There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Ilkley and The Box Tree

 Driving the few miles from Bolton Abbey to Ilkley took us out of North Yorkshire and the Dales National Park and into the City of Bradford - at least that is what the sign said; the rolling green fields and dry stone walls did not look like anybody’s idea of Bradford or any other city.

Ilkley looks and feels like the country town it is. Athough it is an ancient settlement pre-dating the Domesday Book, modern Ilkley is largely a result of its development as a Victorian spa town. As a spa it never attained the grandeur of nearby Harrogate, but it did all right. The famous moor (visiting is inadvisable without appropriate headgear - or bah t’at as the locals are alleged to say) rises to the south of the town. 

Ilkley Moor rises to the south of the town

Older buildings include the Manor House, now an art gallery, which is set back from the main road.

The Manor House, Ilkley
All Saint’s Church is a largely Victorian construction, though there has been a house of worship on the site since the 7th century. The three Saxon crosses which once stood outside but were moved into the church in 1860 are particularly impressive.

All Saint's, Ilkley

Ilkley is a foodie town featuring, among other attractions, a branch of Betty’s Tearooms (a delight so far unsavoured), a serious fishmonger’s and Lishman’s butcher's shop. David Lishman, one of Rick Stein’s food heroes, has twice won the national sausage championship so, inevitably, we went home with a kilo of sausages and a slab of black pudding. Pre-eminent, though, is the Box Tree which, in 1977, was one of the first restaurants in Britain to gain two Michelin stars. Fortunes have varied and stars have been lost and gained over the years but in its present incarnation under chef/owner Simon Gueller it has held a Michelin star since 2005. Marco Pierre White served his apprenticeship at the Box Tree and became a partner in the business in 2010.

The building was constructed in the 1720s, and if the décor does not quite date from that time, it has been criticised as being old-fashioned and stuffy. I think ‘retro’ is a better word, and we found it relaxed and comfortable rather than stuffy.

The Box Tree, Ilkley

Rejecting the Menu Gourmande as being more than we could eat and the Menu de Jour as rather tame, we went for the à la carte which offered an amuse-bouche and four or five choices for each course. The style leans heavily towards classic French resulting in a menu of tortured Franglais. English may lack words for velouté, terrine or foie gras (fat liver? Perhaps not) but ‘paupiette of squab pigeon’ was not the only uncomfortable linguistic juxtaposition.

The amuse-bouche, velouté de topinambour, came only in French. Although my French is modest I thought my menu French was pretty good but I had to ask about topinambour. It is, I learned, Jerusalem artichoke - so why not say so? Two huge bowls arrived with an amuse-bouche sized depression in the middle containing several small cubes of artichoke and a tiny heap of grated parmesan. The velouté was poured on top. The ratio of china to food was absurd, but the rich flavour of the velouté and the wonderfully old-socky parmesan made that a forgivable eccentricity.

The scallops in Lynne’s starter were, of course, ‘hand-dived’. I doubt it does anything for the flavour, but we appreciated the nod towards sustainability. They were huge and meaty, not necessarily the ideal texture for a scallop, but well flavoured, as these giants sometimes are not. The broad beans had been peeled (the sine qua non of fine dining!) but it was the slices of rich and powerful summer truffles which made the dish. The accompanying glass of unoaked Australian chardonnay was undistinguished.

The menu prominently featured foie gras and dishes à la Perigordine. Two foie gras dishes would have been over the top, but two Perigord inspired dishes seemed a good idea so I started with the terrine of Perigord foie gras with a salad of smoked eel and granny smith apple.

The slab of foie gras was generous in size and everything I could have wished for. The tiny sticks of smoked eel arranged around it were a fine counterpoint and the apple, in tiny cubes and blobs of purée, did the same for the eel. The tiny green/red leaves scattered around allowed it to be called a salad but were mainly for decoration.

