Some years ago Gordon’s took me to Italy to watch how they harvested their juniper berries for gin.
The berries grow on bushes and small trees around which men lay sheets. The berries are collected on the sheets when they beat the bushes soundly with sticks.
There were times when I felt this was what I wanted to do to the chef who sprinkled juniper berries all over my main course at the Spencer Arms, Cawthorne!
Have you tried eating them? Chew as much as you like and you’ll still have a little pip stuck in your teeth. Since I had at least 30 I had to clear them away before I began to eat, not the happiest way to start a dish costing £22.
It’s been a few years since we were there, then a somewhat rickety place under a talented chef, Jason Nielsen. He’s moved on and the place has been spruced up so that it looked very different to us.
This is an illusion. They just moved a few things and used a lot of paint, says general manager Edward Worsley.
The result is that that the 18th century pub has a brighter, modern feel although still retains its venerable looks outside.
The new chef is Ben Atkinson, who has cooked his way around the north, and from the menu looks to have some bright ideas using local produce. Some is only a few yards away in the village orchard with its apples, pears, cherries and plums.
The pub `has two dining areas, seating just over 50, but the central area is for drinking. The Spencer Arms has the reputation for being a gastro-pub but it doesn’t want to forget its reason for being there in the first place.
Cannon Hall is just down the road if you want to make a day of it.
My wife liked the sound of a £6 starter special listed wordily as “A slice of Mrs Bell’s Bluemin’ White cheesy beetroot and watercress tart and Cannon Hall honey onions.”
We asked one of our waiters, dressed in black, who or what Mrs Bell was.
He frowned. “I don’t know. I’m not a name person, I’m a face person.” Perhaps Ben might like to give his staff a rundown on the menu.
The pastry was good with a filling of layered beetroot and chopped watercress with cheesy blobs on top. The onions were garnish in a spoon. My wife was slightly underwhelmed. “To say it’s got all those strong flavours in it it’s surprisingly dull.
More cheese might have been the solution. Mrs Bell is the woman who devised it at the Shepherds Purse company in Thirsk, if the waiter’s listening.
He started the evening sounding bored – asked if we had enough vegetables when ordering (he’s seen them before, we haven’t) he had the same sighing mantra we heard at the next table: “The dishes come as described but if you want any more” – and fierce.
“Crab cakes and tart!” he barked as he brought our starters.
To be fair as the evening progressed and I spilled some water he turned out to be a real sweetie so he was probably having a moment.
There were three crab cakes (£7), like the tart served on a wooden board, which were crispy on the outside and very crabby within. They came with a lemongrass emulsion, something I’ve not had before, which had hints of tartare sauce. Definitely a hit.
I can’t blame Ben for the juniper berries. He was off that night. And once I’d got rid of them (they provided the flavouring with liquorice in a small amount of sauce) I found I had two tasty lamb cutlets and a ‘cottage pie’ made with meat from the shoulder with a small amount of mashed potato on top.
Chefs have stretched the term ‘cottage pie’ these days. It wasn’t minced but the meat stayed in large chunks pressed together in a mould.
It was lovely but what stopped this dish being worth all the money was the ‘heritage roots,’ baby vegetables being as inedible as the berries.
Across the table my wife had pot-roasted chicken breast with roast garlic and a butter bean mash (£15). She was happy enough with it without being excited and neither of us could detect the butter beans in the mash.
But we liked the idea of the nettle and wild herb dressing which came with it.
Sweets are fine. I had a very sticky dark chocolate torte with pistachio and cherries while my wife had a pretty decent vanilla pannacotta. “It’s certainly Italian because it’s leaning like the Tower of Pisa,” she said. Both cost £5.
Not a bad meal although it lacked a little sparkle. Extraneous things didn’t help – the waiter and the table water, which tasted iffy even when replaced. And, oddly, we were never shown the wine menu so made do with the drinks we started with.
We paid £60 for food.
THE DAWES RATING
(out of five)