I am freshly home from a rather gluttonous weekend indeed. I simply had to record it for pure food porn reasons alone!
It all started on Friday when my parents had come up, from the South, for a little visit. I had already decided I would cook them elements of our November secret supperclub menu as a way of testing some new things out. I think I pushed their food boundaries a bit, with a rabbit starter and a mutton main course. But overall the meal was well received and I was pleased with the experiment. However I do find it hard receiving feedback and at times it felt like Mum was channelling her inner Gregg and John from Masterchef, hmph!
On Saturday morning we had the fortune to bag the last free tickets for Create’s Monthly taster sessions. This involved tasting different vodkas (at 11 in the morning!), eating pastries from the kitchen and then watching the head chef do some cookery demos whilst we ate what was being prepared. It was great fun and a brilliant idea for a restaurant to open up its doors to show off their passion for food. I think from next month they will be charging for tickets, but you do get your money’s worth. Our cooking demo was all about cured food, from gravadlax, to bressola and potting. I am a huge fan of preserving so soon I’ll be hanging a massive hunk of beef from my cellar ceiling, watch this space!
We then descended upon North Yorkshire. I love the fact that we live literally an hours drive from some of the most beautiful parts of England, but I’m not sure that we always make the most of it. Our first destination was Castle Howard. Yes a beautiful house, but an even better farm shop! Once we’d looked at many ancient family portraits I raced back to the courtyard to immerse myself in veggie heaven. The harvest produce they have on sale is excellent – and all grown on site as well. The prices are not too bad and I managed to get myself a load of sloes for a mere £1. I did feel a bit guilty that I hadn’t gone foraging myself this year, but I’ve simply not had time. At least this year I’ll still be able to make a batch of sloe gin.
Our next destination was the beautiful Crab and Lobster, a quirky fish restaurant based just outside of Thirsk. I’ve been before and my rave reviews had enticed my parents up North. We checked into our bedrooms in the Crab Manor, kicked off our shoes and put on Strictly Come Dancing whilst supping beer (courtesy of the hidden beer tap). Some would say that the Crab Manor hotel is snooty and overpriced. I have to say that at times I did find the reception staff a bit hostile, but although expensive I think the hotel is such a treat to stay in, and the rooms are so well decorated and unusual that it does make it worth it. Plus you can drink as much ‘free’ beer as you can fit in. Although you do have to pour it yourself!
The Crab and Lobster provide a menu in your bedroom so by the time we had all sat down in the restaurant I had already decided what to go for. My choice of starter was six oysters with hot chorizo and wasabi mayo. An odd combo but captivating nonetheless. The addition of the chorizo makes you really chew down on the oyster and savour its sea flavour. The oysters were massive – so big that I had no idea which way round to actually point them at my mouth! Needless to say I was completely full by the time it came to have my main course – posh fish and chips. This was basically a platter of different types of fish, such as standard fish in batter, grilled tuna steak, fish cake, salmon etc. It all tasted amazing but I felt that all I could manage was a mouthful of each before depositing the rest on Richard’s plate. The meal was good, very good, but we did leave feeling a little bit queasy, a bit like on Christmas day! The venue was stunning, so many nooks and crannies with curiosities hung from every possible space. I could sit there all day looking round.
On Sunday, after breakfast from the Crab and Lobster (smoked salmon and scrambled egg for me), we dashed off to the Moors Visitor Centre at Sutton Bank. Despite the miserable weather we were determined to have a little walk to try and work off some of the food we’d consumed. Plus the views at Sutton Bank are stunning – looking across the vale of York. Apparently it is home to the only inland cliff edge. Anyway, walk done and we were off to Helmsley. Helmsley I think is one of my favourite towns in North Yorkshire. It has that same quaintness as everywhere else but there is something very real about it. It feels like a real working town, rather than a postcard perfect place that relies solely on tourism. Plus it has some great pubs around the outside of the market square which sell lovely real ales.
Now our reason for heading to Helmsley was because a few months back I had succumbed to one of those Travelzoo hotel package vouchers. You know the kind, they promise you the world for £150 and then its nothing but disappointment when you actually go to redeem it. Well with this voucher we had to pay £179 upfront (slightly eye watering) but this apparently got us a double room for the night, afternoon tea for two, champagne in our room, a 6 course tasting menu for two and breakfast in the morning. This was all at the Black Swan hotel on the market square. If you look at Trip Advisor then the Black Swan has some terrible reviews, but seeing as it had recently been refurbished throughout I was willing to give it a go. The decor was lovely and in some places stunning. Our room was large and comfortable and whilst not as quirky as the Crab Manor, it was still luxurious. And indeed there was a chilled bottle of champagne waiting for us to enjoy!
Afternoon tea was served in the cosy tea room, which doubles up as the brasserie by night. It came on three pretty tiers, with sandwiches on top, scone in the middle and patisserie on the bottom. It was just the right amount for one person and there were some great flavours on there – particularly the rich chocolate tart and tangy lemon posset. What’s more you got to choose from a long list of lovely leaf teas. Once full and content we went for a walk round Rievaulx Abbey – a true hidden gem! It was beautiful and really interesting as it’s still quite well preserved. I highly recommend a visit.
We opted for a fairly late reservation for the six course taster meal so that there might be some small possibility that we’d actually be hungry. This was served in the main restaurant of the Black Swan. Again, it was decorated to a high standard but slightly lacking in atmosphere and serviced by staff who were far too formal to make you feel entirely comfortable. We opted to complement our meal with the suggested wine pairings, one of my favourite things to do as you get to try wines you never normally would. Our meal was perfect, the portions were modest, which was exactly what we needed after a weekend of face stuffing. The taster menu is all about focus on flavours and textures rather than huge portions – Crab and Lobster take note! Highlights for me included fillets of sea bass, expertly pan-fried and served with hazelnuts, of all things! The crunchy oiliness of the nuts worked extremely well with the delicate fish and crispy skin. We left feeling well fed, but also that we had tried some new flavours and new pairings.
If the voucher comes up again I would recommend the Black Swan. I guess they went in for the Travelzoo thing to get some people through the door who might do them some decent reviews on trip advisor. They have all the ingredients for a good restaurant/ hotel. Now they just need to work on the atmosphere. Our voucher was exceptional value for money, I worked out that we basically had got our bedroom for free.
In less good news I got back to Leeds and immediately fell ill with symptoms that seemed ever so familiar to when I had swine flu last year (uh-oh!). This was particularly annoying as I was meant to be having a day off and ended spending it all in bed with David Dickinson and Alan Titchmarsch haunting my feverish sleep (mainly because I had ITV on in the background for company!) What’s even worse about being so ill is that I don’t even want to eat anymore – a living nightmare! But I probably ate a weeks worth at the weekend anyway…