she says matter-of-factly. As much as it pains me to leave anything on a plate, this is how I get through lunch. The line-up features hare loin with Lancaster mushrooms, citrus-and-gin-cured salmon with fennel pollen and confit Manx queenie scallops, salt marsh hogget breast with Scottish surf clams and mint sauce, cream posset with gooseberries, custard tart with roasted rhubarb and a dense, treacly fruitcake known as Kathy’s Wet Nelly. Somewhere in the middle, perhaps dish number five, is a black pudding, sage and apple sausage roll with a side of autumn piccalilli. “That’s good piccalilli,” says Foodie No. 2. “Mmm,” I say with relish (which is a food joke in the manner of Rob Brydon).
Lunching like this is all very well but it means no one wants to tackle that night’s however-many-courses degustation dinner at Michelin-starred Northcote, where our Lancashire-raised chef companion, Nelly Robinson, trained. The kitchen can’t believe the news but nonetheless offers up a three-course à la carte menu instead. After all that has gone before, a dinner of toasted scallops with toffeed smoked eel, lamb with pistachio crumble and lemon marmalade, and apple crumble soufflé with Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese ice-cream feels like light work. Most pleasingly, not a single ingredient on the menu baffles me.
Northcote’s chef patron is Nigel Haworth, whose restaurant interests include The Three Fishes – a gastropub just down the road. I don’t get the memo that this is where we’ll try the iconic Lancashire hotpot straight after breakfast at Northcote. Blissfully unaware I should be applying the three-bites-and-out rule, I down cheese soufflé but give the white bread fried in bacon fat a miss. I’m still stuffed when we pull up at the pub to try the hotpot – as well as cheese and onion pies and a seafood platter with tiny Morecambe Bay potted shrimps. The homely lamb and onion hotpot, crowned with crispy potato discs, looks inviting – but a single bite will do. When the pie dome is cut open and a wave of oniony melted cheese oozes forth, my heart leaps as my arteries clench. One bite of that, too, thank you. I nibble a single shrimp and toy with the idea of declaring it the platter’s hero ingredient – clearly I’ve been watching too much MasterChef – but instead I slump in my chair, marvelling at my foresight in wearing stretchy pants.
Just when I think I’ve conquered the whole gastronomic challenge – even keeping an eye-roll to myself when a “pre-dessert” is plonked down before me at the Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms The Yorke Arms (The Trip, episode five) – I’m dealt an almighty blow: the group must brave an epic 15-course degustation at Manchester House restaurant.
We line up on high stools facing the open kitchen and prepare for battle. As chef Aiden Byrne’s handiwork rolls out (razor clam, roasted langoustine, steamed pigeon, smoked eel, panna cotta with pickled cauli puree), the most memorable moments are the dry-ice theatrics (times two), the familiarity of four Australian wines (an Adelaide Hills chardonnay, Yarra Valley pinot and rosé, and De Bortoli’s Noble One sticky) and the impossibility of five foodies and one pretender being able to converse in this straight-line configuration. Four hours later, it’s cutlery down. As we ride the elevator back to earth and, wobbly with wine, wander into the night, I want to congratulate those who do this for a living. They really are gluttons for punishment.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 20, 2016 as "Food awakening". Subscribe here.