A food lover’s travels off the eaten track

Sue Nelson, the founder of Yorkshire  Food Finder
Sue Nelson, the founder of Yorkshire Food Finder
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Jill Turton goes off in search of tempting delights of the region’s larder on the inaugural Yorkshire Food Finder Trail.

I’ve been in some curious bars around the world, but few quite as curious as the North Yorkshire one I found myself in recently. It opens just three nights a week and its customers are limited to two drinks a session, but on a raw November evening, the Windmill is as welcoming as any local pub with its fancy modern gas fire in the centre and a wealth of oak panelling and Mousey Thompson furniture.

The Windmill is the sixth form bar at Ampleforth College, the famous Catholic public school on a wild and windy corner of the Howardian Hills. There can’t be many schools that have their own pub, but the authorities are pragmatic: “If they’re in here at least we know where they are,” says bar manager and sometime school rugby coach John Dobson. “And it’s better they’re with us than in the village pub.”

The Benedictine monks have long been pragmatists. They’ve been producing alcoholic drinks as a means of supporting their communities for centuries and what brings us to the Windmill is an opportunity to learn about and sample their cider, cider brandy and Amber Liqueur, all made with apples from Ampleforth’s orchard of 2,000 trees.

We’re taking part in the inaugural Yorkshire Food Finder Trail, an enterprise offering day long expeditions starting and finishing at one of Yorkshire’s first-class restaurants with an opportunity to explore behind the scenes of some of the region’s finest food producers.

The idea behind the trails comes from Sue Nelson and her husband Aiden. She is a former journalist. He is a specialist in railway safety. What they both share is an enduring love of food. They’ve eaten out at some of the world’s, and most of Yorkshire’s, best restaurants. Sue also cooks for friends and family, taking inspiration from a vast collection of cookery books.

“We had to extend the kitchen to accommodate them,” she says, throwing her head back with laughter. Passionate is an over-used word when it comes to talking about food but it might be appropriate here

The Nelsons have spent 12 months devising and perfecting 15 themed journeys across Yorkshire based around a renowned restaurant and its food producers. Our bespoke trail begins at the famous Star Inn at Harome from where we are bussed over the North York Moors in glorious autumn sunshine before dropping into Botton and the Camphill Village Community set up for adults with learning disabilities who live and work alongside those who support them.

Botton runs five farms that produce 90,000 litres of milk a year and it is at the creamery that we meet Alastair Pearson and his staff Magnus and Rob to learn how they make a range of superb unpasteurised, raw milk cheeses: Summerfield, a Swiss mountain cheese, Moorland Tomme, Dale End cheddar and three kinds of Gouda. We have a go at stirring the curds and whey Miss Muffet style, then after an hour of ever-so-gentle muddling Alastair and Magnus lift the curds – by now a soft, lumpy mass – into muslin lined moulds and within minutes it begins to knit together into something resembling cheese.

In contrast to the warm, milky atmosphere of the dairy, the cheese store is sweet and cool. Hundreds of cheeses, ranked by date on wooden shelves are washed, matured and generally loved for months, even years, until ready to be sold.

Sampling them later over coffee we can appreciate the quality of these artisan unpasteurised cheeses, the tangy and complex Moorland Tomme, the mellow Gouda and the lovely Dale End cheddar. Up on the podium with Yorkshire’s finest.

Back on the bus, Aiden entertains us with his brand of geography, topography and trivia. Did you know Kirkbymoorside was the last place in England to have double yellow lines? Or that Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe is the longest name in England (if you include the hyphens)?

By now, Cold Kirby, in the south west corner of the National Park, was living up to its name. Here, Charles Ashbridge farms rare breed cattle under the brand of Taste Tradition. He supplies quality meat to leading restaurants including St John, Roast, Jamie’s Barbecoa in London; Northcote Manor in Lancashire; the Star Inn and more.

