Published on July 10th, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Expert hand on the smoker
A Northumberland hotel never ceases in its drive for quality, as Alastair Gilmour discovers
When Richard and Dee Slade took over Battlesteads Hotel in Wark, Northumberland, it was in Richard’s words, a dump. But their notion of building an eco-friendly, sustainable business had to start somewhere so they thought they might as well begin at the bottom.
“We’ve been here since 2005,” says Richard, who built up the Magnesia Bank pub in North Shields from a similarly low base into a national treasure renowned for beer quality and choice plus top-drawer food and live music.
“Sustainability used to be about putting up bat boxes, now it’s environmental issues like carbon footprints. Were aiming to eventually become carbon neutral – which is almost impossible – by the end of the year.”
Sustainability also means everything at Battlesteads has green credentials, from energy production to waste disposal and sourcing food. Local produce comes from no further away than 25 miles – and a lot of it from barely 50 metres away, nurtured in the two-acre gardens and polytunnels where no space is wasted. Everywhere you look are leeks, sprouts, lemongrass, broccoli, dill, coriander, parsley, garlic, several varieties of lettuce, and the same variety of courgette that top chef Raymond Blanc grows for their edible flowers. Everything has to earn its keep – such as 14 wormeries that pee out liquor from waste food that is perfect for adding to seed compost. Engaging as worms are, we’re at Battlesteads to take a look at developments over the last couple of years – a time that has seen the business reap a rich haul of awards in hotel tourism sectors, to sustainability, right up to winning the Sustainable Business award at The Cateys 2019 – otherwise known as the Oscars of the catering industry.
Reconfiguring the kitchens has freed up space for head chef Eddie Shilton and his team to operate more efficiently, an external smoker has been installed, as has a mushroom farm – both of which add value to the Battlesteads offer.
“We use the best local artisanal producers possible,” says Richard. “We’ve had hams hanging up to cure, we smoke wild trout and salmon, and make our own charcuterie.
“Things need to develop organically. We use outdoor-reared pork and eventually plan to use rare-breed to develop for the charcuterie, plus we make our own corned beef, grow our own mushrooms – shitakes and three different colours of oyster.”
As if a head chef’s routine isn’t busy enough (Battlesteads also supplies dinners to the local school), Eddie Shilton has learned the art of successful smoking the hard way, using sustainably-sourced, local woodchippings, as well as keeping an eye on suppliers – and the weather.
He says: “I’ve had to learn for myself, although I’ve got a lot of tips from people. Is it too hot a temperature, is it too salty, that sort of thing. I did a lot of research as well.
“Even the outside temperature can affect smoking time and it’s a constant battle to keep the smoker at 30º. You can’t leave it for more than ten or fifteen minutes so you have to find time in between doing other things. Sometimes the atmosphere doesn’t allow the smoke to rise very high from the chimney and that can affect timings and temperature.
“You’ve just got to keep your eye on it, touching it, feeling it.” (Eddie gently prods a huge side of trout with his fingers and expresses satisfaction. He then does the same with the smoker door, relying on instinct and touch even though there’s a perfectly good thermometer beside him. It’s an artist at work.)
“Visitors are able to see something like herring being smoked, so they’ll ask for kippers for breakfast – it’s added value again. You have to make calculations about how much weight loss that hanging meat will have over18 months, but you don’t know until you’ve got the netting off if it’s perfect or not. Again, a lot depends on the outside temperature.
“We’re constantly developing networks of suppliers – all small, local producers making the likes of organic cheese and yogurts. We suggested smoking the cheese we get from Birdoswald Cheese but at first the owner didn’t like the idea, so I did it on the quiet and showed it to her. Now we smoke 40-50 kilos which she sells to the market – so she’s found a new outlet for a new product.
“Markets are changing, people want something different.”
Eddie Shilton could talk all day about hand-reared pork, baby herring, cheese, delicious corned beef , home-made sausages and duck, all from sustainable sources. “We’ve even started smoking hake,” he says. “People are coming back round to the old-fashioned stuff.”
BATTLESTEADS BEER FESTIVAL
THURSDAY JULY 25 – SUNDAY JULY 28
More than 20 beers, ciders and foreign lagers, gin bar and prosecco bar. Live music includes Jason Arnup, Big Red And The Grinners, Mudskipper, and Alive & Kicking. Thursday 6pm-11pm, free. Friday 6pm-11pm, £4. Saturday 12noon-11pm, £4. Sunday 12noon until the beer runs out, free.
A transport service is available at allocated times from Hexham. Please ring for details. Battlesteads Hotel & Restaurant, Wark NE48 3LS.
Tel: 01434 230209 www.battlesteads.com