Lion hearty


Village people are so lucky, reckons Alastair Gilmour

A huge load-bearing beam across the dining area doubles as a chalkboard for local produce. It also reads like the itinerary for a Border Reivers’ raiding party.

On the schedule at The Red Lion Inn in Milfield, Northumberland, are Foreman’s Butchers in neighbouring Norham, Heatherslaw Bakery at Ford, Doddington Dairy and Till Veg from Cornhill. But these days you can relax without fear of some clan or other rustling your cattle and kidnapping kith and kin and indulge instead on honey roast pork belly, homemade steak and ale pie or pan-fried salmon fillet with garlic king prawns, followed by decadent home‑made desserts.

The origins of the chunkily handsome, stone-built Red Lion Inn can be pinned to the mid 1700s with its hospitality founded on very simple principles – wholesome food, well-kept ale, efficient service and, if required, a bed for the night and a generous breakfast.

Milfield sits midway between Edinburgh and Newcastle, so it developed as a stopping point for mail coaches and passenger charabancs. For centuries, sheep and cattle drovers from Borders farms would rest and recuperate before completing their drive to northern marts.

Red Lion owners Iain and Claire Burn are capitalising on what has served visitors well for nigh-on 300 years; warmth, sociability, conviviality and a substantial table.

Checking the menu is like leafing through an album of old photos. Memory-joggers such as prawn cocktail (£6.50) and bubble and squeak mash jump out alongside more contemporary takes – roasted vegetable tagliatelle (£9.50) and deep-fried goats’ cheese with chilli sauce (£6.00). But there’s something thoroughly appealing about grilled gammon steak with pineapple, fried egg, tomato and home-made chips (£9.50). It’s very1970s, a hark back to the days of Angel Delight and Spangles, and a reminder that few of us then could even spell ‘baguette’, let alone buy one.

One thing is immediately obvious – this is uplifting home-cooked food exemplified by the likes of simple and homely lambs’ liver, sausage, bacon and mash (£9.50). It’s a comfort combination served with a pond of rich gravy, carrots and green beans. The crispy rasher sits atop looking for all the world like a butterfly stretching in the sun. Two decent slices of perfectly timed liver, a brace of sausages, and plenty of fluffy mash make a surprisingly light lunch.

Before that though, the crispy coated, devilled whitebait (with caper mayonnaise, £4.50) burst with classic herring flavour followed by a spicy, Tabasco-like kick. We’re thinking this would work well in a bag – whitebait as the new pork scratchings – however, I’m not really sure these tiny fish actually benefit from devilment as they’re tasty enough to look after themselves.

The accompanying chips (£2.00) are golden and fresh and yet another example of modest fare cooked and presented well. Three scoops of Doddington Dairy ice cream on a brandy snap-like nest livened with fruit coulis (£4.50) is a further triumph of good looks and cream-driven flavour. The Red Lion is cleverly divided into three dining areas, the largest featuring a magnificent fireplace, and a public bar with a wood-burning stove. The bar counter is well-worn, nicked and knocked with smoothed elbowed areas along the top, while deep and cushioned windowsills are perfect for parking backsides.

Three cask ales are a bonus, the pumpclip image of Signal Main Line IPA from Settle in North Yorkshire contrasting sharply with Allendale 1513. One shows a bullet-type train while the other portrays the monument to the 14,000 Scots and English soldiers who fell at Flodden 500 years ago. Also on the bar are the notable and consistent Black Sheep Ale and Sandford Orchards Devon Red which is steadily gaining popularity among cider drinkers.

During conversation it emerges that Red Lion regulars are known by their occupations or habits. Byre Man is mentioned, as is Lawnmower Salesman, while someone comes in to ask, “has Brown Ale Man been in yet?”

We graduate towards the well-spaced beer garden where we sit mesmerised by the thrashings thrown up by a combine harvester – operated no doubt by Lawnmower Man – and imagine the barley is on its way to Simpsons of Berwick for malting, to eventually return in the pint in our hand.

The Red Lion Inn’s relaxed menu would loosen up the fiercest Border Reiver. Look forward to whitebait; thrust and plunder are so yesterday.

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