There’s no question about the ambition. The declaration 10 years ago that Malton should be named “Yorkshire’s Food Capital” came from the late Antonio Carluccio launching its new monthly food market. It set the town a tricky challenge.
As well as the food market there’s the annual Food Lovers’ Festival, a beer festival, an artisan food court, food tours and a cookery school. Whether that adds up to a food capital is arguable but is there another town in Yorkshire of comparable size that qualifies for that honour?
The centrepiece of any food capital must surely be an excellent restaurant, not necessarily a fine dining experience with umpteen courses, but something special all the same. The natural venue in Malton has to be the Talbot, the lovely old coaching inn of honeyed sandstone. A Malton landmark for generations, it has hosted wedding breakfasts and funeral teas, dance classes, election dinners and men-only “smoking concerts”. To varying degrees, it has been the centre of social, political and horseracing life in Malton for 280 years.
That history has a central thread, through the private wealth of a dozen generations of the same family, from its purchase in 1739 by Thomas Watson Wentworth to accommodate his pals, the racehorse owners, breeders and trainers, who needed somewhere to stay during the long defunct Malton Race Week.
Wentworth also owned much of Malton itself. The Talbot remains part of the vast Fitzwilliam Estate with its heir, Tom Naylor-Leyland, the driving force and figurehead for the transformation of Malton into a food capital.
In 2012, he took over the sadly run-down Talbot and after a £4m facelift, reopened revealing elegantly appointed rooms filled with generous drapes, deep sofas, plumped up cushions and equine prints. If it lacked the patina of age it was comfortable and genteel in the best English country house tradition.
TV chef James Martin was parachuted in to design the menu and put his name to it all. Craig Aitchison, from Swinton Park, was taken on to cook. The menu was happily short, unpretentious and rather good.
Over time though the shiny new Talbot began to lose its lustre. Whether it was the departure of Aitchison to head up the Grand Hotel in York, or Martin’s departure in 2015, is hard to say, but the food and service wasn’t cutting it.
Enter Sam and Georgie Pearman, who until last year were running a small hotel group in Gloucestershire. In less than a month, they revamped the Talbot once more and opened in early February.
Out went the starched tablecloths and glittering silverware. In, rather self-consciously, came a modern rustic look: chunky wooden tables, grandma’s oak dining chairs, distressed dressers and glassware so hefty it was like drinking from a jam jar – I’m not asking for fine crystal, just a glass I can fit my mouth around.
Dignified service has been replaced by a laidback team in Breton tops. All this informality extends to a menu of crowd pleasers like fish pie, pork belly and fillet steak with a handful of more adventurous dishes such as raw hanger steak with parsley, capers and horseradish or Whitby cockles with bacon, cider and cream. Four non-meat bowls include squash, grains, nuts and seeds.
There’s comfort food in venison pie and, new to me, panaculty: slow-cooked corned beef, onions and potatoes.
I can endorse chef Robert Brittain’s twice-baked cheese soufflé on spinach with a rich cheese and mustard sauce still bubbling in a metal bowl.
All is well, too, with a tower of smoked haddock sitting on quality bubble and squeak, with a perfectly poached egg on top. There is spinach in there as well, wilted but still vibrant, all brought together with a grain mustard sauce.
The calves liver is let down less by the cooking, more by the preparation. The tubes and membranes have not been properly removed, never a good look for a slice of liver, though the mash is super smooth, the bacon well crisped, the shallots soft and sweet, all afloat on proper gravy.
My best dish is the roast pumpkin and bulgur wheat given a rich Romesco sauce of red peppers, almonds and paprika. I’m guessing here but I also sensed a whack of spicy ‘nduja too, then finished with some carefully crisped sage leaves. A colleague once told me he always chose the same dish in an Indian restaurant to compare like with like. I’m doing the same with fruit crumble. Sad to say, I’m finding it hard to find an exemplary version. Last month it was a jammy offering with a few crumbs. Here it’s rhubarb cooked to a mush with a mean little topping. The best thing about it is proper custard.
Not everyone’s taken with the Talbot’s breezy new look, reports a member of staff, “though others love it”, she adds hastily, remembering her loyalties. Malton’s self-appointed title as “Yorkshire’s Food Capital” is still a bit of a stretch but the re-energising of the Talbot is an important step on the way.
The Talbot, Yorkersgate, Malton YO17 7AJ; 01653 639096; www.talbotmalton.co.uk. Open: Monday-Friday, noon-3pm and 6-9pm, Saturday, noon-3pm and 6-9.30pm, Sunday, 12.30-3pm and 6-9.30pm. Price: dinner for two including bottle of wine and service, £85.