The Vine House Café is a rural oasis says Jill Turton. And the food’s pretty good too.
Picture yourself in a sunny garden surrounded by cottage garden flowers: roses, pinks, hollyhocks, foxgloves. Just beyond is a cornflower meadow and, set against a deep blue sky, are the ruins of a 12th century castle. It’s a perfect setting and we have an outdoor table and a chilled glass of wine. Sometimes things just turn out right.
The Helmsley Walled Garden is a well-hidden gem. Minimally signposted from the centre of Helmsley, (turn off Castlegate and follow the signs in the Cleveland Way car park) but when you find it, it is five acres of breathtaking charm.
The aptly named Vine House Café is housed, naturally enough, in the old Victorian vine house, thick with grapes giving shade for anyone eating indoors, but we’re outside beneath the parasol awaiting the 14-hour pulled pork.
The cafe is owned and run by William Mowbray, a chef who has served time at La Fromagerie and Moro, the celebrated restaurant in London’s Exmouth Market that spawned the cookbooks that got us all into Spanish/Middle Eastern food.
This isn’t Moro, though. The Vine House is very much a daytime cafe doing soup and sandwiches, scones and cakes, but it is a very superior cafe and one with considerable ambition. For instance, how many cafes cure their own bacon? Mowbray does, and he pickles his own veg and bakes the lovely flour-dusted loaves stacked seductively on the counter.
And he smokes stuff. The Big Green Egg in the garden – one of those expensive barbecues that chefs swear by – has been used to smoke today’s brisket and for an overnight roast of pork shoulder. We’re definitely up for some of this.
Veggies who know this place may by be mourning the loss of Monica Gripaios’s exclusively vegetarian cafe. She ran it until her retirement in 2013 and while the Vine House is clearly no longer vegetarian it does have vegetarian sensibilities. Hardly surprising when a) Monica is Will’s mum and b) he has an abundance of vegetables in the kitchen garden.
He uses them admirably. Soup on our visit was pea, courgette and spinach. The pizza was topped with courgette, pecorino and walnut. My salad was a beautifully composed plate of deep flavoured and beautifully smoky baba ghanoush, some earthy beetroot marinated in Cabernet Sauvignon and finished with smoked onion powder, then new potatoes, grilled courgettes and grilled artichokes. Big, bold robust flavours, full of taste and texture that tasted of summer.
Our lunch also involved an excellent thin and crisp based pizza with a piquant tomato sauce, chorizo, capers and mozzarella but the star of the show was that 14-hour roast pork, soft as a pillow and full-flavoured with tomato, smoked peppers and a touch of chilli maybe.
We moved on to a delicate pear and frangipane tart from the selection of cakes on the counter. Choose from chocolate nemesis, citrus and polenta cake, courgette, carrot and a classic lemon drizzle and then coffee.
Afterwards we pay our £6 for entrance to the Walled Garden at its midsummer peak. The paths, the lawns and the herbaceous borders are aflame with reds, yellows, oranges and purples. There are great drifts of potentilla, salvia and helenium. Poppies and peonies fight for space with echinacea and lavender. The vegetable garden, part community allotment, is bursting with lettuce, kale, cavolo nero, chard, kohlrabi, parsnips, potato, beans, peas, beetroot and rhubarb, soft fruit with tomatoes, spinach, baby lettuce under glass. There is a physic garden, a grass meadow, bird boxes, bee-hives and a chicken run as well as places to sit and relax, to contemplate and just listen to the birdsong.
The story of how it got to this goes back some 20 years when a local woman Alison Ticehurst spotted the neglected and overgrown garden that had once supplied fruit, vegetables and cut flowers to the big house, Duncombe Park. At one time, 20 gardeners worked the five acres, but the First World War changed everything. The gardeners went off to fight never to return. For a while it operated as a market garden but by 1994 when Alison came along, it had long been abandoned.
Her vision was to restore the garden and make it a tranquil place for horticultural therapy: gardening as a way of improving the well-being of people with mental, social or physical difficulties. She raised funds, recruited volunteers and cleared the ground. Planting had just started, when in 1997 with much still to do, Alison died.
Friends and volunteers continued her work and today, the Walled Garden is her legacy, a registered charity, open from April to October and as Alison envisaged, supporting people who would benefit from working outdoors among plants and flowers. From time to time there are exhibitions and group visits, even one recent outing by the local naturists club.
I won’t be volunteering for a naked picnic any time soon, but I will be booking for one of Will Mowbray’s themed dinners. The next one (September 11&18) is Spanish, served on a long communal, candlelit table in the Orchid House.
The Vine House Café, Helmsley Walled Garden, Cleveland Way, Helmsley YO62 5AH. Tel: 01439 771194; www.helmsleywalledgarden.org.uk. Open April 1 to October 31, cafe 10am-5pm (lunch 12-2.30pm). Price: £60 for two including three courses and a glass of wine.