THE dish above is quiet perfection – just a light pastry case filled with stewed mushrooms and spinach, then dusted with parmesan. At just £7, it put a marker down for a parade of accomplished reasonably priced dishes, none of which shouted ‘look at me’ or ‘how did he do that?’ Sheer simple mastery at work.
Certainly our supper at the Hinchliffe Arms was more than worth the trek across the Yorkshire border to see how Manchester’s own good egg, Robert Owen Brown, is settling into his new life as country innkeeper.
Let me declare an interest (but not one that clouds my independent judgement). I assisted Rob in producing his cult cookbook, ‘Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle’ (Manchester Books, £12.99).
That came out as his tenure at the Mark Addy on the Salford bank of the Irwell drew to a close; after that he became a peripatetic chef for hire.
Now, under the stewardship of JW Lees, he is firmly established in a handsome stone hostelry that seems in tune with the food style he is synonymous with.
“Robert Owen Brown is the real thing… a chef who combines oceans of technique with an instinct to feed and a deep understanding of gutsy cooking.” The verdict of Observer food critic Jay Rayner, for whom Rob is a panellist on his BBC Radio 4 show, The Kitchen Cabinet.
Radio air time, mind, doesn’t put bums on seats. And Cragg Vale is hardly Maida Vale. Just regard it as a scenic adventure getting there. Which is surprisingly easy from Manchester, especially if after the M62 you go the A58 wild moorland route. Alternatively, get off the Halifax train at Mytholmroyd and grab a cab. You’ll end up inching down an incline into a ludicrously picturesque wooded dell with a church and gurgling stream.
Yes, these trees are full of squirrels and Rob has a bagful in the freezer for future use, but the current menu is low on the ‘nose to tail’ factor. Even the local grouse, prevalent pre-Christmas, is off. Still the richness of these hills is evident in our other starter, a pork and game terrine with hazelnuts and piccalilli (£6.50). The latter tracklement (a very Rob word) is glorious – with pineapple in the mustardy mix? The terrine itself is a marbled work of art. Such a shame most of the prime pheasant shards were snaffled by our accompanying chihuahua. Yes, of course, The ‘Hinch’ is a hound-friendly establishment.
The value of the place was encapsulated in a £3 side of glazed cauliflower cheese, beautifully al dente. A further side of fat chips was a greedy step too far, since a heap came with my braised leg of chicken, fennel, lemon and garlic (£14).
Like its fellow main, breast of pheasant with honey roasted roots £13.50), there was a clarity of flavour from immaculately sourced raw materials. A £7 roast beef sandwich with horseradish (and fat chips, I learnt my lesson) sampled on a return visit featured their own commissioned beef from up the track. Ample and quite splendid again.
We shared one fragrant pudding of honey and star anise poached pear, toasted meringue and berries for £6 and finished off a decent £25 bottle of Barbera before heading home across the moors.
Spring can’t be far off surely. Definitely a day out destination with food of this quality coming out of a kitchen where Rob is backed up by former MFDF chef of the year Alex Shaw.
Hinchliffe Arms, Cragg Vale, near Hebden Bridge HX7 5TA. 01422 883256.