The dish came, for a price, with a small glass of Monbazillac. Monbazillac may be Sauternes’ poor relation, but although this example* lacked the honeyed quality of a top Sauternes, it was intensely sweet and possessed an acidity which sliced elegantly through the fattiness of the foie gras. I know there are ethical issues with foie gras; my excuse is that it is a traditional food and that I eat it very rarely. I suspect this is an inadequate justification, but Victorian writer and clergyman Sydney Smith’s idea of heaven was ‘eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets.’ I would merely swap the trumpets for a glass of Monbazillac.

Lynne’s main course – paupiettes of squab pigeon - also contained foie gras. The small legs were swiftly devoured, the paupiettes, two of them wrapped in Alsace bacon, were large and rich, indeed so large and rich she could not finish them; fortunately I was on hand to help. The petit pois à la Francais were undercooked for Lynne’s taste and the stock they were cooked in had become overly sweet as it reduced.

My fillet of beef (à la Perigordine, of course) was a wonderful piece of meat. Striking a balance between tenderness and texture while maintaining a full flavour is a difficult trick but was performed to perfection. The petits legumes (surely ‘baby vegetables’ would have done) involved several tiny, tiny turnips and the inevitable broad beans (they are in season as a glance at our vegetable patch confirms). They came with a Madeira sauce, which was sweet, as Madeira sauce will be, but not too sweet.

A wine from Perigord, or around, seemed appropriate, and my search of the extensive wine list came up with Domaine Capmartin from Madiran, a bit further south west, but near enough. Tasting it before the main course arrived, the tannin drowned out all other flavours, but drinking it with the food revealed booming fruit and unexpected subtleties. I was very pleased with my choice.

I am not a great fan of desserts; once sugar becomes involved other flavours tend to back off and let it dominate. I can often be seduced by pineapples or pistachios, but on this occasion found myself opting for millefeuille of raspberries with lemon curd and elderflower. It was, without doubt, as pretty a dessert as I have ever seen, three roundels of pastry separated by henges of raspberries encircling the elderflower and lemon curd cream. It was a shame to break it up and eat it, but I did. The raspberries were fine, but they were only raspberries, the pastry was excellent, but the flavours of lemon curd and elderflower had rather gone missing.

Two very pretty deserts
The Box Tree, Ilkley

Lynne’s iced apricot parfait with apricot ice-cream and an almond biscuit was pretty, if not as pretty as my millefeuille. It delivered full-on apricot flavour (not my favourite, but that is my problem) and Lynne declared herself well satisfied. They were both good desserts, maybe very good desserts but not great desserts, which are rare indeed and must be sprinkled with magic powder as well as icing sugar.

Back in the lounge we enjoyed coffee and petits fours, delivered by tweezers from a wooden box resembling an antique medicine chest. The coffee was disappointing, but a glass of Remy Martin brought a fine evening to an appropriate conclusion.

Petits fours in the lounge
The Box Tree, Ilkley

In Ludlow last year I was very impressed with La Bécasse which promptly lost its Michelin star. The fault lay, perhaps, in their inexperienced front of house staff rather than the cooking. That will not happen to the Box Tree, where the every aspect of the service oozed professionalism. Pleasingly old-fashioned, both in its décor and its cooking, The Box Tree does not cook sous vide or insert things into baths of liquid nitrogen. It sticks to the French classics and does them very well, which is comforting in this ever changing world. It also a reminder of why they became classics in the first place.

*wines buffs might like to know it came from the respected Bordeaux négociants Borie-Manou

Bolton Abbey and The Strid

Thursday the 26th of July was our 37th wedding anniversary. 37 is a big, scary number and neither of us can quite understand where all that time went.

37 years after the event
In celebration we set off northwards. After 60 miles up a busy, but moving, M6 we turned onto the M65. I often confuse this road with the River Congo, not because it teems with crocodile and hippo – they are manifestly rare in central Lancashire – but because it leads straight into the Heart of Darkness. Why I (and several others) have a massive downer on the worn-out and drab ex-mill town of Colne is a story for another time – but have you ever spent a night there? Beyond the horror (and, indeed, the horror) the countryside reasserts itself and half an hour later we entered the Yorkshire Dales National Park and arrived at Bolton Abbey.

