At first sight, the white-wash and black timbers of The Black Bull on Sedbergh’s narrow, almost medieval Main Street, seems to promise ale, steak pie and horse brasses. After all, they measure social distancing in sheep lengths round these hilly parts.
Yet, the Black Bull, set against the brooding backdrop of Howgill Fell, described by Dales cartographer Wainwright as a herd of sleeping elephants, has become a foodies’ destination. Pre-pandemic, National Geographic’s judges decreed that the Black Bull was the runner-up in their Gourmet Getaway category. Only The Bless Hotel, in distant Madrid, scored higher.
Nowadays, you are quite likely to have a food critic on the next table rhapsodising over the shorthorn beef sirloin with Hokkaido squash or taking on a 31-ounce tomahawk steak. Yuzu and shimeji mushrooms contributing up to duck and venison dishes prompts purple prose.
The fact that it is all unpretentious and understated – local farmers still drop by for a pint or three – is part of the appeal. Chef Nina is an up-early, hard-working nose-to tail chef, making the most of every part of an animal.
So how did what was once a rather dowdy pub – and I know as I stayed there two decades ago – end-up with Japanese kokedama moss-rooted plants on the restaurant tables, a German themed wine-list, wasabi vodka behind the bar and deep Japanese style Thinking Baths in its 18 bedrooms?
Nina Matsunaga, born in Düsseldorf of Japanese parents, met James Ratcliffe, born in Cumbria, and after honing their skills on the Manchester street-food scene decided to settle in Sedbergh, taking on the project of the rambling but weary Black Bull.
Their renovation with hyper local sourcing buys into every grass tuft and rock environment of the surrounding Yorkshire Dales. Every room, as well as the public areas, have prints from local photographer Rob Whitrow, capturing the rapid mood swings of the surrounding dramatic fells and valleys. Blankets on the beds are from Laura’s Looms and the hints of fresh leather lemony toiletries are provided by the Sedbergh Soap Company. And of course, the chunky chocolate chip cookies on the tea tray are home-made, whilst the cups are thrown by a very local potter.
Even before Nina and James’ arrival, Sedbergh, a popular stop-off on the Ilkley to Windermere Dales Way, was busy. As well as the hikers and bikers, it is England’s Book Town, the massive Westwood books moved there. Hopefully, when Covid-19 subsides, the Sedbergh Book Town Festival will return. Even the old stone bus shelter is now an informal “book shelter” library. Sedbergh is the sort of place where you would expect J.R. Hartley to be searching for an elusive copy of his “Fly-Fishing” book.
The Black Bull’s rooms are a haven for those in Sedbergh on a quest for birdwatching, books, dark-skies, walking or simply enjoying the Yorkshire Dales National Park. With their clean lines and Zen-simple aesthetic, the rooms favour neutral colours save for the occasional matt-black feature wall.
There are Zen vibes to the restaurant too. A rock garden, inevitably featuring edible ingredients including alpine strawberries and mint, forms the base for vast windows bringing bright light to the interior.
For most diners it’s effectively a four-course menu as it’s hard to resist “Nibbles”. These might include crispy Thai spiced cauliflower with a creme fraiche dip or crispy Hereford short rib beef with an amiably gentle garlic mayo.
One starter that epitomises Nina’s original approach is roasted rabbit and cockles: both complemented by sweet, crispy cicely. A light and original surf n’ turf fish.
Though it’s the Asian twists that provide the surprises. So, on the seemingly traditional Mansergh Hall pork loin, a serving of kimchi – spicy fermented vegetables – is captured in a charred lettuce leave.
When the guest check-out, they frequently head across the road, to the Three Hares. It’s a cafe / deli also owned by Nina and James. They return with bags full of jars of Nina’s kimchi and pickled walnut ketchup, plus a few of the lesser-known Austrian and German wines they have discovered. Really daring guests take home a bottle of the wasabi vodka.
The Black Bull