It’s a 30 mile meander across the West Flanders fields from Dranouter in Heuvelland to Dottignies in French-speaking Wallonia. You’re always just in Belgium but aware that this is border country, in the hinterland of France’s fifth largest city, Lille. On a squally Saturday afternoon up on the Pennine Moors there’s a decided gustatory ley line connecting us to both these distant municipalities.
It’s all about food rooted in the Tyke terroir but with an undertow of new wave Belgian influences forging a bond with a powerful dark beer that similarly reflects the zest of a groundbreaking generation in that country.
In the bar of the Moorcock Inn at Norland there’s a well-thumbed copy of Kobe Desramaults’ eponymous cookbook. Moorcock co-owner Alisdair Brooke-Taylor was Kobe’s right hand man at his Michelin-starred In de Wulf at Dranouter, in a region poignantly dotted with Great War cemeteries.
When In de Wulf closed in 2105 Al and his sommelier partner, Aimee Tufford, brought back to the UK – among much else – an affinity with Belgian beer. That’s why if you look beyond hand pulls dispensing Yorkshire cask ales from Timothy Taylor and Vocation you’ll find a bottled beer list of dubbels and trippels, saisons, geuzes and lambics. Even different ages of Orval, if you’re lucky.
The Brouwerij De Ranke XX is on of my go-to beers in my quest for a true bitter finish. The hop freaks of contemporary Belgian brewing Nino Bacelle and Guido Devos have been brewing this 6.2 per cent pale ale since 1996. Unfiltered, unpasteurised, using only whole hops, not pellets. The only compromise is in the address. Dottignies, site of the brewery they built in 2004, is in Wallonia but the De Ranke official HQ is a mile or two away in Flemish territory.
• Listen to a Belgiansmaak podcast interview with De Ranke co-founder Nino Bacelle.
The XX is not on the Moorcock beer list but, to our surprise, there’s a limited edition 750ml sharing bottle of a De Ranke Back To Black, originally brewed for the 10th anniversary of another forward-thinking Belgian brewery, lambic specialists Moeder. Remarkable value at £16, it is billed as an imperial porter and it pours almost black. Brewed with seven different malts and aged in barrel for nine months, it is as complex as you’d expect, with a nose of oak (obviously), dark chocolate and figs/raisins, yet its smooth cherryish taste combines sourness and bitterness in perfect balance.
Not quite what you’d expect but a Eureka moment. It is a quite perfect match for the Moorcock menu de jour (as they don’t say in the hills above Sowerby Bridge). When Kobe Desramault moved from farmhouse-based In de Wulf to open Chambre Séparée in Ghent he took foraging and fire with him to an urban setting. The five-ton smokehouse and industrial-grade grill in the Moorcock car park seems a better fit here. So too, as the website proclaims, “250 acres of productive moorland, providing plenty of plants, berries, mushrooms and game”…. and an onsite organic kitchen garden.
Pick of the dishes off the blackboard were both fish-led. A mackerel tartare with preserved chestnuts and radish (£8), a combo I’ve never encountered before, tasted as distinctive as it looked – autumn on a plate, while the under-rated grey mullet becomes a star in treatment Al calls a ‘bouillabaisse’ that is a remove from the Provencal stereotype. Chunks of the line-caught fish are cooked en papillote with fennel and preserved lemon, both of which scent it marvellously. At £18 it is the second most expensive dish on a menu that usually contains only a couple of meat ‘mains’ these days. My companion is a vegetarian/pescatarian, so we veered in that direction.
The porter had a particular affinity with wood-roast kabucha (Japanese) pumpkin gnocchi (£13.50), strewn with a walnut pesto and curls of house ricotta. Not the prettiest dish and as substantial as it sounds, it felt a proper antidote to the inclemency of the weather.
Perhaps we were being greedy ordering the crispy smoked potatoes that are a Moorcock constant as well as a confit Jerusalem artichokes, wood-roast mushrooms in another intriguing marriage with laverbread and miso-pickled beans. I’m not quite sure this gelled, but then where else for miles around would you find any chef as consistently inventive. The drinks list put together by Aimee is equally special.
Do make the trip up. On foot’s best for the sheer adventure. But definitely choose the right day! Captain Smidge (below) was the very definition of ‘wet dog’.
Moorcock Inn, Moor Bottom Lane, Norland, Sowerby Bridge HX6 3RP. 01422 832103.