[Disclosure: We paid in full at The Blind Bull, they didn’t know I was a blogger]
There’s a moment, isn’t there, that you get a good idea of when you’ve picked the right place to dine. When you smile smugly to yourself at your good life choices and settle in for what you know is going to be a great experience.
At The Blind Bull in Little Hucklow, a village pub in the Peak District not far from Buxton and Bakewell, it wasn’t so much one moment as a series of little hints. Each one confirming what I had hoped – that this is one of those places turning out the best of British pub dining. The combination of restaurant-standard food and great service, served in the cosy setting of well-worn flagstones, stone walls, simple wooden tables and a warmth that doesn’t just come from the log fire but from the years of history the building oozes.
‘Independent pub with a long history’
Our discovery of The Blind Bull was pure coincidence. It happened to be one of the closest pubs to where we were staying on a recent jaunt to the Peaks for some walking. The first hint it would be more than your average pub is its website. Yes, there are the obvious seals of approval in the form of badges from Estrella’s Top 50 Gastropubs, and the Michelin Guide. But it’s the story that gets me and the care that’s been put into painting a picture of a place you can’t help but want to go to.
In the Blind Bull’s own words, it’s “Little Hucklow’s youngest independent pub with a long history”. The pub occupies the Britain’s fifth oldest public house, yet the 12th century inn has been newly-renovated. In their own words, their ambition is for it to be your “newest home from home”, and a quick look at the pictures, including their six rooms and gorgeous cottage, certainly seem to suggest that that’s exactly what they’ve created.
It’s enough to pique curiosity but it’s the menu that seals the deal for me. A focus on local Derbyshire produce, but the ambition that is hinted at in the spiel also shines through in the dishes. A bar menu that balances classic pub snacks and local produce with creativity and ideas that go beyond this glorious county.
There’s lamb fat toast, sardines with green sauce,
It’s hearty, Derbyshire food but there are hints everywhere on the menu at an effort to refine things. It’s a little wink from the words that while it has all the elements of a ‘proper pub’, this is a bit more than that.
We plan to go for a lunch, but for various reasons, end up visiting the day before for a drink just as they’re getting ready for dinner service.
The next couple of hints that this will be good come thick and fast. The unphased and warm welcome and accommodation of two muddy, tired walkers with two large dogs in a lovely freshly-renovated pub. The smiling response to my request for fizz that explains that no, they don’t have Prosecco but they do have English sparkling. The general calm and comfort in this well worn but spruced up place.
Impromptu dinner at The Blind Bull
Within minutes we’ve decided we’d be foolish not to stay for dinner, and are perusing the menu which has the same simplicity as the bar menu I’ve ogled at online, along with the same ingredient-focused feel and that sprinkle of creativity that sends the subtle signal that whoever’s put this together knows and loves their food.
There are restaurant-style snacks before our starter. A delicate amuse-bouche play on cheese and pickle, a homemade brioche roll, and a cup of beef broth that is worryingly addictive thanks to its meaty flavour that makes you almost want to chew if it wasn’t so smooth that it delicately coats your tastebuds before melting away leaving you wanting more.
Starters that shine
Jamie starts with oxtail ravioli. Pasta makes a frequent appearance on the menu here, and this is a perfect rendition of Italian comfort food. Meaty, fall-apart oxtail inside an intricately-assembled parcel of perfectly-cooked pasta. There’s a jus that has the same depth as the beef broth, and the addition of snails that are another little reminder that this is not just pub grub, but something a bit more.
It’s good, but it’s my ‘moules mariniere’ that steal the show. This is not the dish as you know it, but The Blind Bull’s version. A creamy, fish-infused broth that’s almost foam, hiding the de-shelled flesh of the mussels underneath. There are chunky croutons to add some crunch to the chew of the mussels and a herb oil that cuts through the creaminess. It’s a delight. These words don’t do it justice. Jay, Grace, go and try it and write this better than me.
Main course at The Blind Bull
We rarely order the same main course, but you don’t see mutton often on a menu, and having tried the starters we know it’s going to be good, so both opt for it. It’s more than good. The meat’s tender, but has a wonderful char on the outside that dances on your tastebuds and elicits a grin that you can’t really fight.
There’s a croquette with it that is predictably fabulous, tumbled over the meat are caramelised onions that bring sweetness to the party, while the sauce it’s doused in is rich and decadent, a puree underneath creamy and silky in the mouth, and there’s more of that herb oil to add to an already fragrant dish. This is hearty, big food – in flavour, in attitude, and in the joy it brings.
There are greens to accompany it that are fresh and simple – the perfect contrast. And the boulangere style potatoes are a heady, buttery slab of sexiness that combines crunch with soft, squishy potatoey goodness. Again, words fail me. It’s the perfect food for a long day’s walking, and we find ourselves trying to eek out the experience by ordering dessert.
Desserts to die for
It proves to be the latest in a long list of decisions regarding The Blind Bull, because dessert here is easily as good as all the other courses. Again, they aren’t afraid to serve up homely classics, but they’re elevated far beyond ‘just another pub pud’.
Treacle tart is almost sickly sweet but not quite, balanced by a buttery pastry case and the creamiest of ice-creams that slowly melts into the filling. Chocolate mousse is a grown-up’s version of a classic, with a touch of bitterness and chocolate crumb to add texture, both of which help makes it possible to get through what is a pretty generous portion of chocolatey, sweet loveliness.
The pictures don’t do it justice – when do they ever. But just remember that’s for two very good reasons – a well-judged level of lighting that makes you want to curl up in a corner for hours luxuriating in good food and even better ambience, plus the fact we were too keen to dig in to faff around with photos. Which, quite frankly, is always the best sign.
Unsurprisingly, we do curl up in our corner in the snug for as long as possible, finishing a carafe of red that followed on from bottle we were expertly advised on. We toy with the idea of an espresso martini that I’ve spotted on their cocktail specials , but decide all good things have to come to an end. Our departure is reluctant. But within 24 hours we’ve booked a return trip to the Peaks purely to take some friends back to The Blind Bull. If that’s not confirmation of how much we loved our experience, I’m not sure what is.
Look on The Blind Bull’s website and you’ll find a quote from owner Raab Dykstra-McCarthy.
“I’m trying to create a pub I’d want to go to. Nothing over the top, just a comfortable place, passionate about food, where people can come together over an unforgettable meal.”
Well, Raab. You’ve certainly done that. On all counts.