Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Rise Of The Good Pub

When did pubs get so good?

I know this reversion to classic British cooking has been going on a while but I felt like I was spoilt for good pub food over the Christmas period and have a few to mention from around the country. Being of the pint of ale and pie persuasion this was a great way to spend my sacred days off.

All three were slightly different, there was the modern gastro pub type affair, a dabble in old traditional and nose to tail eating and a classic British through and through joint which is my regular when at home. As Christmas is all about visiting friends and family, I got to enjoy the delights of Harrogate - where I am from, and Chester, the other halves sort of home town.

I've only been to Chester once before, the other half lives in some remote spot of the country near by, and we chanced upon The Brewery Tap but unfortunately it was absolutely packed. This time when we ventured in to go sales shopping we had it in mind for a spot of lunch. It is an incredible old tudor style building called Gamul Hall with a high vaulted dining hall and original exposed beams. It  gives a wonderfully old fashioned atmosphere and the menu certainly played up to this - mutton, ox heart, lambs tongue and breast.
The Brewery Tap, Chester
The Brewery Tap, Menu, a range of traditional fare

The pub is run by the people behind the Spitting Feathers brewery which was established in 2005, so there are plenty of their own ales as well as guest ales from other local brewers. Major plus points for a lazy afternoon.
In retrospect I wish I had been a little more adventurous and gone for the lambs tongue as I have wanted to try tongue for a long time, however I played it safe with fish and chips and wasn't disappointed, light and crisp batter and particularly good tartare. Our friend Matt got a beef and ale pie, good marks again but the real winning meal was the Lambs Breast with Swede mash and mint sauce. Lambs breast isn't a cut I am particularly familiar with but was similar to pork belly and had been slow cooked for 4 hours - very tender with a light and creamy mash.
The Brewery Tap, Beef and Old Wavertonian Pie, £11.50
The Brewery Tap, Lambs Breast £8.50
The Brewery Tap, Fish and Chips, £9.95

All in all it made for a very nice afternoon and was a laid back affair. Our next Chester destination was slightly more up market - The Sandstone is a countryside gastro style pub which a traditional rustic meets contemporary modern interior. It isn't the sort of pub that you wouldn't pop to just for a drink (mainly because you have to drive there), it is definitely more on the restaurant end of the pub spectrum but still manages to retain a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

And this focus on the food is definitely why it is thriving when other pubs in the area are struggling. The countryside is full of pubs - it isn't necessarily full of good food. The Sandstone has got it nailed. Previous mentioned boyfriends middle of the nowhere house means that to get a decent meal out you might have to drive for about half an hour to Chester or another large town, but The Sandstone is 5 minutes up the road and means whenever we go to visit his family a superb meal is guaranteed. I have been there each time we have been down to Chester and every time has been as good. 

One other good thing about The Sandstone, the portions are on the generous side of large. Certainly meaty, everyone at the table either got the duck or the venison, it just feels like so much more of a treat than chicken or lamb. The duck came with beautiful and creamy dauphinoise, my current favourite thing, and a rich sage and red wine sauce. Starters included a game terrine with black truffle and tarragon dressing, baked brie and rosemary bread and five spiced duck confit. All of this was cooked and presented with care and attention - it really feels like they want to give you an amazing meal. 

The Sandstone, Baked Brie, Apple and Celery Salad and Rosemary Bread
The Sandstone, Duck Breast & Potato Dauphinoise 
The Sandstone, Venison with potato fondant
We didn't have puddings (you've seen the size of the portions) but I can vouch from previous trips the chocolate brownie with forest fruits ice cream is gorgeous. 

Back in Harrogate, I have a million beautiful words of praise to bestow on my favourite place for a drink The Old Bell. Even though neither me, nor any of my friends live that close to it it has certainly taken the place of our local when we convene at Christmas or during the summer months in breaks from university. It is full of wood, good ale and has to be one of the most popular places to drink in Harrogate - we tried to go on Boxing day but as it was so full ended up in a pub round the corner full of very dubious taxidermy. My brother thinks of The Old Bell as the sort of pub that only old men drink in, but every time i've been in recently its drinkers reflect the popularity of real ale with all sorts of ages. 

I popped in for a porkpie and mushy peas one afternoon and felt like a proper Yorkshire man. My mother told me how after a night out in Bradford (see proper Yorkshire) she would have a pork pie and mushy peas on the way home, why can't take aways be like this these days? In a weird coincidence the pork pie was made by the woman who used to be my boss when I worked for the NHS but thats by the by. It was delicious either way, Voakes pork pies - definitely recommended. 

The Old Bell, Harrogate - Pork Pie and Mushy Peas, £4.50
So, in conclusion, what you can learn from this is that there are many good pubs doing some very good British food.

You can also draw the conclusion that over Christmas and the New Year I ate a lot of food.

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