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

1 comment:

  1. A very detailed review and one which definitely tempts us to follow suit and try out the Boxtree for ourselves - perhaps a destination for our 7th wedding anniversary next summer?