The Blind Bull, Buxton

So here we are again on another weekend away, driving myself across the country and my long-suffering wife apoplectic as she wrangles two toddlers while I treat myself to a rather nice lunch. Sorry.

To be fair, I was in a similar state of incandescence last night, after the inability of Travelodge to provide a postcode on the correct carriageway of the M6 meant it took me an hour and ten minutes to get to a hotel three miles from my gig. The confirmation email also warned of imminent roadworks in April 2020, so god knows who’s going to break it to them about Covid, let alone monkey pox. Ideally, one of the advantages of a child-free evening should be a chance to get to bed reasonably early rather than furiously clutching a mug of whisky two hours after you intended to be asleep. Funnily enough, the single malt in question was a birthday gift from my good friend Nick Revell, an excellent little number named ‘Singleton’ which is I imagine what I may well be when my wife reads this.

As I’m gigging in Glossop and Saddleworth tonight, I once again asked on Twitter for lunch recommendations, and just like last month, @frivoliteabakes came to my rescue. In fact, she could be said to have excelled herself. Well worth a foodie follow. So I jumped in the car and headed off through the Peak District to Buxton, or to be more accurate, Little Hucklow. Or, to be really picky, The Blind Bull – a Twelfth Century Inn nestling down the bottom of the sort of left turn which makes you think they cannot be serious. When you get here, however, it quickly becomes very clear they are.

The drive itself was stunning, and the glorious countryside provides the perfect backdrop to what I’m delighted to report was an equally stunning lunch. Look away now, Emily. I was placed in a cosy little corner table in thoroughly tastefully refurbished surroundings – all stone floors and wood, open fireplaces and good prints on the wall – exactly how you imagine a medieval publican might redecorate his place if he’d had access to a decent interior designer. As my gig is still five hours away, I’m still sat here, but considering a walk through the beer garden and out on to the rolling hills in a while to shift a little of the treacle tart I’ve just polished off, of which more later.

As it is genuinely hard to think of a more picturesque destination for lunch, I’m also at a loss to think of a menu I’ve had more trouble choosing from. I wanted almost all of it. Bless my waitress who patiently took me through most of it twice while I ummed and ahhed and was generally useless. I was sorely tempted by the raw roast beef with fermented chilli and shrimp dressing – indeed I’m actually salivating writing this and cursing myself for not having it, but that would have meant foregoing the asparagus with crispy egg and pickled shallot I had instead. This came in a vivid green lovage sauce and may well be the nicest thing I’ve put in my mouth since lockdown. Breaking open the egg to allow the yolk to ooze out into it provided a masterstroke of creamy richness, and I genuinely failed to display any shame whatsoever in using the teaspoon from the (excellent) coffee I’d ordered on arrival to spoon up all the sauce that remained. Leaving anything on the plate would have been a greater sin. 

I was a bit more prosaic with my main course, much as I wanted the stone bass with clams and sea herbs, but as it’s a Sunday I decided to go for a roast – pork belly with black pudding. Everything on the plate was served piping hot and almost entirely to perfection. Deeply satisfying green shards of cabbage, definitive roasties, parsnips, and meltingly delicious pork with a slick homemade apple sauce. By this point I was actively looking for problems, as if I wasn’t sure anything should be this good. So here goes with my damming critique – of the six inches of crackling around the pork, three hadn’t crisped up. Take THAT Blind Bull. I even found myself wondering if the Yorkshire pudding might have been left a minute or two too long in the oven, but then decided that was actually the ideal treatment for retaining its structure when mopping up a faultless gravy. When you’re clutching at straws like this you know you might as well surrender yourself to the fact you’re in exceptionally good hands.

I needed a bit of a break after this, to the extent I put the exceptionally patient waitress through her paces once more because I wanted everything on the dessert menu too. Eventually I settled on a treacle tart, as much to compare with the one I had at The Pig & Whistle last month as anything else. That had been more than serviceable, but this, with all due respect, rather blew it out of the water. The addition of a quenelle of orange and vanilla ice cream was a masterful floral counterpoint to the deeply sugary hit of the tart and showed exactly the same lightens of touch with flavours as the lovage sauce had with my starter. Added to which, while the Pig & Whistle’s tart was a fairly solid item, once you broke this open, the filling oozed out on to the plate, mixing deliciously with the ice cream. They really know how to give good ooze at The Blind Bull.

I would tell you how much this all came to but I can’t, partly because I haven’t asked for the bill yet, but mainly because my wife will be reading. Put it like this, I don’t expect to have much change from the forty guineas I am probably expected to pay with once Boris Johnson has pursued his monstrously stupid project of taking us back to Imperial measures and presumably the 1950s in a(nother) failed bid to distract from his own crapulence. Personally, on this evidence, I am very happy to go back to the Twelfth century. I really cannot fault my lunch and service was exemplary too – including welcome little touches like the unbidden pint glass of water when I sat down that would be regarded as normality in Europe, but which are therefore generally regarded as a sign of weakness in England by those who will never be happy until the glass has a crown on it. But let’s be honest; those people are never going to be happy.

I too struggle with happiness between my bouts of rage at this government and the vagaries of the Travelodge booking system, but some things really are a pleasure to be savoured, and The Blind Bull is very much one of them. To describe it as exactly ‘en route’ between my gigs is probably pushing things a little geographically, but it is most definitely worth a detour all of its own if you are ever in the area. I certainly plan to come back, to try the rest of the menu, if nothing else. I cannot wait. Just don’t tell my wife.

