SO what happens to MasterChef contestants when the oven is turned off, the apron’s hanging on the kitchen door and the 15 minutes of foodie fame has collapsed like an overcooked soufflé?
If you’re Craig Harris you’ll be cooking in the kitchen of a North Derbyshire pub remembering just what might have been when his programme was shown in early 2008.
“I admit I undercooked a piece of sea bass and (presenter) John Torode went raving around the room,” he said ruefully after our meal at the Peaks Inn, Castleton.
He didn’t win, then, but Torode and his colleague Greg Wallace were impressed enough to suggest he keep up the cooking.
He and his wife Marie had taken over a pub on the Isle of Wight when he got a call to go back to the show a second time but by now he had ruled himself out because he was professional.
Pity about the pub. Soon after they opened the only tourist attraction in the village, a waxworks museum, closed.
Which is why they are now in Castleton, no doubt hoping the Blue John and Peak Caverns, as well as Peveril Castle, don’t go belly up.
But Craig’s catering should see him through. At times he can cook like a dream. No-one will ever make me such a rhubarb crumble as I ate here, the forced rhubarb resonating like a fruity memory, rather than doing something rude on your tastebuds, underneath a light, crisp, buttery crumble. With proper custard, too.
You’ll find the pub just on from the Cheshire Cheese (the car park is across the road, the one with a shipwrecked boat in it) on the road into Castleton.
It’s early stages yet in the transformation into foodie pub. Two of the rooms are given over to food (a third is for drinkers), with flagged and wooden floors, brick fireplaces with woodburning stoves and a specials board irritatingly tucked away in a corner.
It’s not been gastro-fied and the menu is still a work in progress. There’s the usual pubby stuff (home made pies and bangers and mash) but by the time you read this (and Craig gets help in the kitchen) there should be a wider range of specials.
Tacked on the end of the pub (which has four letting rooms) is a coffee shop which will become a restaurant at night.
Few people are likely to go three courses restaurant-style in a pub but we do to get a reasonable idea of the cooking so it meant having to scratch around to find a couple of starters.
The special of smoked bacon and cheese on toast (£3.95) had been borrowed from Lancashire chef Nigel Haworth. This was ultra simple but with two excellent ingredients, given a lift by an apple and Worcester sauce dressing.
Craig, who used to work in IT for Sheffield City Council, prides himself on using local produce, so he will doubtless be changing the Lea & Perrin for Hendersons.
I found a gutsy, tomatoey minestone (£4.50) on the bar menu with a gratifying amount of depth and good ingredients, topped with croutons.
There were just three mains on the specials. My braised beef (£12.95) was rump which had been marinated in red wine , thyme and garlic to give an almost gamey flavour and intense gravy, with button onions and quartered mushrooms.
It partnered with a horseradish mash, not too heavy-hooved, a splendid herby, floppy dumpling and what the blackboard called ‘garlic scented broccoli.’
Normally when chefs gush with words like that or, worse, ‘anointed’ or ‘nestled,’ I reach for my cleaver but here it was apt. The garlic was just a breeze rather than a gust.
Craig’s hopes of a crab linguine had been sabotaged by the fish van getting stuck in the icy Pennines so it was replaced by smoked haddock and prawn fishcakes (£10.95).
A trifle ungainly (they looked like cannon balls), their rustic looks hid their fishiness. Plate decoration was pure MasterChef, a swirl of two sauces, lemon butter and a sweet minted pea puree (Craig had cooked them in stock for extra depth.
We were enjoying our meal. There’s a good wine list (my wife had a large Italian pinot grigio for £5) but I stuck to a pint of one of the two real ales, Castle Rock’s Harvest Pale (£3.10), supreme champion at the Great British Beer Festival 2010.
Sweets, at £4.50, are home made. The crumble you know about. The other threw us. We thought we’d ordered ginger pudding but got what seemed in every fibre of its being a portion of sticky toffee pudding.
Oh no, said Craig later, it was ginger. Well, the ginger was lost on us although whatever it might have been was rather good.
Let’s just say our bill said it was sticky toffee pudding.
Great food and I sense this place will flourish.
I am, though, knocking marks off the service which starts from the moment we pick up the phone to book.
The bar manager, who called me mate every time he brought a dish, didn’t take our number and we fought our way through snow and ice to find the kitchen was out of action, so it meant a second trip out, 60 miles in all.
You shouldn’t have to travel that far to find that Messrs Wallace and Torode know a good cook when they see one.
We paid just over £20 a head for food.
The Dawes Verdict
The Peak Inn
How Lane, Castleton, S33 8WJ.
Tel: 01433 620247.
Open daily lunch and dinner. Sunday lunch £8.95. Disabled access and toilet. Credit cards. Own car park.