This sign was spotted in the front window of the Green Dragon pub in the Yorkshire Dales. I imagine it’s a joke as I can’t believe anyone in that idyllic part of the world would harbour such a grudge against the flower people. Then again…
As predicted, dinner at the Wensleydale Heifer proved spectacular. My roast hake was especially good, a perfectly timed slab of the soft white fish, its texture somewhere between that of plaice and haddock, its flesh juicy beneath a crisp skin. The chef had set it above a ragout of chopped chorizo sausage, white beans, red pepper and brown shrimp – a merry-go-round of flavours that still allowed the fish its due – so simple but very delectable. Gastronomically this meal was the highlight of the week, an opinion with which our guide, Mark Reid, concurred. He ordered fish and chips and pronounced them to be some of the best he had ever had. From a Yorkshireman that is high praise indeed.
On the following evening I encountered another unique treat at a restaurant called Chaste, in Hawes in Wensleydale. This was a liquid treasure, a “gin” made from cider apples by a gentleman called William Chase, creator of the famous Chase vodka. His tale is an interesting one. A potato farmer, Mr. Chase provided the raw material for Tyrrell’s crisps, a popular brand of potato chip. Alas, there was a row with the supermarkets that sold the crisps and Chase found himself with a great many potatoes on his hands. He turned them into a vodka that went on to win the prize as Britain’s best vodka. The apple gin is his latest venture, a clear spirit with some of the sweetness of Calvados but unaged and laid over with juniper and other traditional gin botanicals. It’s rich, fruity, nicely spiced and rather powerful at 48% alcohol by volume. Brilliant with tonic.
Forgive the dashing about in this posting, the lack of linear narrative, but now I will whisk you miles up Wensleydale to Bolton castle, towering above the village of Castle Bolton. It’s open to the public but our Gold Medal Plates group was fortunate enough to have a private tour from Tom Orde-Powlett, whose family has owned the castle since it was built in 1399. Parts of it, including the rooms where Mary Queen of Scots stayed, are in remarkably good nick and there is a handsome little garden and falconry demonstrations involving a number of different owls and raptors. To the delight of our party, lunch had been laid on in the Great Hall – a feast of smoked salmon followed by a fabulous selection of local pies and cheeses including the creamy, subtle, Jervaulx Blue, a local cheese that tasted like the suave younger brother of a Stilton. One eats so much when everything is within reach and I had no room left for the finale – a goblet of strawberry Eton Mess. I ate it anyway.
The last event of our week was a demonstration out on the sunny terrace of Simonstone Hall in which I attempted to explain the reasons why it matters what goes into a Pimm’s. I tried to paint a vivid picture of the origins of the drink, how young James Pimm, a tenant farmer’s son from Newnham in Kent came to London to seek his fortune not long after the battle of Waterloo. He set himself up with a barrow from which he sold oysters in the streets of the City but by 1823 he had parlayed that into an oyster bar that became a popular lunch spot for London’s businessmen and financiers. Seeking a gimmick that would set him apart from his rivals he began to mess about with signature cocktails and finally ended up, circa 1840, with Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, a tankard of chopped fruit, lemonade and the unique elixir he had created from gin infused with spices and fruits.
Life was good for Pimm. His drink caught on, sold door-to-door by boys on bicycles and new “numbers” were introduced – No. 2 Cup (based on Scotch) and No. 3 (based on brandy and still made today as a spicier version called Pimm’s Winter Cup). Eventually Pimm retired, selling the oyster bars and the secret recipe for Pimm’s to a fellow called Frederick Sawyer who sold it on to Horatio Davies, the future Lord Mayor of London. His dreams were bigger than Pimm’s and soon the stuff was available all across the Empire, wherever Englishman lifted a tennis racquet or an oar. Other “Numbers” followed in the 20th century, based on rum, rye and vodka, but the 70s and 80s were a time of hardship for the drink. Just as I was discovering its glories, most of England was turning away. The oyster bars disappeared and so did most of the Numbers. Even at places like the Henley Regatta, the drink was poorly made – something warm and flat and sticky by the end of the afternoon, attractive to wasps but otherwise useful only as a crude tool of seduction.
Today all is once again happiness and light! A good Pimm’s remains a super drink on a hot day. Some people have their own ways of making one, using ginger ale or Champagne instead of fizzy lemonade and that’s fine, as is the normal (rather puny) ratio of 3 parts pop to 1 part Pimm’s. But this is the recipe I favour: Slice up one cored green apple, one orange, 12 strawberries and a four-inch piece of unpeeled cucumber (slippery seeds removed) and tip them all into a jug. Pour on one 750-mL bottle of Pimm’s and a fistful of mint leaves. Add 1.5 L of ice-cold fizzy lemonade such as Sprite or Seven up. Give it a quick stir (but not enough to lose the fizz) and pour over ice cubes in half-pint tankards, letting lots of the fruit slip in with the liquid. Garnish with tiny blue borage flowers. Drink swiftly and have another one right away.