There seems to be something of a trend emerging for pubs with elevated food offerings. Whether it’s tough economic times – set/tasting menus cut down on food waste – or a call for perhaps slightly less formal dining even at a Michelin-rewarded level – a la The Fordwich Arms and The Sportsman – it’s a trend I can certainly get behind, not least as it’s helping save some great old boozers. Possibly not for the local drinkers – although that is a trick some still manage – but perhaps the days of the great local pub being at the heart of the community are over anyway?
To be fair, that’s the subject for a far more detailed, sociological feature to be written by one far more thorough and talented and educated than me. All I know is if turning a pub into a very good restaurant saves great old buildings such as The George at Alstonefield, then it’s something to be encouraged. And if it creates a network of restaurants as good as The George at Alstonefield, then that goes double.
Ultra-local and seasonal menus
Owners Siobhan and Graham Penrose-Johnson were fans of the pub before they bought it and it shows in an atmosphere that’s welcoming and snobbery-free, and in a building that retains the character of its 400-year-old former coach house origins, from the log-fire to the lime-plastered walls, old beams and quarry tiles. The George has had a growing reputation since The Good Food Guide recognised it in 2009 and you can now add the likes of Sawday’s, Harden’s and, indeed, the Michelin Guide to that list. They’re not starred – yet – but earlier this year they installed a young man named Jordan Hemsil, formerly of Adam Reid at The French, as their head chef and, well, we’ll see. Based on a recent dinner, the potential for their frequently ultra-local (within 15 miles) and seasonal menu to get the big nod is certainly there.
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It’s also fun. Carrot croustade, pumpkin, parsley takes the form of a tiny wheel – a nod to those coach-house origins? – that melts and crumbles pleasingly on the tongue. Shorthorn beef tartare, nettle, kohlrabi is served as a tiny taco, the thin slice of kohlrabi forming the “shell”, a delicate hint of texture to some excellent rich meat (raised nearby by Jeff, as the menu proudly – and justifiably so – explains).
And then the dishes requiring cutlery start to flow. The timing of our dinner – late August – is perfectly summed up by native lobster, courgette, pea. The seafood is one of the few things that doesn’t come from within that 15-mile radius for obvious reasons, but when the supplier is this good, what does it matter? It’s a super, fresh and delicate little bowl of food, that demonstrates the kitchen’s abilities and understanding of flavour. And perhaps even better, with a nod to the autumnal flavours that will soon be inbound, is yeast-glazed maitake (Hen of the Woods), with allotment egg yolk because The George has its own hens and arrangements with local allotment holders. It’s a delightful dish, deeply savoury, comforting and rich, but with a lightness of touch that doesn’t unbalance the rest of the menu.
Go bold or go home
There’s a slight stutter on the next course, and arguably the one after too. Catch of the Day, romesco and lovage is up first and you’ll have to forgive me, as my notes at this point are somewhat illegible (no excuses but apparently the first victim of a long drive, a couple of gin and tonics, and four glasses of wine from the matched flight, is my handwriting). If memory serves it was turbot, but possibly halibut as the “bt” and “t” are the only vaguely legible letters. For my money, the fish was just the wrong side of perfectly cooked, although that’s getting into Craig Revel Horwood levels of pernickety and, regardless, the romesco and lovage were excellent foils.
And now the debatable course: rare breed pork (c/o “Mike down the road”), celery, bread sauce. Having been in the fortunate position of eating lots of random bits of pigs over the years, this simple plate – a single thick slice of still pink meat, a not-quite-quenelle of bread sauce, a sliver of braised celery – was a low-key joy, a wonderful celebration of delicate flavours and the oh-so-soft fat of a tasty pig. Over the table, it was met with bemusement more than anything. As Siobhan told us, Jordan had recently served the same dish at a supper club, a joint venture with a celebrated local chef (a regular occurrence judging by The George’s website), to roughly 50:50 levels of adoration and bewilderment. And, well, maybe “go bold or go home” is how the occasional course on a tasting menu should be?
Unity, however, was restored with Baron Bigod, scone, gooseberry: a generous spoonful of a very well kept slab of the brie-like Bigod, perhaps Suffolk’s finest cheese, a delicately-crusted, fluffy little scone, and a dollop of sharp/sweet gooseberry chutney. Not big, not clever, just damned nice. That was swiftly followed by peach, yoghurt, savoy sponge which sat somewhere between palate cleanser and pudding, and Pink Lady apple, tamarind, feuilletine, which brought things to a close in a very smart, if unconventional manner.
Service is charming, ditto the setting, and the value is high: the nine-course menu came in at £90 a head, with an additional £52 for the wine flight.
Stay just ‘a stagger’ away
Remarkably, for such a small Peak District village, there are also several convenient local sources of accommodation. We stayed in the Estate Rooms, at the nearby Alstonefield Manor – billed as “a stagger” away – a collection of rooms and cottages in Alstonefield and nearby. While the shower was a little cosy, and doubly so after nine courses and seven matching wines, it was warm, comfortable, very nicely appointed and, yes, in staggering distance. The lack of light pollution made for a dazzling walk back as well (and a very good night’s sleep).
The Peak District always strikes me as one of those great under-appreciated areas of natural British beauty (certainly by Londoners anyway), but hopefully the likes of this accommodation and, particularly, the quality of dining offered at The George at Alstonefield will go some way to change that. Incidentally, they also offer a four-course, £45 Sunday lunch which reads like a dream, sounds pretty damned bargainous to me and is already on the wishlist for 2023.
The George at Alstonefield, 1 Church Lane, Alstonefield, Ashbourne, Derbyshire DE6 2FX; thegeorgeatalstonefield.com
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