Leaning over the farm gate we admire his Long Horns, Aberdeen Angus, Herefords, Galloways and miniature Dexters, while Charles explains the breeds, the feed and why he loves his animals so much: “I like seeing their different temperaments and how they mature.”

From time to time, he admits, his heart rules his head. “I’ll buy something I like the look of and James will say, ‘Why on earth have you bought this?’” James is James Wright, a director of the company and the in-house master butcher. “Some breeds,” James explains, “are just too lean, not good for the slow maturing, marbled meat we produce here”.

James joins us to admire the pampered cows which for seven months of the year feed on the rich grasslands among the Hambleton Hills before being brought inside for the winter to be fed on Charles’s special mix of wheat, barley, flaked maize, sugar beet pulp, molasses “and other things” he says evasively of his fast disappearing secret recipe.

When it’s time for dispatch, the cattle go to an abattoir just 14 miles away. “It’s very calm, they don’t even have a radio on. If you stress the animals you’ve wasted 30 months rearing them,” he explains, giving his brindled long-horn a friendly slap. But it’s not all cuddles. When Charles recently got too close to a calf, its mother took exception and took off across the field after him; it ploughed through a hedge and chased him across the farmyard. They laugh about it now but he only just escaped a severe trampling. Not quite the pastoral idyll.

Certainly not for seven soft townies, standing around a muddy farmyard in a biting wind despite farmer Charles toughing it out in his shirt-sleeves. But it’s lunchtime and we are soon deposited at the Carpenter’s Arms at Felixkirk to find fires, mulled wine and slices of rare, roast sirloin rimmed in creamy yellow fat from those beloved Dexters with sausages created, James the butcher tells me, for the Middleton family breakfast on Royal Wedding day. “When I delivered them to the Goring Hotel,” recalls James, “a top-hatted guy on the front door said ‘Oh, you can’t use this door, go round the back’.” So like a Dickensian delivery boy, James was conducted round to the servants’ entrance. “We call them the royal sausages now,” he says with a laugh. Royally good they were, too.

Next to Ampleforth Abbey and that bar, but first a tour of the orchard with lay cider-maker Cameron Smith and the Prior of Ampleforth, second in command of the Abbey, Father Terence, who has been at Ampleforth man and boy for 40 years.

Together they walk us through this unique monastery orchard of 48 different apple varieties, planted in 1902 and which has only recently been fully restored and nurtured to create a small-scale artisan cider-making operation which last year produced 25,000 litres of cider from 28 tons of apples, though this year’s wet summer has reduced that to less than five tons. A disaster, as Cameron Smith points out.

At the cider mill – a couple of rooms in an old milking parlour – we see where the apples are juiced then fermented in giant plastic juice vats bought second hand from Tesco. Half a dozen oak barrels hold brandy which goes to Suffolk to be distilled then returned to mature and develop a lovely golden hue over five years or longer. “It’s the fierce side of smooth,” says Cameron, “but if you’ve ever had 10-year-old brandy you’ll know it becomes wonderfully mellow.”

Then it’s back to our starting point at the Star Inn where Andrew Pern and his team have put together a memorable feast incorporating all the produce from our travels and this being the first trail, using supplies from half a dozen producers on the Food Finder roster. It’s a fitting location; no one surely has celebrated the excellence of Yorkshire produce more than Pern’s Star.

We start with Justin Staal’s Smokehouse salmon, trout and duck, and wild food forager Chris Bax’s salted wild garlic seeds. We eat plump roast chicken from Harome’s Loose Birds and Howden’s Happy Trotters bacon rolls. My dish of the day is Ampleforth Cider Liqueur burnt cream with forager’s elderberries and lemon verbena sorbet from Alison Dodd’s Herbs Unlimited at Sandhutton. We barely have room, but manage to nibble on Shepherd’s Purse and Botton cheeses. Never mind God’s Own County, we have indulged in God’s Own Larder.

The price for a Yorkshire Food Finder Trail varies, averaging £160 a head. Contact Sue and Aiden Nelson. 01904 448439, www.yorkshirefoodfinder.org