Top of the lakes: Nina Matsunaga brings Japanese inspiration to the Black Bull

29 October 2021 by

After cutting her teeth on the North West's street-food scene, Nina Matsunaga set up camp in the Cumbrian countryside, where her German- and Japanese-inspired food has proved a winner. Caroline Baldwin reports

The idea of delicate Japanese flavours nestling with hearty pub classics may be slightly jarring, but in the depths of the Cumbrian countryside, chef Nina Matsunaga manages to combine the Japanese philosophy of kaiseki – an approach to meal preparation that involves cooking with seasonal, often local ingredients – with her German heritage.

This means guests at the Black Bull are served substantial, wholesome dishes made from the best-quality British produce, quite often plucked from only a field or two away. The result is a distinctive culinary style with dishes such as wild halibut, cobnut, haddock, shiso and apple, or Hereford beef tartar, Thai basil, tea leaves and crème fraîche, sitting alongside more traditional pub staples such as beef pie and sticky toffee pudding.

Herdwick lamb tartare, homemade kimchi, soy-cured egg yolk, wild rice and onion
Herdwick lamb tartare, homemade kimchi, soy-cured egg yolk, wild rice and onion

"My food looks traditionally English, but has Japanese influence. It freaks some people out," she admits, "but probably not as much as it did in the beginning. We've been trying to help people understand that it's not just a random fusion of cuisines because we like Asian food."

She describes her cooking style as "unexpectedly different", leaning heavily into fermentation techniques drawn from her Asian heritage. "I like it when food is really savoury, with something sweet and something very sour – it has to hit as many receptors as possible to keep it interesting," she says, describing how she might take a sea bass and cook it classically with mussels and a Lillet sauce. "That's very straightforward, but then I like to add pickled, fermented rhubarb, which gives an extra layer from the salty sweet pickles."

Animal instinct

Born in Düsseldorf, Germany, to Japanese parents, Matsunaga has been a "massive Anglophile" from a very young age. She followed her sister to the UK, hoping to search out a university with a culinary course. Her back-up plan was to work with animals, but she never got the grades to become a vet and her mum would have ‘had a heart attack' if she'd chosen to work at an animal shelter. So she ended up at the University of West London, where she achieved her BSc in culinary arts, followed by a master's in food policy.

She returned to Germany to work in a friend's bakery while keeping an eye out for jobs in the UK. A catering manager position took her to Manchester, which is where, on her first day in 2011, she met her now-husband, James Ratcliffe, and shortly afterwards the pair packed in their jobs and went on a street-food adventure for the following three years (see panel).

Beetroot, Yorkshire rhubarb and gingerbread
Beetroot, Yorkshire rhubarb and gingerbread

Matsunaga has inherited a soft accent during her decade in the North, where she has settled with Ratcliffe, seven-year-old son Ernest and their menagerie of pets, including two lurchers, five ferrets, two Tamworth pigs and a handful of chickens. The pair now run the Black Bull hotel and Three Hares Deli in the picturesque ‘book town' of Sedbergh – Matsunaga heads up the kitchen, while Ratcliffe looks after front of house and the pub's extensive wine collection.

Early recognition

The couple first established the Three Hares café, bakery and bistro in 2014, quickly picking up accolades and a listing in The Good Food Guide. A couple of years later they had an opportunity to take over a former 17th-century coaching inn across the road and, after a year-and-a-half of refurbishment, the 18-bedroom Black Bull opened its doors in 2018 with an 80-seat restaurant as the focal point.

My food looks traditionally English, but has Japanese influence. It freaks some people out

Simple Japanese influences seep their way through the entire building, with minimalist design, clean lines and urchin-filled terrariums, balanced with dark tones in the bar area to make the space feel enclosed and homely, while nods to the pair's love of Japanese culture, the Cumbrian countryside and sight hounds are dotted across the walls throughout the historic building.

