Meat cooked on an open fire and nostalgic puddings make for a warm welcome at this country hotel, says Janet Harmer
Arriving in Blanchland in the heart of County Durham is like stepping back in time. The village is in the upper Derwent valley, surrounded by the North Pennines and composed of a huddle of honey-coloured buildings dating back to the 12th century. Little has changed in the intervening years, making this a popular location for many a period film or TV costume drama.
At its heart is the Lord Crewe Arms, a hostelry that fell on hard times before reopening two years ago after a £1.5m refurbishment. Today, the 21-bedroom property is operated by Calcot Hotels on a long lease in a joint venture with the Lord Crewe's Charity, the owner of the freehold of the property.
Head chef Simon Hicks is originally from Australia and arrived in the UK in 2005, initially working in Edinburgh and Belfast before heading for London. After stints in the kitchens of Scotts, owned by Caprice Holdings, he moved to Hix Soho as sous chef and was eventually promoted to head chef, by which time he was commuting on a weekly basis from Corbridge in Northumberland.
The opening of the Lord Crewe Arms in 2014 provided Hicks with the opportunity to work locally and was the perfect setting for his food, which draws heavily on the robust and comforting dishes that were the mainstay of the restaurants he worked at in London.
Diners can either choose to eat in the Bishop's Dining Room, which seats up to 60 people for lunch or dinner, or the interconnecting Hilyard and Derwent rooms and vaulted Crypt Bar, where lighter bites are available.
Lunch dishes, largely hearty in nature, are just the ticket for walkers who have trudged up and down the nearby moors or shooting parties who throng here during the game season. Those wanting a light lunch may select the slow-cooked sea trout with a shaved fennel salad (£7.75), but for the hungry there is faggot with Cornish Black pig and leek stew (£14.25) or cauliflower ‘n' cheese, garlic, buttered sprout tops and a hazelnut relish (£13.25).
At dinner, current favourites among the starters include spring asparagus from the Wye valley with Portland crab and duck egg (£7.75) and Isle of Wight tomatoes with goats' curd and pickled walnuts (£6.25), while a constant on the menu is the Crewe cured salmon (£7.75) which Hicks prepares himself in the hotel's own smokehouse in the garden. "The salmon is marinated in a mix of salt, sugar and local rum before being smoked over a mix of apple and oak chippings," he says.
Pan-fried hake with Morecambe Bay shrimps and sea aster
The vast open fire in Hilyard comes into play for the mains, with whole roasted chickens (£32 for two to share), whole roasted Creedy Carver duck (£48 for two) and a meat feast that includes rack of lamb, flat iron steak and veal fillet (£16.50 per head) providing a welcoming sight and aroma for guests.
Veal - bought from Brookfield Farm in Dorset - is a best seller. It is served with slowly braised onions, cooked to a melting reduction with cider, sage and cream, and spring greens (£15.45). A winter version partnered the veal with roasted celeriac and chanterelles (£15.45).
Brunch-lunch dish of Crewe-cured salmon, egg ‘n' cress, chocolate delice and spiced banana bread
Hicks' favourite meat is pork and he buys half a pig at a time from John Eaton at Cornish Black Pigs in Cornwall. "Fat is flavour and John's pigs are very large with a great fat to meat ratio," he says. He serves pork rib chop with Greedy Pig chorizo, Lincolnshire onions and a potato cake (£16.25) or with battered gherkins, Charlotte potatoes and sauerkraut (£13.75).
Puddings are of the traditional kind. In particular, Hicks likes to serve a version of the French classic clafoutis, renamed as fruit batter pudding (£4.75) with raspberries or strawberries in the summer and rhubarb or plums at other times of the year. However, a more contemporary choice is the sea buckthorn posset, made using a pasteurised purée, which Hicks buys from forager Miles Irving in Kent. The citrus-type quality of the sea buckthorn sets the cream and sugar perfectly for a unique pudding topped with a jelly of the fruit.
Butcher's steak with green sauce
From the menu
- Ruby beetroot salad with Blue Monday, toasted walnuts and pennywort £5.75
- Pan-fried duck egg on toast with ramsons and brown shrimps £4.75
- Black pudding with crushed apple potatoes and mustard gravy £5.45
- North Shield's monkfish tail with braised veal cheeks and garlic butter £14.45
- Herb faggot with Cornish Black pig and leek stew £14.25
- Pan-fried duck breast with braised Yorkshire rhubarb and young kale £15.25
- Yorkshire rhubarb Bakewell pudding with goats' milk ice-cream £5.25
- Buttermilk pudding with blood orange £4.75
Bishop's Dining Room
Lord Crewe Arms
The Square, Blanchland, Consett, County Durham DH8 9SP
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