It’s interesting to play the tourist in my own country. I’ve been away from England for almost 30 years and hardly ever went to Yorkshire even when I lived here. Mostly I seem to have passed through on my way from the south to Scotland, though there was a memorable week in Leeds when I was 22 and had a small part in a play that toured around the country, playing a soldier in the army of Frederick the Great of Prussia (a mesmerising performance from Tom Conti). I lived on fish and chips back then. Mostly, though, I have only passed through. This week, I’m in the stunningly beautiful Yorkshire Dales and having an amazing time hiking from pub to pub, tasting awesome cask-conditioned ales. Yorkshire ale is a thing unto itself, and I’ll explain why one of these days. Then again, everything up here that is native is loyally embraced by the local population – and that includes Yorkshire pudding.
You don’t have to go to Yorkshire to enjoy it. My mother makes a spectacular version, cooked properly in a big flat baking pan using the drippings from the roasting joint of beef that shares the oven with the pudding. It’s dense and moist, soft and yellow with crispy brown edges, like a hefty, savoury crêpe and my mother puts a slice of it on the plate with roast beef, horseradish, roast potatoes, gravy and a couple of vegetables (spring greens or brussels tops if we’re lucky).
That is what true Yorkshire pudding is like. Two hundred and fifty years ago, when the Yorkshire Dales were being mined for lead and enclosed for sheep, Yorkshire pudding was a poor man’s dish. It was created to fill you up, to be served as a hearty preliminary course before the roast meat. That way you didn’t need to eat so much of the expensive beef or lamb or notice if hard times had given rise to short commons. It could also double as a dessert if spread with jam, and as a cold lunch next day, if there were any leftovers. I was talking about this with Mark Reid, our intrepid hiking guide and source of knowledge about all things to do with Yorkshire and Cumbria. It was he who led our group over fell and dale to a much-anticipated lunch at The Bridge Inn in Grinton, in the heart of Swaledale. This is a delightful old coaching inn opposite the 12th century church of St. Andrew and beside the babbling Swale, England’s swiftest river. I should mention that I’m here as part of a trip organised by Gold Medal Plates, the organisation that raises funds for Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes. This means that we have an Olympic athlete with us – none other than the mighty Adam Kreek, who won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics as part of the men’s rowing eight. At the Bridge Inn he was game enough to take on all challengers at drinking a yard of ale (only 2½ pints, but it’s served in a glass like a slender trumpet with a sphere on the end. Careless drinking can lead to a tsunami of ale pouring onto your face). Kreek drained his yard cleanly in 36 seconds.
Anyway… On the menu that day was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I ordered it, hoping for a taste of the real McCoy. It was not to be! The pub cooked individual Yorkshire puddings in a muffin tin. They emerged as puffed-up as a regimental sergeant-major, crisp and hollow, like some sort of weird biscuit. Not right. Not right at all. I looked at Mark Reid but he is too polite to denigrate anything or anyone and would not meet my eye.
And then today… We are now over in Wensleydale, home of the famous cheese that Wallace and Grommit saved from possible oblivion. Indeed, we are in Hawes, where the Wensleydale is actually made – a firm, crumbly, cream-coloured cheese with a subtle flavour, a delicate milky tang, the faintest taste of honey… My wife and I slipped away from the crowds and went off for a coffee in a nearby café. There they were serving “Yorkshire pudding filled with chips.” What a brilliant way to gain weight rapidly! The pudding in question is round and two inches high and the size of a dinner plate. It’s also much more substantial – more like my mum’s, in fact. At this café, they heap its concave centre with fat greasy chips but I am told in other parts of the county they might use curry or chili or simply gravy – such are the aberrations of this carefree modern age. I watched a woman work her way through the nutritious treat. I have spent years trying to explain to anyone who will listen that British food is actually quite sophisticated and interesting and delicious. I must now apologise to all my readers.
Incidentally, one of the younger members of our group, Kevin Boyd, drained his yard of ale in 33 seconds at the Bridge Inn in Grinton. There is hope for the youth of Canada.