I feel like Jay Rayner’s kind of stolen my thunder on this one (yet another reason why I shouldn’t procrastinate over blog posts and just get on and write them, but hey). Just this weekend, he tweeted a picture of some braised lamb shanks with the comment: “The best tasting food is rarely the most beautiful”.
And that, my friends, was going to pretty much be the crux of this blog post. Thanks Jay. You took what I was going to witter on about for a few paragraphs and summed it up in a tweet.
Oh well. I’m going to write it anyway, the way I had planned, safe in the knowledge that if the mighty Jay Rayner already agrees, then this is one of the few things I’m not wrong about.
Pretty food makes for great blogging. Yes, it often tastes good, but it’s helped massively by the fact it’s oh-so-photogenic. Fine dining dishes laid out with tweezers, carefully organised on colour-coordinated crockery with as much thought given to the contrasting hues of the ingredients as to their flavours and textures, are the supermodels of the food world.
While bogstandard dishes have the same lumps and bumps as us average humans, the delicate morsels of painstakingly-arranged elements are the equivalent of high cheekbones, mile-high legs and flawless complexions.
I could go on with comparisons, but you get the gist. The good thing is, as we know from all the wisest people, appearances really are only skin-deep. In food terms, that means that yes, food that doesn’t look beautiful can still taste epic. And when I say beautiful, I don’t mean that it doesn’t look edible, that it doesn’t get you salivating the minute you lay eyes on it, but that it doesn’t look like a piece of art on a plate.
Take Jay Rayner’s lamb shanks, for example. Or a bubbling cassoulet on a winter’s day. Maybe a bowl of simple soup. Or a curry so deep in flavour you think you might not ever be able to climb out. They might not make the best Instagram pictures, but they sure taste good.
And so to the Royal Oak at Hurdlow in the Peak District. We visited here on a cheeky post-New Year break to walk off some of the Christmas excess and take a bit of a breath before January got underway in anger. Not only is the dog-friendly pub nestled right next to the Tissington Trail, but it’s also got its own campsite and bunk rooms, making it perfect for a quick campervan break for us.
We had promised ourselves we’d cook our own food since we were tightening our belts (financially as well as physically) but a quick peek at the menu and some of the plates of food going past us as we warmed up in front of the open fire on our first night had me booking a table for a post-hike re-feed on the second.
It describes its offering as “good honest pub food”, with produce sourced as locally as possible and a menu bulging at the seams with pies, steaks and pub classics from fish and chips to sausage and mash. As promised, all at a reasonable price, with mains between £10 and £20 on average (unless you plan to opt for the 20oz T-bone steak).
With 17 miles under our belts and a beer in hand (non-alcoholic for me as I tried to curb my Christmas booze excess), we started with homemade broccoli and stilton soup for me, while he opted for a sharing starter of baked Camembert. Because, well, cheese.
The soup was everything you want from a pub starter. Rich and creamy, with none of the bitterness that sometimes comes with a broccoli and stilton soup. And, hurrah, it was prepared by someone who clearly knows the value of seasoning even the most simple of dishes properly. Served up with warm crusty bread and real butter, it was exactly what the doctor ordered.
The baked camembert was a monster of a dish, complete with extra garlic inside and on top, as well as bread, bread sticks, chutney, caramelised red onions that I’m fairly sure were also homemade, and some candied walnuts.
I’m not sure how much we can wax lyrical about baking a block of cheese, but Mr M was impressed that it appeared to be a real camembert that had actually been baked, rather than a bought-in, ‘hey we’ve put an unnamed soft cheese that looks a bit like camembert in a ceramic dish and you just have to melt it and serve it to your customers’ dish.
My main course is the perfect example of how tasty food isn’t always the most photogenic. Maybe it’s my slightly-lacking photography skills, or the fact I couldn’t wait to tuck in so didn’t spend too long arranging my plate.
Or perhaps it’s just that thick, meaty lamb chops piled on a bed of mash and covered in rich gravy are never going to look quite as pretty as a ‘cannon of lamb’ with some kind of carefully-shaped fondant. And that’s not the point. This food is about digging in. It’s about feasting after a hard day in the cold.
The chops were tender, the portion huge, and the gravy full of flavour. The waitress didn’t balk at all for my request for “less mash, more veg” (though I would defy anyone to get through the normal portion of mash, given that mine was still pretty generous). So as well as my mound of meaty loveliness, I could tuck into some much needed goodness.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jamie’s main course rib eye steak would have been an adequate feed for Thor. Many ounces of what he says is some of the best-tasting steak he’s had in a while. A mountain of chunky chips. Pepper sauce. Homemade onion rings that could probably have served as a collar for our dog, they were so big, salad, roasted vine tomatoes and a huge field mushroom.
I, of course, tested all the elements, and they were – as he said – great. Not ground-breaking, not ‘challenging to the palate’ or to your perceptions. Steak and chips is probably churned out a gazillion times across the world each day. But that doesn’t mean that some versions aren’t better than others, and this got full marks. Good quality meat, cooked well and exactly as the customer wanted. Good chips, a sauce with plenty of flavour, and no weird additions to mess with what is a classic.
He couldn’t finish it, obvs, but still managed some chocolate ice-cream for pudding, because apparently “it’s just a drink” (don’t ask me, I don’t make the rules). And as usual, we had the added benefit of being able to roll 38 seconds down the hill to bed in the campsite.
I think you know by now where I’m going with this. The Royal Oak is a pub. It serves, as it says, “good, honest pub food”. It’s not food for the Instagram generation who are happy to let it go cold while they find the perfect angle and the perfect lighting to capture the art on their plate.
It’s for people who have been walking, climbing, hiking or working. People who have an appetite – who want a full belly next to a warm fire in the winter, and the same in the pretty outdoor garden in summer. The portions are big, the welcome friendly, the surroundings picturesque. And it proves that yes, food can taste great without looking picture-perfect on a plate.
We paid in full at The Royal Oak. They didn’t know I was a blogger.