Imagine Haworth without the tourists, chintzy tea rooms and endless Brontë-themed gift opportunities. Perched high on a hill above Hebden Bridge, Heptonstall is the jewel in Calderdale’s crown, a beautifully preserved, historic village with cobbled streets and rows of terraced stone cottages huddled together and built low to avoid the prevailing westerly winds, but with long views over the flinty moors. Two hundred years ago it was the hub of the hand-loom weaving industry; the magnificent Cloth Hall still stands, now a private house.
Some say it’s a bleak spot; to me it’s deeply atmospheric, shot through with romance. Ted Hughes thought so – he lived for some years in Heptonstall with his troubled wife, Sylvia Plath. Perhaps she wasn’t so enamoured; she took her own life aged just 31. She’s buried in the churchyard. Hughes later bought Lumb Bank, a stunning 18th century mill owner’s house on a vertiginous hillside on the edge of the village. Now it belongs to the Arvon Foundation and is a residential centre for creative writing.
Give or take some wobbly yellow lines (cobbles are unremitting) and the odd satellite dish, I’ll wager not much has changed since the weaving days. Visitors come for the history and walking; the Calderdale Way goes through the village and the National Trust’s Hardcastle Crags is just down the road. Often when I’m walking the dog I catch the sounds of the Hepton Singers practising in the wonderful octagonal Methodist chapel, in constant use since John Wesley laid the foundation stone in 1764.
Towngate Tearoom sits handsomely on a corner at the top of the cobbles. By day it feeds hungry hikers and Plath pilgrims; on Friday and Saturday nights it shifts up a couple of gears and becomes a very welcome addition to Heptonstall’s rather slim food scene. I rather like cafés that limber up of an evening – sometimes cakes and scones, however good they are just don’t test the chef’s creativity enough (I’m thinking of Stephen and Tracy Jackson’s superb café T&Cake in Almondbury, whose lunches are without equal, but now and again Stephen just can’t help breaking out and flexing his underused fine dining muscles). It’s a similar story here.
I first met Amy Gray-Barker when she was doing her apprenticeship at The Cooking School at Dean Clough; what impressed me most about her two years ago was her determination and sureness. She wanted to be a chef and nothing was going to stop her. She was 16 and already knew a lot about food. If only I’d been one tenth as certain at that age. About anything.
Her family has run the tea room since 2009 and after she graduated Amy persuaded her mum to let her loose in the kitchen at night. She agreed, as long as she took responsibility for the whole shebang; menu development, ordering, cooking. And so it is that we were treated to a very good dinner indeed.
Through the café at the back is an attractive, raftered-ceilinged, stone flagged room with just half a dozen tables lit by candles and a roaring wood stove. It’s nicely busy when we arrive and Sarah, our sweet waitress, is over quickly with a jug of iced water and a dish of rather good olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a chunk of homemade bread.
It’s clear that much thought has gone into the menu; it’s not long, but all the better for it. Butternut and onion bhajis, roti and mango raita appeals as do the plaice goujons but I can’t pass on the Yorkshire slate which promises ham hock terrine, toad in the hole and a Yorkshire Blue tart. It’s a picture, the tiny tart in perfect pastry, the toad a neat and tasty mouthful, the hock sweet and tender. My dinner partner (and number one cat-sitting neighbour) Mel has a sourdough rarebit oozing Gruyere, with smoked aubergine and roast vine tomatoes and judging by the speed of dispatch it hit the spot.
Amongst the mains is a fillet steak which I rather regret not having after I saw it come through (ahs and oohs from the lucky recipient, and not just for the thrice-cooked chips) but I can never resist Beef Bourgignon, the ultimate comfort food on a wild October night. It was darkly sticky and sweet and cooked for around four days. Probably not, but you get my drift. A mound of celeriac mash accompanied and with a glass of smoky Malbec was damn near my idea of the ideal dinner. Mel’s South African Dithose chicken laced with honey, almonds and pumpkin seeds was similarly warming and packed with flavour. A nice addition is a dish of roast parsnips to share – they’ve been coated with honey and crisped up – gorgeously sticky on the outside and fluffy within.
As you’d expect from a good caff, puddings are excellent – or at least the chocolate plate was. Possibly the finest white chocolate creme brulee this side of a Viennese salon arrives, along with a brownie with caramel ice cream to rival any, and a shot of mocha for good measure. Baked lemon fudge torte with cherry compote disappeared in no time too.
The appeal of the cooking lies in its simple honesty – it’s rustic food with clean flavours, made with love. There’s no unnecessary tinkering. Prices are ungrasping, service is faultless and the chef’s enthusiasm and skill shines through. When we left I asked to speak to Amy to say thanks. Turns out she was flying solo – she’d done the entire service on her own. That girl’s going places.
• The Pinfold Bistro, 34 Towngate, Heptonstall, HX7 7LW. 07432 576897, www.towngatetearoom.vpweb.co.uk. Tearoom open seven days a week, 10.30am to 5pm. Bistro opens Friday and Saturday from 6.30pm.