This Summer, I got engaged. I’ll spare you the details, but it was perfect. There was a picnic, a beautiful view of Ilkley Moor, the traditional ‘down on one knee’ – the boy did good.
After I stopped screaming and eventually remembered to say yes, Rob handed me a piece of paper. Titled ‘The Lisa Farrell Engagement menu’, it mapped out Rob’s ‘thank God you said yes, let’s celebrate!’ plans. Hands still trembling, I skimmed the menu to find seven very exciting words:
Trip to The Black Swan at Oldstead
I confess, I didn’t know much about The Black Swan at Oldstead. I knew it existed. I knew it was one of Yorkshire’s six Michelin Star restaurants. And to be honest, that was enough. But I continued reading, eyes widening at words like ‘canapés’, ‘tasting menu’ and ‘lots of wine’. Yep, Rob knows me well. It sounded like the perfect way to celebrate our engagement, but what I didn’t realise was that The Black Swan at Oldstead was not only about to become my best meal of 2015, but of my entire life.
Letting the last five minutes sink in, I sipped prosecco as Rob explained why he’d chosen The Black Swan. He had me at vegetables. Because somehow, he’d managed to find that rare Michelin Star restaurant that puts vegetables on a pedestal. Where a tomato is as prized as a fillet steak. Where vegetables aren’t an accompaniment to a dish; they’re the main event. I downed my prosecco and we packed away our picnic, Rob’s words fluttering in my stomach like confetti. Too good to be true? Let’s see, shall we?
The Black Swan is in Oldstead, a tiny village twenty miles north of York. And we need to talk about Oldstead. Picture a quintessential Yorkshire country village, in full Summer bloom. You’re seeing ivy-adorned cottages lining a narrow road, right? Pluming hedgerows guarding emerald fields? A miniature noticeboard obscured by an overgrown bush, charting the latest village goings-on? Manicured lawns, festooned with lilacs, yellows and magentas? And at its heart, a Yorkshire stone-pub, partially obscured by the canopies of blossom trees fanning their plumage like excited peacocks? Got it? That’s Oldstead, and it is beautiful.
If Oldstead is an appetite-whetting starter, then The Black Swan is the perfect main course. It’s everything you want a country restaurant to be – wooden beams, stone walls, mahogany furniture. Logs are piled into a cubby hole next to a fire, below a bookcase brimming with gardening tomes. There are the inevitable knick-knacks you find in old country pubs, with copper cooking paraphernalia dotted around the bar, but it’s understated, keeping The Black Swan firmly on the classy side of quaint. It’s the sort of place you want to return to in the depths of winter, settling in front a crackling fire with a decent bottle of red as snow piles up outside. Now there’s a thought…
After we’d checked into our room (a Molten Brown-filled country cottage no less, complete with a sheep-view bathroom) we headed to The Black Swan for the first item on Rob’s engagement menu. The Garden Tour. Led by Head Chef Tommy Banks, the tour guided us around The Black Swan’s newly established, two-acre terraced vegetable garden and orchard. Although less than a year old, there was pretty much every fruit and vegetable you could imagine – and plenty that you couldn’t. We tasted tangy tomatoes, sour raspberries, and even the elusive Oyster Leaf, which, you’ve guessed it, tastes like oysters (although as a veggie, I’ll have to take Tommy’s word for that).
As an experience, it was pretty impressive, but it quickly became clear that this was more than just a showy add-on. To Tommy, this garden had become the blood pumping through the restaurant’s veins, its raison d’être. It was about putting quality ingredients at the heart of the menu. Local ingredients. Seasonal ingredients. Perfect ingredients. Recognising that technique alone was not enough to differentiate The Black Swan, Tommy saw an opportunity to ensure that his ingredients became his restaurant’s USP. And what better way to be confident in the quality and freshness of your ingredients than by growing them yourself?
Tommy wasn’t pretentious, and was quick to point out that the garden was a work-in-progress. Not everything worked. We tasted a strawberry that tasted of water, and saw crops that had been ravaged by rabbits and insects. But for all its ups and downs, the establishment of the garden had changed the relationship between chef and ingredient by making chefs part of the growing process. The chefs at The Black Swan take turns to tend to the garden. To nurture it. To forage. And by doing so, they can’t help but embody the ‘farm to fork’ philosophy that so many restaurants try (and fail) to emulate.
As we travelled from row to row, Tommy talked passionately about vegetables. They were his centrepiece, the glue that bound every dish together. He told us that every tasting menu contains multiple vegetarian dishes, and that one of his favourite dishes was a celebration of the humble carrot. At this point, I had to suppress a little squeal. Because as a vegetarian, you get used to being a chef’s after-thought. I’m not looking for violins and tissues, it’s just the way it is. There are exceptions, usually small indies that ‘get it’ and produce show-stopping vegetarian food that even meat eaters adore. (Bundobust, I’m looking at you). But they’re a rarity. Even in restaurants that have earned those elusive stars, there’s often just one or two veggie options, markedly less imaginative than their meaty counterparts. And consequently, the overwhelming taste tends to be disappointment.
So when Tommy responded by sharing my frustration – and in a genuine, rather than in a ‘let’s smile and nod to appease the vegetarian’ way – I’d heard enough. I needed to taste his food.
That was four months ago. It was a celebration meal, an experience to be savoured, so there were no detailed scribbles of every dish and its components. No wine tasting notes. I took a quick snap of each dish, but that’s it. Nothing else to help me remember what I ate, beyond a menu they gave us to take away and my memories. And four months is long enough for memories to fade. Time distinguishes the good from the average, the latter quickly fading into obscurity.
But even without looking at my pictures, I can still taste every single dish, the flavours still rippling through my taste buds in Mexican waves. Because The Black Swan at Oldstead is not average. It’s not even good. Because when one of the stand-out dishes of a ten-course tasting menu is simply tomatoes, borage and basil, you know you’re onto something special. Something outstanding. Something unforgettable.
There were tacos made of celeriac, baby turnips dipped in a mushroom powder, barbecued cucumbers, and a Douglas Fir-infused sorbet, served with a dry-ice spectacle that would make Heston blush. There were even mushroom lollipops, reminiscent of the genius of Michael O’Hare’s Man Behind the Curtain, who, incidentally, is a good mate of Tommy’s. Great minds, and all that.
And my favourite dish of all? A salad. Yes, a salad. There was barbecued kale, crunchy young carrots, radishes and turnips, and hazelnuts, resting on a bed of Sheep’s Milk. And it was sensational. A testament to the exceptional quality of the ingredients that Tommy strives for, every flavour of every component was distinct and pronounced, putting Tommy’s vegetables on the pedestal they rightly deserve.
Making good on Rob’s promise of ‘lots of wine’, every course was paired with a different glass. But this wasn’t your average restaurant wine, awash with familiar grapes from well-known regions. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that wasn’t The Black Swan’s style. Unable to extend its local philosophy to wine, The Black Swan opted for unique grape varietals from lesser-known wine regions. There was Muscat from Macedonia, Bengoetxe Txakolina from Spain’s Basque Country, and Prellenkirchen Gruner Veltliner from Austria. Unlike any wine I’d tasted before, each glass was delicious alone, maintaining The Black Swan’s focus on the quality of its ingredients. But when each glass was paired with its dish, it sang. Or was that me?
The next day, full from a beautiful breakfast and armed with a crateful of produce freshly foraged from the garden, we reluctantly bid The Black Swan at Oldstead farewell. It was the best culinary experience of my life, in celebration of one of the most exciting moments of my life. We’ll definitely be back.
Over to you. What was your best meal of 2015? You know what to do 👇👇👇