A sheltered plot beside the River Wharfe was given to the Augustinian order in 1159 by Lady Alice Romille of Skipton. The building, actually a Priory rather than an Abbey, was erected soon after.

A sheltered plot beside the River Wharfe

Despite Scottish raiders causing a temporary abandonment of the site in the 13th century, the priory largely prospered until Henry VIII decided otherwise.

At dissolution in 1539 the valuable lead was stripped from the roof to enrich Henry and ensure the priory’s ruination, the main church alone was spared as it was also the parish church of Bolton Abbey village.

We had not expected such a venerable ruin to have changed since our previous visit in 1975 (on our honeymoon) but we were wrong: the west tower – left uncompleted at the dissolution now sports a neat wooden roof and a small bell turret. As it forms the entrance to the still functioning parish church, these were worthwhile additions – and it only took 450 years to get round to them.

Under the West Tower, Bolton Abbey

Inside the church is a huge Pugin stained glass window. 37 years ago I probably gave it no more than a glance, but I did not know then that I would spend 20 years teaching in a Pugin designed building. The Gothic Revival often involved locating the top and then going over it, but the windows are more restrained and very effective in their setting.

The rest of the Priory is an elegant ruin. Not a phrase that meant anything to me in 1975, but as I progress through my 7th decade, it seems something to aspire to.

Me and Bolton Abbey -
a pair of elegant ruins?

Within the Priory grounds, the River Wharfe is crossed by stepping stones which present an irresistible challenge to children – and indeed many old enough to know better.

The two girls in the centre of this picture were struggling, so one of them decided to slip into the water and wade, holding her friend’s hand to steady her. The plan might have had some merit had the girl wearing the shorts decided to wade, but it was the girl in the jeans who entered the water.

The Stepping Stones
Bolton Abbey

Further on there is a missing stone and they both decided to wade the gap. A little later some children reached this point and the girl in the jeans waded out to piggy-back them across. At the deepest point the water reached mid-thigh level; I do not know how much she enjoyed the rest of her day walking round in soaking jeans, but it would not have been my choice of attire.

For those actually needing to cross the river there is a perfectly serviceable footbridge just out of the picture to the right.

A mile or so north, though still on the Bolton Abbey estate, is the Strid Wood car park. A fifteen minute walk through the woodland, mainly native oak and silver birch with a pungent carpet of wild garlic, brought us down to the Strid itself.

On the way we paused at the point where, in 1815, William Turner (not to be confused with his better known contemporary JMW Turner) stood to paint ‘The River Wharfe with a Distant View of Bardon Tower’ – he specialised in 'does what it says on the tin' titles.

The River Wharfe with a Distant View of Bardon Tower, 1815

Lynne’s photograph shows some changes, most notable that Bardon Tower – built in the 16th century as a hunting lodge - is now a ruin. Turner has taken liberties with parts of the scene, but we could only photograph what was there, he could paint what he wanted us to see.

The River Wharfe with a Distant View of Bardon Tower, 2012

The Strid is a gorge in miniature, the water flowing through the confining rocks at the southern end was deep, dark and deceptively calm. The Strid is hardly at its most turbulent in July – in a hot year the river almost dries up - but given the weather this year, I had expected more turbulence and white water.

The Strid, south end

At the north end the water was rushing through the narrowest constriction. The name ‘Strid’ is derived from Anglo-Saxon ‘strythe’ meaning turmoil or tumult, but it also suggests the river is narrow enough to be crossed in a stride. It would be a big stride, but it is remarkable that all the water flowing between the stepping stones just a short distance downstream passes through this narrow channel.

