In 1757 the theologian John Wesley, travelling the North York Moors from Osmotherley to Hawnby, wrote in his diary: “Rode over one of the pleasantest parts of England to Hawnby.” He was right. I drove that way, heading for lunch at the Inn at Hawnby and discovered a village of mellow sandstone houses, a time-travel shop and tearoom and a cute riverside church, all tucked away in a hidden valley in Upper Ryedale.
You can tell it’s an estate village from the dark green paint on all the doors, the livery of the Earl of Mexborough’s estate – thousands of acres of farm, forest and shooting moor. Pheasants abound. Even the chestnut trees get a plaque saying they were planted by the Earl for a royal jubilee. It all feels a bit feudal, a place that time forgot.
The Inn downstairs, too, feels a bit forgotten. The garden planters remain unplanted. The dining room – empty albeit on a Friday lunchtime – is formally laid with best white linen and traditional cruets and decanters. So we head for the bar. It’s a room unacquainted with Farrow & Ball paint or the orbital sander, no bad thing perhaps given their ubiquity in every gastropub in Britain.
Nevertheless this felt more like a country sale room than a cosy country pub. Lot 51 a leather Chesterfield, Lot 52 a pair of antlers, Lot 53 a solitary, tarnished metal cup from some long forgotten darts or dominoes triumph of yesteryear. The black and white photographs of the hunt on the wall are a reminder that this is serious hunting, shooting and fishing country.
If the room could benefit from a fresh, warming eye, landlord Dave Young is charming and welcoming, pulling pints and bringing us cutlery and the menu. It’s a good read: pigeon and black pudding; haslet terrine; crispy smoked paprika whitebait; roast pork chop and cider cream; hake with wild garlic and mushroom velouté; artichoke and white truffle ravioli. Things are looking up.
The pigeon with black pudding is spot on, cooked à point, paired with some excellent black pudding. Less good is the iceberg lettuce and sweet corn salad.
Haslet terrine was more terrine than haslet and none the worse for that. Haslet is meatloaf by any other name. This was terrine studded with green peppercorns and wrapped in bacon. Perfectly fine, as was the beetroot that came with it, but the Black Sheep jelly, though well made, had more of the bitterness of the beer and less of the sweetness of a jelly that would have made a good match with the terrine. And why no butter for the toast?
A roast pork chop was juicy and tender as it should be, well worth gnawing on the bone. The sautéed Jersey Royals went well, so did the braised cabbage, charred carrot and the cider cream sauce. A cracking main course.
But who would have believed that the winning dish would be goat’s cheese and a carrot? How good can the humble carrot be? In the hands of chef Jason Reeves, very good indeed. The goat’s cheese had been whipped until it was a soft and smooth mound while the carrot had been slow roasted until sweetly tender. In a touch of seasonality it was draped with a wilted wild garlic leaf and then the dish was given an inspired dressing of “pine nut and carrot top pesto”. If all this sounds like pretentious, nouvelle nonsense, trust me, it was delicious. I recently had a parsnip roasted for many hours at Norse, the modish Scandinavian restaurant in Harrogate, but it didn’t match this one.
At pudding there was a choice of four: Muscovado apple crumble, strawberry crème brülée, lemon posset and Chocolate Nemesis. Naturally we had to have the Chocolate Nemesis, the flourless chocolate cake made famous by the late Rose Gray of the River Café, infamous indeed because no-one could make it. Readers wrote in to complain that the recipe didn’t work.
I’m told by one who knew her that it drove her crackers. “Of course it works,” she ranted. “They’re just not following the recipe.” The recipe, in all its indulgent madness calls for 1.5lb of chocolate, 1lb of butter, 10 eggs and nearly 1.5lb of sugar. If that lot doesn’t accelerate heart failure then Reeves’s addition of Cornish clotted cream and chocolate sauce surely will. His portion would have served four at the River Café (and at half the price). One Nemesis and two spoons then and we just about got through it without calling for the defibrillator. Very good it was, too.
A stroll down to Hawnby churchyard was never going to offset the calorie imbalance, that would have needed a climb up Roseberry Topping, but we made the gesture. It was a sobering visit. This little parish gave up 44 of its men to the Great War 100 years ago, patriotically urged to serve their country, it is said, by the local vicar, who became known as “the fighting parson of Hawnby”. Three of the lost souls were his own sons.
And by the riverside headstones wild garlic abounded, a gentle reminder of the indulgent pleasures of our lunch in what remains, 250 years after Wesley rode by, “one of the pleasantest parts of England”.
Inn at Hawnby, Hawnby, Nr Helmsley, North Yorkshire YO62 5QS. 01439 798202, www.innathawnby.co.uk. Open daily 12-2pm & 7-9pm. Price: Dinner for two approx. £55. Wine starts at £20 a bottle.