Michael Edwards samples the legendary delights of the Black Bull Hotel and Restaurant in Sedbergh.
Since the 17th century, the black-timbered and whitewashed Black Bull coaching inn has sat at the heart of a fells, valleys and waterfalls landscape. Though with the creation of the surrounding Yorkshire Dales National Park, the Cumbrian village of Sedbergh has had some identity issues.
Also, the arrival of Nino Matsunaga, born in Düsseldorf of Japanese parents, has brought flavours and fashions of both Germany and the Far East to Sedbergh. Her partner James Ratcliffe, born in the Yorkshire Dales, has helped her bring neutral colours and calm Zen vibes to Cumbria.
This cross-cultural fusion, Asia comes to Cumbria, has garnered international acclaim. Back in 2019 when National Geographic’s Big Sleep judges could travel the world from Aachen to Zephyrhills, they selected The Black Bull as their runner-up in their Gourmet Getaway category.
With Norman church, quaint Main Street weavers’ cottages and Lakeland stone bus shelter, converted into an informal book library, Sedbergh – where even the most humble shop looks as if it’s been curated by English Heritage – is stunningly Yorkshire Dales beautiful. Round these parts they measure social distancing as the length of a cow or by two sheep which, as sheep outnumber humans by a ratio of 6:1, is fair enough.
Alfred Wainwright – who saved up to take a week off work in the 1930s to walk the Dales and fell so in love with the dramatic landscape that he became its cartographer, illustrator and writer – described the domes of Howgill Fell surrounding Sedbergh with the poetic simile “like sleeping elephants.”
Even though the Black Bull’s rooms have an aura of a Tokyo short-break, rocking a cool Asian aesthetic of a silver-metallic UFO of a light fitting and a matt black feature wall, the hotel is firmly anchored in its Cumbrian milieu.
White-tiled showers and deep baths with their glass wall may have overtones of a Japanese onsen but the Petrichor toiletries, with their lemon and leathery fragrance, are handmade by the Sedbergh Soap Company. Check blankets on the bed are woven from the wool of Herdwick Sheep by Laura’s Looms local enterprise. Every room, evocatively named after a nearby cartographic feature, has an original landscape from photographer Rob Whitrow.
Rooms with balconies have chairs and tables strategically positioned for the best fell views as you enjoy the chunky chocolate chip cookies, made in the kitchens below, with tea or coffee.
By necessity, beds are wide and inviting, many people spend exhausting days walking or biking. Out on Main Street almost every other person is wearing walking boots, adjusting their rucksack and checking their ordnance survey map.
Though it’s Nina’s field-to-fork food and her admirable waste-nothing nose-to-tail ethos that has made the Black Bull such a magnet for foodies.
From the pre-dinner nibbles, perhaps crispy, lightly spiced cauliflower with hints of garlic in the mayo dip or short-rib beef and creme fraiche, there is a sense of creative East-meets-West fusion. The wine list is daring too, with a section for chilled reds – and given Nina’s heritage – a liking for Austrian and German offerings. Though in her eclectic food education, Nina admits that Jamie Oliver’s can-do chutzpah also influenced her.
Creamy locally sourced Herdwick lamb epitomises the spirit of Nina’s food as it is served with a kimchi of fermented vegetables – spicy but not Pacific Rim volcano hot – cradled by a charred and still perfectly crisp and crinkled lettuce leaf.
There are gamey influences of rabbit, pheasant and venison too. Ironically, whilst The Black Bull sources hyper-local, its reputation goes hyper-global.
Nina creates addictive tastes. Before they leave Sedbergh, many a guest takes the very short stroll across narrow Main Street to the Three Hares cafe/deli, also lovingly curated by James and Nina, to stock up on jars of kimchi and pickled walnut ketchup. Also picking up a few bottles of that obscure Austrian wine they’ve suddenly fallen for and tasting the deli’s latest cheese discovery.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE BLACK BULL, SEDBERGH, CUMBRIA
The Black Bull 44, Main Street, Sedbergh LA10 5BL
From £139 for a double room with breakfast.
T: 015396 20264