May 2022

The Pig & Whistle, Beverley

I do not wish to be unkind to a town that has always had more than its fair share of detractors, but when you’ve had one good lunch in Hull, it’s probably best not to push your luck searching for a better one the next day, even if I’m sure the £10 special at Viet Memories I had promised to return for would have been excellent. Luckily, I was armed with a Twitter recommendation and a car so I took the Highway out of Hull and headed for Beverley and The Pig and Whistle.

One of the great joys of Britain (and there really are some left,) is how quickly one can slip from urban sprawl to the sort of verdant fields, rolling countryside and harmonising birds that quickly bring out your inner William Blake. I highly recommend the Fall’s version of ‘Jerusalem’ if you fancy hearing that dichotomy in musical form, unless you are my wife and refuse to accept The Fall are, or were, in any way musical. It was on her behalf I took a detour to nearby Skirlaugh to pick up some photography equipment she had bought online, a place whose main achievement appears to be a name whose pronunciation bears little resemblance to its spelling. ‘Sker-La’ apparently, which must perplex any visiting Americans, but then it was on to Beverley, a delightful market town which I’m sure would live up to all their expectations of both the English language and Olde Worlde charm.

Of course one the great drawbacks of Britain (and there are really some of those left too,) is parking, or the lack thereof, which was why my initial pass through the town centre left me trapped in a one way system involving a craned neck, sat nav rage, ludicrously late turning decisions and danger to other road users. It is for this reason I must say, to even my own surprise, thank god for Tesco, whose decision not to charge people to use their carparks does, in the world of modern capitalism, begin to resemble a gesture of almost secular saintliness, were it not for the fact it is still Tescos. It would be nice if the NHS tried to do the same but of course that would be communism, comrades.

I was now a little late for my booking, and slightly concerned by the fact I had not spotted my destination as I drove past it. I was beginning to wonder if my cross words with the sat nav had led it to withhold vital information from me when I arrived to discover the real reason. The front of the The Pig and Whistle is a very modest, some would say unprepossessing, window with a couple of chairs and tables outside which could very easily be taken for any old coffee shop. But as I was about to find out, it was anything but (even if they do do excellent coffee.)

Once inside, I discovered there was, if not quite a Tardis effect, certainly a very comfortable and tastefully decorated restaurant at the back of the room away from the main bar and kitchen area. Only one of the twelve or so tables was occupied which seemed a little strange on a Saturday lunchtime, so I took a seat to find out what everyone was missing.

Quite a lot as it turned out. The menu is mostly tapas, with a couple of hot dishes, charcuterie and a very tempting blackboard of daily specials and another of deeply advanced (and highly tempting) bar snacks. It is a place to graze or to blow out. Your choice. I think I got it just about right. I was sorely tempted by a plate of Lindisfarne oysters, but resisted, and went down the simple tapas route. What I eventually ordered was the absolute definition of that wonderful phrase ‘an elegant sufficiency’.

As has been noted before, I am yet to meet the plate of Jamón Ibérico I haven’t ordered, so deep dark pink slices of melting porkfection were soon delivered to the table, with the addition of picot, those little Spanish breadsticks I can take or leave, frankly. Luckily I ordered some extra sourdough which was excellent, especially with the addition of artisan Netherland Farm butter, all salt crystal crunch.

I was already very happy.

Alongside this, a plate of patron peppers were everything they should have been, generous, simple, delicious. A remoulade of celeriac and kohlrabi in a punchy mustard and caper dressing was a thing of beauty, perfectly cutting through the richness of the ham, but the real revelation was a plate of spinach with chickpeas. I have never got chickpeas. They always seem to be a sort of vegetarian makeweight, and for anyone saying yeah, but houmous, I would say, exactly. I could happily go to my grave never having bothered my tastebuds with that particular brand of wallpaper paste again, no matter how organic your olive oil. But served with spinach and perfectly seasoned with paprika, garlic and cumin this was genuinely one of the best tapas dishes I have ever eaten. Anywhere. LIke complimenting Tesco, I can’t believe I am saying this either, but well worth the trip on their own.

I really didn’t need the treacle tart with creme fraiche and raspberries, but I had to have it, just to keep you informed. A delightful sugary hit after quite a salt heavy main, it disappeared from my plate almost before it arrived, alongside an espresso, the quality of which I have already vouched for.

The bill came to just over £50 including service, which is rather an expensive lunch for an itinerant clown who was performing in Hull for the weekend, where the wages are hardly beyond the dreams of avarice, but it was in no way expensive for what it was. I would go as far as to say it was the perfect lunch.

I wouldn’t normally mention a trip to the loo at the end of a meal – why would you? But in this case I must make an exception. Allow me to explain. It’s quite a big loo – indeed, with a little careful restructuring one imagines it could be downsized to provide room for more tables, but then it wouldn’t leave space for all the evidence of the kitchen’s provenance. The chef at The Pig and Whistle, James Alcock, has a serious pedigree, as proven by the huge variety of menus and memorabilia from some of London’s finest establishments on the walls – a Pollen Street Social menu, a Ducasse signature, a job offer from Marcus Wareing. I could have stayed for hours, but as there were still bafflingly few customers, I thought the friendly and attentive waiting staff might worry I’d passed out in there from a surfeit of pork. And contentment.

Any restaurant where you realise you are on hallowed ground simply by reading the toilet walls must surely be a good thing. But of course, the best way to find out is by simply eating there, and thanks to @frivoliteabakes I’m so very glad I did. Get yourself to Beverley, sisters.

May 2022