The early evening scene I witnessed in the bar of The White Swan Inn in Pickering, north Yorkshire would have warmed the hearts of its owners, Victor and Marion Buchanan, had they not been on holiday in the much hotter climes of Turkey at the time.
A young waitress approached the table where a middle-aged couple were sitting to tell them that the dining room had just had a cancellation and that she would, after all, be able to accommodate them. Taking their name and agreeing on the time they wanted to eat, she professionally sealed the sale by handing over copies of that night’s menu and the wine list.
As the woman began reading the menu aloud she inched closer and closer to her husband with obvious enthusiasm for what awaited them so that by the time she had got to the end of the main courses, it seemed that she was almost sitting in his lap.
At that stage another couple sat down next to them and as the gentleman went to the bar to get their drinks, his wife called to him to ask for some menus. Within seconds the man next to her had courteously handed over his menu as well as his opinion on how much he was looking forward to eating there. In a very short space of time he had already become an unpaid champion of the White Swan’s virtues.
These are considerable, both within and outside the hotel. Although Pickering has not escaped the current economic malaise, obvious from the numerous “For Sale” signs, it is a quintessentially pretty market town with a church complete with medieval frescoes, rare in England; a Brief Encounter-esque station, home to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway with its steam trains, manned by volunteers, which travel the undulating countryside to Whitby on the coast; and the still intimidating façade of the Primitive Methodist church built in 1885. But that is not to say that Pickering has escaped modern-day political correctness: Thomas the Baker no longer sells gingermen but gingerpersons.
Over the past decade since they took responsibility for the White Swan – originally a 16th-century cottage and subsequently a coaching inn – the Buchanans have made considerable changes both inside and out. Next door they have opened Tutti, a seemingly popular pizzeria judging from the level of the decibels inside, and just down the street they have taken over the lease on a former grocer’s shop. This is now called The Ginger Pig as it is a partnership with Tim Wilson, whose impressive farms on the moors at Levisham five miles away provide all the meat for The Ginger Pig butchers’ shops in London and for the inn where Wilson is an enthusiastic customer, judging by the large plate of chargrilled leg of lamb with courgettes and olive oil mashed potatoes I saw him tucking into late one Sunday evening.
The old rooms in the inn are comfortable despite the fact that little of the building is structurally level, because of its age. And the staff are warm, welcoming and, perhaps most unusually, predominantly local. To all this, the Buchanans bring their obvious enthusiasm for food and wine.
Victor Buchanan has a penchant for the wines of St Emilion in Bordeaux, judging by the numerous wooden case ends and certificates on the walls of the bar and the dining room. He is generous, too, with his pricing policy on these wines – we drank a bottle of an elegant 1990 Chateau Marquis de la Croix Landol for £52 – a strategy that is obviously appreciated by the shooting parties who form a vital part of the winter trade en route to and from the nearby grouse moors.
The restaurant is a low-ceilinged room with unadorned but comfortable wooden tables and chairs. The comprehensive main menu is thoughtfully supplemented by a smaller card listing the soup, fish (sea bass, monkfish and lemon sole) and vegetables of the day. It became obvious that the kitchen is as generous with its portion sizes as Buchanan is in keeping the mark-ups on his older wines low.
Our meal consisted of a wide spectrum of local ingredients: grilled Lowna Dairy goats’ cheese with caramelised red onions; a salad of ox tongue with bacon and mushrooms; Tamworth pork belly with excellent crackling and an appetising apple and radish relish; and a perfectly cooked lemon sole with sweet brown shrimps. The meal’s faults were undercooked new potatoes and, far worse, a mundane selection of local cheeses.
Breakfast was, however, faultless: Yorkshire tea, from Taylors of Harrogate, as strong as any coffee; Ginger Pig sausages, bacon and black pudding, with or without anything from the table loaded with fruit, yoghurt and cereal, and some lightly smoked kippers from nearby Whitby.
And it was to Whitby that we then headed, having heard from everybody we met in Yorkshire that it is home, in their opinion, to “the best fish and chips in the world”. Unfortunately, heavy rain had brought crowds into this historic town centre and the queue outside the Magpie Café, hugely popular because it still fries its chips in beef dripping, was too long. Instead, we headed to Robertson’s, another local favourite, for their breaded scampi, haddock, which they eat here in preference to cod, chips and, of course, more Yorkshire tea.
The subsequent walk past shops selling jewellery made from jet, found on the beaches, and performing morris dancers brought us to Henrietta Street and the smokehouse of WR Fortune, in a setting that seemed unchanged from Victorian times. In my opinion, their kippers, bacon and smoked salmon are the equal of anybody else’s today.
The White Swan Inn, Market Place, Pickering, North Yorkshire, YO18 7AA.
Tel: +44 (0)1751 472288, www.white-swan.co.uk
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