MULTIPLE errands in Wensleydale were carefully scheduled so as to allow for arrival at the Friar’s Head at Akebar at lunchtime.
There’s been some refurbishment at this popular Dales destination and we thought it time to check it out. Unfortunately, we were about a week early, the refurbishment was still underway and the doors firmly shut.
Plan B was to press on down dale to Bedale. Thinking ahead, I remembered that the curiously-titled Upstairs at Institution recently won a Flavours of Herriot Country Award so that seemed like the best alternative.
The award has obviously been good for business because at 1.30pm on a Tuesday, it was full. Well it was almost full but we didn’t fancy a tucked-away corner at Downstairs at Institution. Institution is a dress shop, by the way, but it seems there’s more money in frappacinos than frocks seeing as how the café bit is spreading.
Plan C was formulated with some urgency. At 1.40pm, tummies were rumbling as we wandered up the Market Place. Sustenance was required. Now.
Pannetti’s was a possible stop at North End but before we got there, the Old Black Swan presented itself. With the clock ticking we dived in and were comforted with the news that food was served all day until 8pm.
In the centre of the Market Place, the proud bay windowed exterior of the Old Black Swan typifies old market town coaching inn. Inside, it’s the same. Rather dark away from the front windows, it’s a warren of tucked-away corners with a central bar and the obligatory flashing fruit machine and music selector, assorted curios, bric-a-brac and some rather good old pictures of Bedale.
There are also some pictures of a big refurbishment that took place at the Old Black Swan in 2007 and then it must have looked quite smart. Now, it’s clean and tidy but, how shall we put it, just a little bit tired.
The young man behind the bar was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed however, filling us in on the menu options and serving us drinks promptly. The can-do positivity on a grey old day when the place seemed to be mainly catering for the remnants of Bedale’s Darby and Joan club – a club of which we are, of course, honorary members.
To truly appreciate the all-day menu at the Old Black Swan, it helps if you can recall the school dinners of the 1960s and 1970s. Ham and eggs, mince and dumplings and treacle sponge pudding were staples in my old school canteen and here they were alongside some more adventurous offerings such as garlic and parsley breaded mushrooms, chilli con carne and pasta broccoli bake.
I’m not being all sniffy-nosed food critic here. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in my book with plain food cooked well and the kitchen at the Old Black Swan makes a reasonable fist of it.
We both had soup to start. Sylvia had the last serving of the ham hock and vegetable which because our barman thought there wasn’t a full bowlful had £1 knocked off the price (£3.25 instead of £4.25).
Perfectly seasoned and steeped in flavour, it came with a fresh brown bread roll and plenty of butter. My mushroom version was not quite to the same standard but very acceptable nevertheless.
Having fully bought in to the superior school dinner vibe, I went for the mince and dumplings (£7.95), a veritable swamp of ground mince, two tennis ball-sized suet dumplings and gravy served with lots of mashed potato and swede (or mashed white turnip if you going to get all Northern on me) plus carrots and broccoli which had endured just a tad too long in the microwave.
A hefty plateful of slow-burn carbohydrate, I was all set for double physics and a muddy five-mile cross country run in the days when winters were proper cold. As I wasn’t doing a run (or double physics) that afternoon it lined the bottom of my stomach for a full 24 hours.
Sylvia had the steak pie (£9.45), a sizeable slice of tender, braised steak and gravy with a pastry top which she thought was too thick but I thought the perfect Titanic-sinking accompaniment to my suet dumplings. Her pie came with peas and okay chunky chips.
There was no way we would manage a dessert and time was marching on, albeit very slowly. Just as the menu had a vintage feel, the service was on a steady side. As late lunch stretched into the afternoon, we could see Bedale’s weekly market was winding down as we settled our £32.05 bill, which included a nice pint of Theakston’s Best (£3.50) half a Kronenbourg (£2.05) and a soft drink (£1.60).