Marsden in the 19th century must have been deafening, what with the clacking of looms in Bank Bottom Mill, one of the biggest woollen mills in Yorkshire, followed by the clatter of Luddites smashing them with the hammers made by the Taylor brothers, blacksmiths who built the machines that did the work of 10 men. The Marsden Valley Luddites ruled the day and it all got a bit nasty, with several mill bosses meeting their ends in various violent ways.
Whilst the skeletons of the mills stand starkly in the valley bottom as an enduring nod to its chaotic past, Marsden is now a place of quiet contemplation. Local lad and poet Simon Armitage started his stunning Stanza Stones project in the village – a series of poems about nature etched on rocks.
The Olive Branch is a handsome 19th century roadhouse sitting in isolation on the edge of the village. It’s something of an institution in these parts, and the same family has been running it for 20 years, so chances are they’re doing something right, given the fickle nature of the business. Turns out they do some things right and not others.
It feels good, walking in on a thoroughly wretched winter night in the Colne Valley. A wood stove belts out cheer and the reception is genuinely warm. I’ll wager not much has altered, decor-wise, in a couple of decades. Remember that wine bottle label wallpaper that every bistro worth its salt had in the 80s? Mind you, it’s the first time I’ve been, so for all I know it could have been hung last week. Flock wallpaper has made a comeback and who would have predicted that? There’s a lot of stripped pine, Tiffany-type lamps, patterned rugs and an ornament on every surface – so quite fussy. But glasses gleam, napkins are bright white linen and candles on the tables give proceedings a soft glow.
The menu is posh bistro to match the decor, and as such there are no surprises, so expect oysters served on ice, smoked salmon, steamed mussels and boeuf bourguignon. The fish options are Cornish turbot and Atlantic halibut. Meat comes from Hinchliffe’s Farm Shop in Huddersfield but there’s no song and dance about local sourcing on the menu, which I’m pleased to see; some menus are so riddled with provenance it can seem like a parody.
My game terrine wrapped in bacon is very good indeed – moist and bosky, though I’m not sure I could identify all the wildlife that sacrificed itself for my pleasure (rabbit, partridge, pheasant and wood pigeon. But thanks). Gwyn’s smoked mackerel rillette is perfectly poised and full of fishy flavour but it could have been a bit more giving than one baby quenelle. The same can be said for Lindsay’s seared scallops – a nice enough looking plate but three scanty scallops on a slick of cauliflower puree and a couple of dots of curry oil is a bit mean for £9.50.
Vegetarians are going to struggle. There are three options; mushrooms on toast, squash soup and “twice baked blue cheese soufflé” which tastes pretty good but looks really sad, and the accompanying walnuts are “stale” according to the eater. I taste one. She’s right. Lindsay fares much better with saddle of venison, all pink and gamey and smothered in a boozy, creamy peppercorn sauce. It’s a rich dish and the large square of buttery Dauphinoise does nothing to take the edge off it.
Plate of the night is my assiette of “Slawit” lamb: “stuffed & roll breast, herb crusted rack, creamy dauphinoise, sticky red cabbage & mint sauce” (not my typos, for a change.) Well, I say plate. It arrives on a bloody board along with a jug of gravy. Just when I’m wondering how that’s going to work, a plate arrives, so I slide the lot onto it and apply the gravy. Why? Why? And thrice why? The sooner this board and slate malarkey comes to an end, the better. That aside (and the curious mash up of French and Tyke in the title) the lamb is perfectly pink, deeply tasty, falling apart at the fork. The spuds are wonderful – creamy, as advertised, and the baby Kilner jar of mint sauce well judged. It just about justifies the £20 price tag.
Grand assiette of lemon feeds three of us, with lemon polenta Genoese, posset and sorbet. It’s the most modern-looking dish of the evening, put together quite artily, and so looks a bit incongruous given the recherché presentation of everything else. Maybe there’s a young dessert chef in the kitchen, keen to develop a signature?
Service is appropriately old-fashioned, in that it’s warm and attentive with just the right amount of formality. I’ve eaten in a number of minimalist-bordering-on-stark places this year (with service to match) so this slightly dated, unreconstructed 80s time capsule is a tonic. You won’t swoon at the originality of anything but you don’t always want to knocked sideways with foam in test tubes. It’s just dinner, after all. There’s too much Simply Red on the stereo, and you already know my views on food not served on plates. Ditch the boards and Mick Hucknall and I’ll be back.
• The Olive Branch Inn, Manchester Road, Marsden, Huddersfield HD7 6LU. 01484 844487, www.olivebranch.uk.com