Located on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, surrounded by miles of unspoilt green rolling hills, it is unsurprising that the bar is often home to walkers kitted out in their waterproofs, having just enjoyed a hearty breakfast, ready to tackle a day's hiking in the dales; and they might just pass by the Three Hares, opposite, for a scotch egg or game pie to devour later on.

Mansergh Hall pork loin, our own XO sauce, lotus root and spinach
Mansergh Hall pork loin, our own XO sauce, lotus root and spinach

With the Lake District to the west and the Yorkshire Dales to the east, Matsunaga is spoiled for choice when it comes to the quality of local produce available for her menu at the Black Bull, as well as her pies and charcuterie in the Three Hares. Practising nose-to-tail cooking, she buys her meat in whole from a buyer who hand-picks the animals that will end up in her kitchen, including cows, lambs and pigs.

"I like to know where my food comes from and we have to go with what we have available," she says, noting that she has very little chicken because there is simply no one nearby who produces poultry that meets her standard. "It involves a lot of planning – a cow has to hang for three to four weeks, and if you are running out, you should have put it in two weeks ago. We now know what we generally go through for a month, or even a year."

I like to know where my food comes from and we have to go with what we have available

She adds: "It's important for people who do work in the food supply chain and restaurants to know what happens to it; it's easy to ask for 60 steaks, but you only get 20 sirloins off a cow."

Nothing goes to waste with a restaurant and a deli to run; offcuts of meat end up in her Japanese beef curry or lasagne, which are sold as pre-packaged meals – a lifeline to the business during lockdown. "We also sell a ridiculous amount of pies," says Matsunaga, estimating that 400 beef pies are sold across the deli and restaurant each month.

Mansergh Hall pork belly, burnt and pickled cucumber, sweetcorn and homemade ssamjang
Mansergh Hall pork belly, burnt and pickled cucumber, sweetcorn and homemade ssamjang

A place for pork

Her favourite meat to cook with is pork, she says, pointing to her Asian heritage. "We use a surprising amount – bacon, ham and sausages for breakfast, and then you've got the pork belly on the starters and mains, and it lends itself to Asian flavours entirely. You use everything from the ears to the face and brain, and skin for scratchings – it's such a versatile animal."

The entire animal goes into making her Mansergh Hall pork with lotus root and XO, firstly gently brushing the pork loin with a little chilli oil before searing, while the pig's head is cooked down and all the brawn meat, including the cheeks and tongue, simmer in their own stock until very moist before being coated in breadcrumbs and fried – a spin on the traditional European cold-cut terrine. The knobbly lotus root is peeled and fried before finishing off with some braised kelp stock, while her homemade XO sauce (see panel, page 19) is used to bring the entire dish together.

As well as pork, recent menu additions have included game, as well as rabbit, which she turns into a loin and quail's egg dish, and a rabbit scotch egg with pea purée and fresh summer veg with chervil oil for an aniseed flavour, finished with a pickling liquor made from blitzed lovage leaves. "It's a very German thing to use lovage leaves – they are called Maggi leaves after the food manufacturer because it was the main flavour profile in their stock cubes."

Jerusalem artichoke, shallots, ewes' curd, celery and cobnuts
Jerusalem artichoke, shallots, ewes' curd, celery and cobnuts

Another leaf that makes a regular appearance on Matsunaga's menus is shiso, a Japanese herb with a fragrant, floral flavour, which she serves in a delicate tempura batter, as well as drying the leaves and turning them into shiso salt, which she sprinkles "on everything". Shiso actually grows very well in the UK – it is unintrusive to native British plants, with the added bonus that insects aren't interested in it. But Matsunaga admits to having "absolutely no green thumbs at all". Instead, she barters with a local, who grows them in his allotment in exchange for a loaf of bread.

