Big country

st-marys-mainThe countryside and I don’t get on. It’s something I’ve come to terms with; I can appreciate a nice view, but I don’t like getting mud on my nice Kurt Geiger shoes. My little car doesn’t like those winding roads that seem to lead nowhere, and sometimes it smells funny.

So here I am, a determined townie happiest chilling out in a trendy basement diner or watching the world go by in a Grey Street cafe, on my first expedition into rural Northumberland in a long time.

Things are not going well. I’m lost, having left the comfort of the A1 just a mile ago. Add to that, everyone in the countryside drives Land Rovers at silly speeds on tiny roads with big hedges. I am not happy.

The only reason I haven’t
hot-footed it back to town to find a paved street and a latte is the reputation of today’s destination.

St Mary’s Inn in Stannington is sister pub to the excellent Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle. The kitchen is headed up by Shaun Hurrell who, having trained at Jesmond Dene House, worked in London under both Marcus Wareing and Fergus Henderson before heading home to open St Mary’s Inn.

I’m now very hungry and very cross. A Ranulph Fiennes-style expedition is not what I signed up for when I said I’d write a lunch review, but when I eventually find my destination my mood picks up as I find Tarmac and other markings of civilisation.

We semi-crash through the pub door straight into the bar to be greeted by a cosy, country-style setting; not exactly what I’d expected from a brand new £1.5m pub-come-hotel in the middle of a 250-home development, but a very
welcome surprise.

st-marys-2Despite being brand new, the bar and dining room – which is split into cubbyholes, nooks and crannies each served with a woodburner and furnished in the same style as the bar – is a mix of what they call on the telly shabby and chic. I’m delighted to find a traditional menu of proper pub food. It is classic dishes like these, in my opinion, which make for a good test of a great kitchen team, and we go for a classic Cumberland sausage and mash with caramelised onions and gravy, and a big beer-battered fish and chips.

The fire is lit and tended to and I half expect a 200-year-old labrador to waddle through the door and curl up beside it. For in a certain light, this could be one of those ancient country pubs I’ve read about. Instead of the labrador, however, there’s a contemporary wire sculpture of a sheepdog lying under one of the floor-to-ceiling windows, which is pleasing and doesn’t smell
at all like a stinky old country dog. This is a good thing.

Although these are not the trendiest dishes you’ll find in the North East, there’s a lot to be said for doing a good staples like these.

Both are proper sized portions and both are served with proper potatoes. Not rocket science you might think, but these days so many pubs fall down on their potatoes, dishing up oven chips and powdered mash where, with the aid of a potato peeler and a willing kitchen helper, the real thing is so easy to serve.

Being presented with a generous serving of creamy mash improves my mood dramatically. The ring of Cumberland sausage is good, with just the right mix of heat, the caramelised onions are sweet and the gravy is rich. By now I’m thinking I could get used to swapping my usual cafe haunts for Saturday afternoons in a country pub.

We’re reliably informed by the manager, Victor Castro, formerly of Caffe Vivo and Close House, that the fish is fresh from Latimer’s of Sunderland – no bones to be picked there. It’s also huge and served with proper, thick homemade chips, tartare sauce and mushy peas.

The puds are as traditional as the mains and the sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream goes down very well; so well in fact, I am not offered a spoonful. Next time I’ll come with someone else.

The Brewer’s Malt Profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce are a daunting sight. There are three of them, each filled with a scoop of ice cream and served with a pot of thick, bitter chocolate. They’re more Italian almondy puffs than profiteroles, but very pleasing all the same and, determined to fulfil my duties as your lunch reviewer, I eat all three and clean the inside of the chocolate pot, too.

I hesitate to say it, but I could get used to this. The food is good, the surroundings are cosy, and the excellent St Mary’s Ale by Wylam Brewery is a welcome partner to our meal. We’ll be back soon, and with any luck, we’ll find it at the first attempt.

St. Mary’s Lane, St. Mary’s Park, Morpeth, Northumberland NE61 6BL, tel 01670 293>

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