The drive from Exit 31 of the M1 to Ridgeway isn’t one of the Great Journeys of the World. In fact from the roaring Parkway it’s a gloomy crawl up to Manor Top and through Deep Pit, dodging trams and on this particularly grey day, lethal pockets of fog; a potentially tricky trip if you’re not local.
Sheffield’s suburban sprawl suddenly ends in a serene, green village; turn into the Old Vicarage’s sweeping tree lined drive and the memory of the concrete chippies and endless betting shops I’ve just threaded my way through is already old. If a building’s appearance gives a clue to the dishes being prepared within, then I’m in for quintessentially English food, rib-sticking rather than refined.
I’m routinely clueless, but today my miscalculation pushes the outer limits of being wrong.
I’m uncharacteristically early too, and a smiling, smartly dressed young man heaves open the vast gothic door and a warm, golden glow dispels the ambient murkiness of the day. There’s a lot of chintz in the comfortable lounge; oils in rococo frames, oak panelling, slightly fading upholstery; Midsomer meets Brideshead.
Chef/owner Tessa Bramley has been in residence here since 1988, held a Michelin Star for 14 years, has an unbroken entry in the Good Food Guide for the last 25, is the author of a number of cookery books and has made countless screen appearances. So she should know a thing or two about cooking. Her right hand in the kitchen is Nathan Smith, who knocked on the door looking for a job nearly 20 years ago and never left. Tessa is happy to tell anyone who’ll listen that they stand shoulder to shoulder, that they think the same way.
Settled by a charming picture window overlooking a scrubby winter lawn, the genteel, elegant dining room is all napery and gleaming glass and, with my blunt preconceptions, I expect a pink prawn cocktail to come my way; instead, an immaculate amuse of butternut squash with truffle: silky, with a creamy gold concentration and an unnecessary but welcome film of truffle oil.
Next up, saddle of hare wrapped in sage and pancetta served on a little stack of creamy leeks. It’s a darkly dangerous and compelling dish with perfect crunch in a salad which takes the edge off the hare’s deep gamey intensity. That and the gin-soaked cherries sitting in a puddle of peppery compote. There’s juniper in there somewhere too, subtle but present.
Baked Whitby cod is a fat, translucent piece of fish which flakes at the fork. Sitting on top, sautéed squid and on the side saffron roasted potatoes, golden bite-size blobs of utter loveliness and sweetly subtle against the butch fish flavours. A lime and chilli slick brings a bold brightness to an old favourite; this is the thing with the cooking here, it’s capricious, exhilarating and completely modern without being flashy.
It’s said that Tessa gets her inspiration from the surrounding fields and woods, cooking with the seasons and plundering the coast and countryside. She’s been doing this for decades, long before foraging was fashionable.
A piece of perfectly roast partridge arrives accompanied by a potato & chive croquette/pillow, a scattering of wild porcini and joy of joys, caramelized new season cob nuts. I chose this dish for several reasons, the main one being my love for these shy little fellas – hard to find but always worth the effort. I would never have thought to caramelize them but then that’s why I’m writing, not cooking. The sweet saltiness of them makes for a mischievous mouthful of food, along with a dab of the crab apple and thyme jelly which glints in its tiny white pot like insects in amber.
Choosing dessert is tough; they all come off the page, but in the end there was only one for me. Baked chocolate pudding with fudge sauce and custard is full-on seventies retro, and a fond nod to Tessa’s previous life as a fast-order cook in a busy town centre café.
She’s attempted to remove it from her menu here several times and faced a mini-revolution so there it sits. And it doesn’t disappoint, it’s chocolate to the power of ten; there’s even old-school feathering of the custard through the sauce.
In complete contrast, gloriously sticky treacle tart is amped up with a chestnut and rum mousse, candied orange, mint and a sassy orange sorbet; it’s as pretty as a picture but the hell with looks, it’s got – I don’t know – six different textures, one of which does something astonishing to the end of your tongue and tastes like heaven if heaven had a pudding department.
It’s a fitting end to a faultless lunch. The only other place I’ve had food as thrilling as this is at Frances Atkins’ Yorke Arms in Ramsgill. They don’t hand Michelin stars out to just anyone, you know. In fact you can count on two hands the stars held by women in the UK. How blessed we are that two of the most naturally talented chefs in the country are in Yorkshire. And how glad am I that judged the book by its cover, got it entirely wrong and ended up eating one of the most memorable meals of the year.
The Old Vicarage, Ridgeway Moor, Sheffield S12 3XW. 0114 247 5814, www.theoldvicarage.co.uk. Open Tuesday to Saturday, lunchtime and evening.