The Strid, north end

We walked back up to the car park, which gave me an opportunity to photograph Lynne walking uphill, a stance regular readers might recall from Vietnam.

Up the hill from The Strid

We moved on to Ilkley and its renowned Box Tree restaurant to complete our celebrations, and that will be the subject of the next post.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Dunstable and the Olympic Torch

Dunstable is a deeply unlovely town. We first drove through it five years ago and at first glance the place felt wrong. I have been there many times since and still struggle to find anything to like about it. It is not the people, by and large they seem as decent as anywhere else, nor is the town especially poor or down at heel; indeed some regard it as the posh end of Luton (though that may say more about Luton than it does about Dunstable). It is not even that the buildings are especially ugly, well not all of them. It is the ensemble that is wrong, the way they are put together.

The charms of Dunstable

Dunstable has at least one building in every architectural style from  medieval to last week, and they have been plonked down side by side with no attempt at harmony, no thought as to how they may look among their neighbours. It makes Dunstable seem sad and unloved. I feel sorry for the current town planners; it all went wrong so long ago there is no way back now, no non-apocalyptic exit to their blind alley. Perhaps John Betjeman’s ‘friendly bombs’ should have been aimed at Dunstable, not Slough.

Banks can go bust in unison, but they can't co-ordinate their buldings
Barclays and Lloyds TSB, Dunstable

We are staying nearby, cat sitting while daughter, son-in-law and infant are on holiday. I drove them to the airport yesterday (you can drive to Luton airport without ever encountering Luton, which is a blessing).

This morning they were in Rome, Lynne and I were in Dunstable. Where would I rather be? Which would I rather be writing about? But Rome has been extensively chronicled by great writers, inconsequential bloggers and everybody in between, so what is there to add? And today Dunstable has something else, something Rome has not seen for over fifty years. Today Dunstable has the Olympic Torch.

Having missed the torch twice when it was much closer to home, we made an effort this time and were in Dunstable High Street by 6.15. The torch was not due for an hour and a half, but we wanted a good spot, and we wanted to be in the front.

And, to give them their due, the good people of Dunstable turned out in their thousands, lining the High Street several deep for as far as the eye could see. And as they were the ‘good people’ why was there such a huge police presence? They arrived by the minibus load, they arrived on motorbikes, they arrived in marked and unmarked police cars  and they hovered overhead in a helicopter. There were enough of them to deal with a riot, but the worst that was ever going to happen was a little dropping of litter, and that mostly by accident rather than malice.

The crowds begin to gather
Dunstable High Street

The staff of the local branch of Lloyds TSB were busy unrolling a banner, handing out balloons and ensuring that everybody who wanted had green and yellow ribbons to wave – by sheer co-incidence Lloyds TSB colours.

Nothing happened for quite a long time. The road was eventually closed to traffic, though the occasional police car drove by, their occupants waving to the crowd as though they were the attraction.

Then nothing happened again. At 7.40, right on time, a flurry of police motorcycles – enough outriders to bring a smile to the face of a third world dictator – heralded the advent of the sponsor’s floats.  I have mentioned one of them already (because of their local effort), but I have no intention of naming the others.

Plenty of police outriders
Dunstable High Street

Another wait, then more out-riders, and finally the torch arrived. The torch bearers are variously celebrities, athletes and people who have contributed something to the local community. The girl with the torch was not a celebrity (as far as I know – the world seems full of ‘celebrities’ I have never heard of) and did not move like an athlete, so we gave her a cheer for being a good citizen. And then she was gone and it was all over.
At last the Olympic Torch
Dunstable High Street

I am glad we went to see it, fleeting as it was, and I am looking forward to the Olympics, though I only intend to watch it on television. I hope it will, in the end, be about the community and the athletes, but it is well on the way to being hijacked by the sponsors and the police.

As we left Dunstable I wondered if the best use of the torch might have been to burn the place down and start again. Sadly the wettest June on record had given way to an equally damp July - it would be nigh on impossible to set fire to anything.