Times are tough for pubs, no-one's disagreeing about that. On Wakefield Road, between Barnsley and the village of Mapplewell, where I grew up, there are about seven pubs over four miles. When I was up there in July, five of them were boarded up.
Running a pub was never the post-retirement, easy option many people see it to be. But even today, if you put the work in, and you know what you're doing, you tend to do OK. I've never, ever seen a pub that does great food and a fine and interesting selection of well-kept ales on its uppers. Never. Just a few miles from those ghost pubs outside Barnsley, when the Acorn lads took me round Sheffield we found pubs like the Hillsbrough Hotel and Kelham Island Tavern were packed to the rafters. We literally couldn't squeeze through the door at the Fat Cat. These were clearly destination pubs that knowledgable drinkers had travelled to. The lesson for the local is that it needs to cast its net further afield.
While I was up north, Thornbridge took me to a pub I'd happily travel two hundred miles to for dinner - their latest aqcuisition, the Cricket Inn.
The pub is just outside Dore. Every northern town these days seems to have a village or suburb they proudly boast is home to the biggest concentration of twats - sorry, that should have said 'millionaires' - outside Knightsbridge. This usually means it's where the local footy team and their WAGS park their sports cars and it-bags. Dore is Sheffield's version, and the old animosity between Barnsley fans and Sheff Wednesday fans in no way influences my belief that local residents Chris Waddle and Carlton Palmer don't exactly compete in the glamour stakes with Wilmslow, where there is a profusion of far bigger twats.
But we don't really do that kind of glamour in South Yorkshire. The Cricket stands at the foot of a low range of Pennine foothills, dry-stone-walled fields rising gently to the bruise-coloured ridge. Even when the drizzle is siling down – and you have to assume it will be – the view is diverting.
Inside, the pub is a warren or rooms with stone floors, oak beams and muted, earthy Farrow & Ball-style paints. A mixed collection of solid tables, chairs, benches and old school pews create an informal, relaxed ambience, and the clincher is that you can’t book a table anywhere. This isn’t a gastropub, just a pub that does really good food. And how.
The Thornbridge lads – Simon the CEO, Alex, Paul – had mentioned that we might be popping in. Chef Jack, had replied, “Oh, I’ll put a few snacks on for you then.” So we didn’t need to look at the menu, but I did anyway. It’s a big A3 sheet. One side manages to give a brief history of the pub before going on to explain the principles of beer and food matching and supply a few recommendations, all in less than about 200 words. The other side boasted big wooden sharing platters, British Isles seafood, home-made pies, Sunday roasts and sandwiches, many with suggested pairings of Thornbridge ales and other beers.
And then Jack appeared with a piece of slate about a foot and a half square. “A few snacks” were piled upon it: pork crackling, sausages, gravy, fries, olives, anchovies, prawn skewers... there was far too much here for one table. And then another, identically-sized slate arrived, groaning under ribs, potato wedges, monkfish cheeks, steak & kidney & cow-heel pie, home-made black pudding.
Simon leaned over to me. “You’ve got to watch Jack. He’s a feeder. I come in here to catch up with some work and at half nine in the morning he’s sidling up going, here, see what you think of this, or try a plate of this.”
The ribs were marinated in a sticky, viscous mix of Thornbridge’s strong, inky St Petersburg porter, orange juice, Demerara sugar, brown sauce, garlic, ginger and Tabasco. The meat slid form the bone.
I ate the first nice Scotch egg I’ve ever had. Jack spends an hour making them. It’s his ambition to make a Scotch egg that’s still soft in the middle. Given that you have to boil the egg first, then shell it and cook it again inside its meat casing, this would require a considerable degree of skill. He’d almost managed it with this one.
And then, the food of the Gods. Simon, who is right about most things, made a colossal mistake when he described the piece de resistance as a Sheffield fishcake. As any fule kno, it’s called a Barnsley fishcake. We were both in a good mood, so we compromised and christened it a Yorkshire fishcake. (It’s listed on the menu, diplomatically but a little boastfully, as the ‘Cricket Inn fishcake’.) If you think a fishcake is a small disc deep-fried in radioactive orange bread crumbs, you had a cruelly deprived childhood. If you think a fishcake is all salmon and herbs mixed up and pan-fried, you’ve been spending too long in middle-class gastroworld. A Yorkshire fishcake – a true fishcake - is a collection of fish offcuts sandwiched between two large scallops of potato, covered in crispy golden batter, served with mushy peas – like it was here – or curry sauce. It was the taste of my youth. Here it was matched with Thornbridge’s Lord Marples, a delicious caramel colour and a deep, sweet flavour. Together in the mouth, this sweet maltiness combined with the fish to invent new flavours and textures, spiralling off into heaven.
This was good, honest pub food, the kind of dishes that have been served for generations, but treated with the same degree of dedicated perfectionism you’d expect in a top restaurant. What better template could there be for today’s pub? The Cricket is not the first pub I’ve encountered with this philosophy – the Marquess in Islington springs to mind very quickly – and every time I find a pub like this business is booming, and the walls are filling up with awards and adulatory press clippings. This is how you do it. It’s not the only way to beat the crunch, but it’s a very joyous one.
We did as much damage as we could to the slates before begging for them to be taken away. I heaved a sigh of relief, which turned into a whimper of fear as chef Jack reappeared with a big apple pie in a traditional 1940s white tine dish with blue piping, nine different ice creams, a Bakewell pudding, crème brulee, a chocolate sponge and a treacle tart, and a cheese plate. And lots of custard, “Cos everyone loves custard,” he said, as he covered the last available inch of the large table top.
Thornbridge were already the most exciting and innovative young brewery in England. As they continue to seek out pubs they can do this to (the pub company, BrewKitchen, is a joint venture with Richard Smith, Sheffield’s most celebrated cook), they look like raising the bar on what a pub should deliver too.
You could almost forgive them all for being Wednesday fans.