Tuesday, 25 May 2021

The Pack Horse, Hayfield

I don't know if there's anything I could say that would seem suitable for this occasion. How on earth do you strike the correct balance between celebrational and sombre, full of relief and gratitude for having made it through the last few months, whilst at the same time acknowledging the countless number that haven't been so lucky, and for the countless more that feel in no way inclined to celebrate. Yes, being able to get back into restaurants again is lovely, but you can't shake the knowledge that we've been here before, and though it feels like a lifetime and a half ago, we thought we were out of the woods then, too.

So I'm not going to even try. Like most people I wish the last four months hadn't happened, and so I will pretend they haven't and just barrel straight on into a review of a lovely gastropub in the Peak District because look, what on earth else is there to do?

Hayfield is an astonishingly pretty old mill town, its elegant grey-brick buildings rising out from the banks of the river all the way up the steep sides of the Sett Valley. In many other parts of the country, in fact in many other parts of the Peak District, it would be insufferably twee and touristy, bloated with fudge shops, postcard-sellers and tearooms. But Hayfield remains resolutely unpretentious and no-nonsense, a proper little community where normal life goes on largely unaffected by the beauty all around.

In the centre of it all stands the Pack Horse, first and foremost a friendly local but one that also just happens to be serving some of the best food in the area. It's the gleaming ideal of a pub, the kind of place, alongside the Parker's Arms in Lancashire or the Draper's Arms in Islington, that have absolutely nailed-on precisely everything that makes a great pub great, serving exacting, intelligent comfort food whilst also being somewhere you could pop in with your muddy boots and dog after a walk on Kinder reservoir and nurse a pint of mild.

And that's all you need to know, really, except I imagine you're going to want to read a bit of detail out of sheer curiosity. Our evening began with 3 Lindisfarne rock oysters, neatly shucked and presented alongside a nicely sharp mignionette sauce. Funny, isn't it, how most of the best pubs serve fresh oysters, and none of the bad ones do?

Crab came as white meat incorporated into a salad of crisp spring leaves and radish, and as brown meat spread liberally on toast. Both elements were superb but the brown meat on toast was particularly good, full of grungy flavour with the spray of the sea.

A breadcrumbed and fried egg, boasting a marvellously timed and runny yolk, came served on a bed of buttery wild mushrooms and studded with pickled walnut, an unbeatable combination that covered all the pleasure points from rich dairy to hearty fungi.

And Yorkshire asparagus, great big thick things like only the best examples are, served with a silky hollandaise and various toasted seeds and nuts, tasted as good as they looked, a riot of colour, flavour and texture. If sourcing great ingredients is 90% of the battle (and I think it is) then the Pack Horse can count themselves lucky they have this side of things absolutely down pat.

Mains continued in the same vein. If I'm going to be brutally honest, my own selection of hare was a tad on the dry and chewy side, being rather too lean a meat to survive the slow braising method. However, the port, pancetta and mushroom sauce it came in was beautifully rich and glossy, and the mashed potatoes were right up there alongside those served at the Parker's Arms. And if you've ever eaten at the Parker's Arms, you'll know how much of a compliment that is.

Lemon sole, served grilled on the bone, was generously proportioned and beautifully cooked, and worth the price of admission even without the mound of mussels, samphire and sea kale on top. I don't want to get into the whole business of London pricing vs Everywhere Else pricing, but can you imagine anywhere within the M25 serving this huge slab of premium fish for £22? No, neither can I.

Or how about this giant chunk of halibut for £21? Boasting a satisfying meaty texture and with an incredible depth of flavour, it would have been a bargain at twice the price. It was presented with cute little parcels of breadcrumbed and fried oysters, and with a fantastic sauce they called "smoked roe & oyster cream", which was every bit as good as it sounds.

Oh, and a word on the chips - triple cooked, golden-brown and basically perfect, they encapsulate everything that's good about the way the Pack Horse goes about its business. They reminded me very strongly in fact of the ones served at the Parker's Arms, and as I've mentioned before, this is a Good Thing.

The chocolate and hazelnut delice, in fact, was a suggestion that the connection with the place in Newton-in-Bowland was more than just coincidental. I'm reliably informed that the chef at the Pack Horse is - amazingly - entirely self-taught, but perhaps has been inspired by a trip to Lancashire and, entirely reasonably, has decided that the Parker's is as good a template as any to base your gastropub on. Or maybe I'm reading too much into things. Either way, this was an excellent dessert.

As was this, the "summer berry mess" with attractive shards of meringue dusted with some kind of powdered fruit, and plenty of raspberries and strawberries folded into sweet whipped cream.

Every town deserves a Pack Horse, and every pub in the country deserves to be this good, but the fact that places as good as this, mature, respectable operations serving rewarding food at extremely reasonable prices and still be recognisable as a pub, are still so vanishingly rare is not due to lack of demand for them but to how incredibly difficult it is to perform the balancing act of offering elevated gastropub food without alienating your loyal customer base, and pitching prices at somewhat under "fine dining" levels whilst still turning a profit. I don't blame certain "gastropubs" for ditching their walk-in bar and going full restaurant-mode, but if you can't just rock up for a pint and a bowl of chips well, that's not a pub.

The Pack Horse is still, unmistakably, gloriously, a pub. You can sit with a group of mates (Covid caveats apply) and drink pints of local ales, or settle down for a four-course seafood extravaganza bookended by sophisticated herb-infused cocktails, but whichever path you choose you'll be served by the same smiling staff and you'll all be using the same loos. And you will, I'm absolutely sure of it, all be trotting home after your time there wanting to do it all over again, just like I was.



Shirin said...

Can’t wait to visit the Peak District and give this pub a visit! Thanks for the recommendation!

Cubbie Cohen said...

Life seems better now you're back, one more step on the road to where we thought we were. Thanks for posting the new review. I'm visiting Stockport soon, looking at the map The Pack Horse isn't far away at all, I'll definitely be making a visit. I'm already looking for places to stay, who wants to drive when the bar sounds so perfect.

Joe said...

So good to have you back in action. Stay safe.