"If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour," runs the ancient Yankee saw, "though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door."
The polar reverse of the modern view of location (done to death in the hackneyed triple incantation), it seems particularly dubious when applied to the catering trade. Yet Mark Wilson's cooking at The Anvil, a pub in the woods or at least the fringe of Wykeham Forest in North Yorkshire, enjoys a beaten path that must be the envy of many more overt hostelries.
On a Sunday night, the place was packed, as it had been a week earlier when we made the mistake of not booking. The stone-lined bar, which incorporates a farrier's hearth and eponymous anvil, was abuzz with diners enjoying aperitifs. Most were sinking Peroni, but my farming friend, Nick, and I went for a fine local beer called Wold Top Mallard (the reference is to Sir Nigel Gresley's loco, not the duck). My wife, Alison, snaffled the pub's last glass of Picpoul de Pinet, a potion that has gained a dedicated following in rural Yorkshire.
When we reached the dining room, Nick proved his credentials by enlightening us about a decorative farming device. "It's a root fork with little bobbles on the end of the tines so they don't stick into sugar beet," he expounded. This was good to know, though I'd been hoping he would apply his agricultural nous to culinary matters.
Nick earnt his supper when the menus arrived. "What's 'loin of Yorkshire spring lamb' doing here at the end of August? Spring lamb is usually slaughtered from April until the start of July. This isn't spring lamb, it's lamb." He was placated by his starter – a 'trio of game' consisting of translucent slivers of pigeon carpaccio, a smooth duck liver parfait and, best of all, a plump, venison sausage roll. "Very satisfying."
I was slightly apprehensive about my choice of 'breaded pork and black pudding terrine, shallow fried and served with pineapple chutney', which brought to mind the hoary Sixties combination of ham and pineapple. In fact, it turned out to be succulent and robustly flavoured. The chutney was correctly pungent and sticky with a distant hint of pineapple. Alison was, however, underwhelmed by her 'rosti of North Sea crab and gruyere'. "Not exactly crabby. More cheesy and potato-y, but quite acceptable."
Nick was offered the option of omitting the topping of spiced mango chutney and melted Harrogate Blue cheese from his 10oz rib eye but 'less is more' will never catch on in Yorkshire. He declared the combination to be "totally delicious". If this was a local version of steak au Roquefort, my 'slow-braised daube of beef' was closer still to France. Fork-tender, it was served with a honeyed jus reduction and 'Sydney's marvellous mash', which turned out to be a variant of clapshot perfected by the chef's dad (carrot and garlic substitute for turnip and spring onion).
The meat was as authentic as a memorable daube I once had in Arles. "To die for – absolutely spot-on," agreed Nick. More robust than delicate, the six substantial discs that constituted Alison's pan-roast loin of lamb were wonderfully tasty and came accompanied by a slightly crunchy ratatouille. In customary Yorkshire style, our carnivorous feast was further augmented by a sizeable dish of vegetables. Though perfectly cooked, they went virtually untouched.
There was a slight falling-off from this impressive standard at the pud stage. Since Bakewell tart had sold out (along with several other items on the menu), I joined Nick in 'liquorice crème caramel with poached pear'. It turned out to be too stiff and too sweet. The liquorice appeared to be confined to a drizzle of sauce that marginally muted the sweetness. Alison's chilled lemon posset, which came topped with a superfluous squirt of whipped vanilla cream, was more like a stiff lemon curd than a posset. It was, however, accompanied by an outstanding 'summer berry sorbet'. That item alone would have made a fantastic pudding on a warm evening.
Mark Wilson's portions tend to err on the side of generosity, so a bit of restraint is advisable when ordering. If you want to skip pud, it's worth knowing that coffee comes with a large homemade chocolate. Despite a few quibbles, this was very good pub food, even though our timing might have been off. "Sunday night is the worst for fish," Mr Wilson told me. "I adore fish. I'd cook nothing else, but this is very meat-eating country." He sounds to have struck a happy medium with a dish he calls 'Tongue and Cheek': braised ox tongue with halibut cheeks. Alison and Nick were less than keen, but the very idea makes me salivate like a mad thing.
The Anvil, Main Street, Sawdon, North Yorkshire (01723 859896). About £90 for two, with drinks