Visiting the Black Bull, you wouldn't think Matsunaga lacked gardening expertise, as the outdoor dining behind the pub, named ‘Stables & Meadows', offers guests a rustic and relaxed experience, with Matsunaga's two Tamworth pigs – Snufkin and Stumpy – happily snuffling at the bottom of its flourishing garden. During lockdown, the team at the Black Bull rolled up their sleeves to build pergolas among the flowers, which launched as soon as outdoor dining was permitted, with enough covered seating for 60-80, as well as a further 40 covers that are open to the elements, while a bar and log burner is tucked into the old stables.

Black Bull
Black Bull

Outside, the menu harks back to the couple's street-food days, offering sourdough pizzas and barbecue food cooked over wood and charcoal fires. Unsurprisingly, there is still an international influence on the outdoor menu with fermented ingredients such as kimchi and sauerkraut making a regular appearance in this quintessentially English location, where Matsunaga continues to stir up the flavours of Japan and Germany.

Matsunaga's homemade XO sauce

"We make our own XO sauce, which is traditionally made with Chinese sausage, rice wine, dried scallop and roe, and dried shrimp. Ours is less dark because instead of Chinese sausage, we use our own cured pig's meat, and we also use Morecambe Bay shrimps. Instead of dried scallops we dry the roe and flesh from fresh, hand-dived scallops – some people may think that's a waste to turn it into XO when you can buy cheaper dredged, dried scallops, but I want to use a more ethical, better ingredient.

"I know some may say our XO is not the traditional spicy seafood sauce from Hong Kong, but we like to use the things we have. XO is the Chinese version of a salsa verde or a pesto… everyone has their own take on it, and everyone is right and wants to say their version is the only way to make a herb sauce."

Street food roots

After meeting her husband, James Ratcliffe, in Manchester in 2011, the pair started selling produce at a local farmers' market, at a time when such markets were increasingly used as a tool to revive towns, and when stalls cost a mere £10-£15. "We decided to sell everything under the sun – pies, quiches, sausage rolls, cakes, lemonades," she recalls. "But when you are doing that two or three times a week on top of a job, we were just not sleeping anymore. So we decided to specialise in sausage rolls and pies that used game produce."

Big markets such as Macclesfield in Cheshire were the goal, but with so many stallholders, new entrants had to provide something really different. Thankfully, due to Matsunaga's game twist on the traditional British food they were selling, they were able to secure a sought-after spot. There, they started selling heritage-breed pork and game pies, as well as scotch eggs. But Matsunaga and Ratcliffe really wanted to take their stall on the road and start selling hot food. They got hold of an ex-army field-kitchen van with a little gas burner and an oven, and their business, the Moocher, was born in 2012. The pair took it to farmers' markets, food festivals and music events across the North.

Sticky toffee pudding, toffee sauce and homemade vanilla ice-cream
Sticky toffee pudding, toffee sauce and homemade vanilla ice-cream

By 2013, they had secured a regular pitch at Manchester's trendy monthly ‘Levy Market' in Levenshulme. This allowed them to consolidate and look at new business opportunities, including regular pop-up restaurants across Manchester and wedding catering.

The menu

Nibbles

  • Maple pea hummus, crackers (V) £3.50
  • Lamb terrine, artichoke and mint £3.50
  • Mackerel pâté, cucumber, linseed sourdough £4.50

Starters

  • Giga halibut, curry and onion £9.95
  • Jerusalem artichoke, ewes' curd, cobnut and shallot (V)(N) £7.95
  • Wild partridge, crapaudine, yogurt and chicken skin £8.95
  • Korean-style Mansergh Hall pork belly, sesame and cucumber £8.95
  • Howgill Herdwick lamb tartar, cured egg yolk, kimchi and wild rice £9.50

Mains

  • Mansergh Hall pork, lotus root, XO and spinach £19.95
  • Howgill Hereford beef pie, seasonal greens and mash £15.95
  • King oyster mushroom, celeriac and British spelt (V) £16.95
  • Cornish pollock, smoked cod roe, seaweed and new potatoes £19.95
  • British white sirloin, laphet, coriander and cured tomatoes (N) £23.95
  • Wild lakeland venison, ox tongue, blackberry and beetroot £21.50

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