Nicholas Lander enjoys North Yorkshire hospitality.
The early evening scene I witnessed in the bar of The White Swan Inn in Pickering, north Yorkshire would have warmed the hearts of its owners, Victor and Marion Buchanan, had they not been on holiday in the much warmer climes of Turkey at the time.
A young waitress approached the table where a middle-aged couple were sitting to tell them that the dining room had just had a cancellation and that she would, after all, be able to accommodate them. Taking their name and agreeing on the time they wanted to eat, she professionally sealed the sale by handing over copies of that nights menu and the wine list.
As the woman began reading the menu aloud she inched closer and closer to her husband with obvious enthusiasm for what awaited them so that by the time she had got to the end of the main courses it seemed that she was almost sitting in his lap.
At that stage another couple sat down next to them and as the gentleman went to the bar to get their drinks his wife called to him to ask for some menus. Within seconds the man next to her had courteously handed over his menu as well as his opinion on how much he was looking forward to eating there. In a very short space of time he had already become an unpaid champion of the White Swans virtues.
These are considerable both within and outside the hotel. Although Pickering has not escaped the current economic malaise, obvious from the numerous For Sale signs, it is a quintessentially pretty market town with a church complete with medieval frescoes, rare in England; a Brief Encounter-esque station, home to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway with its steam trains, manned by volunteers, which travel the undulating countryside to Whitby on the coast; and the still intimidating facade of the Primitive Methodist Church built in 1885. But that is not to say that Pickering has escaped modern-day political correctness: Thomas The Baker no longer sells gingermen but ginger persons.
Over the past decade since they took responsibility for the White Swan, originally a 16th century cottage and subsequently a coaching inn, the Buchanans have made considerable changes both inside and out. Next door they have opened Tutti, a seemingly popular pizzeria judging from the level of the decibels inside, and just down the street they have taken over the lease on a former grocers shop. This is now called The Ginger Pig as it is a partnership with Tim Wilson whose impressive farms on the moors at Levisham five miles away provide all the meat for The Ginger Pig butchers shops in London and for the inn where Wilson is an obviously enthusiastic customer judging by the large plate of chargrilled leg of lamb with courgettes and olive oil mashed potatoes I saw him tucking into late one Sunday evening.
The old rooms in the Inn are comfortable despite the fact that because of its age little of the building seems to be on the level structurally. And the staff are warm, welcoming and, perhaps most impressively and unusually, predominantly local. To all this, the Buchanans bring their obvious enthusiasm for food and wine.
The former is most obvious in how and where they make their menus and wine list available. Hoteliers invariably complain that not enough guests eat in their restaurant but the Buchanans mitigate this by leaving out their daily menus and wine list (as well as their childrens menu written legibly but obviously by a child) on a small ledge right opposite the reception desk. This makes life easy for the waitresses as they scurry between the dining room and the bar where they like to take the food orders (this is the North of England, after all) but their obvious presence should also convince any remaining waverers.
Buchanan has a definite penchant for the wines of St-Emilion in Bordeaux judging by the numerous wooden case ends and certificates on the walls of the bar and the dining room. He is generous too with his pricing policy on these wines we drank a bottle of an elegant 1990 Cha
The restaurant is a low-ceilinged room with unadorned but comfortable wooden tables and chairs and, most unusually, a set of stairs that lead up, rather than down, to the kitchen. The comprehensive main menu is thoughtfully supplemented by a smaller, secondary card listing the soup, fish (sea bass, monkfish and lemon sole) and vegetables of the day. On the way to our table it became obvious that the kitchen is as generous with its portion sizes as Buchanan is with the mark-ups on his older wines.
Our meal comprised a wide spectrum of local ingredients: grilled Lowna Dairy goats cheese with caramelized red onions; a salad of ox tongue with bacon and mushrooms; Tamworth pork belly with excellent crackling and an appetizing apple and radish relish; and a perfectly cooked lemon sole with sweet brown shrimps. The meals faults were undercooked new potatoes and – far worse – a mundane selection of local cheeses including a soapy Wensleydale.
Breakfast was, however, faultless. Yorkshire tea from Taylors of Harrogate as strong as any coffee; Ginger Pig sausages, bacon and black pudding in any combination, with or without anything from the table loaded with fruit, yoghurt and cereal, and some lightly smoked kippers from nearby Whitby.
And it was to Whitby that we then headed, having heard from everybody that we met in Yorkshire that it is home, in their very firm opinion, to the best fish and chips in the world. Unfortunately, the heavy rain which had seemed to unite the top of the moors with the bottom of the clouds on the drive over, had also brought huge crowds into this historic town centre and the queue outside the Magpie Café, hugely popular because it still fries its chips in beef dripping, was just too long to contemplate. Instead, we headed across the narrow bridge to Robertsons, another local favourite, for their breaded scampi, haddock, which they eat here in preference to cod, chips and, of course, more Yorkshire tea.
The subsequent walk past shops selling jewelry made from jet, found on the beaches, and performing Morris dancers brought us to Henrietta Street and the smokehouse of W.R.Fortune in a setting that, with the exception of the arch No Smoking sign, seemed unchanged from Victorian times. But their kippers, bacon and smoked salmon are the equal of anybody elses today in my opinion and I am not a Yorkshireman!
The White Swan Inn, Market Place, Pickering, North Yorkshire YO18 7AA. 01751-472288. 200 pounds for two including bedroom, dinner without wine and breakfast.
York Festival of Food and Drink takes place from September 19th -28th, www.yorkfoodfestival.co.uk , tel: 01904-466687
Robertsons, 6/7 Bridge Street, Whitby, 01947-821576,
W.R.Fortune, Henrietta Street, Whitby, 01947-601659.