Published on February 4th, 2020 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Rat’s the way to do it
Hopefully 2020 will prove so good they named it twice. Alastair Gilmour delves into the Chinese New Year
Happy New Year. Don’t worry, what follows that greeting isn’t a repeat of Dry-January-Slow-Business-Month-Glad–To–See-The–Back–Of–It but the start of the Chinese New Year. And this one promises wealth and high fertility.
The Chinese New Year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February (2020 started on January 25). The next 12 months commemorates the Year of the Rat, as dictated by the Chinese Lunar Calendar which initiates a cycle of 12 years, each one named after an animal.
It’s a time when ancestral spirits are celebrated, family unity is honoured, and a happy future is anticipated. Strict customs are adhered to and superstition is rife, such as sweeping the floor before the big day else good fortune for the coming year be brushed aside, and the wearing of red which symbolises sunshine and brightness.
As coincidence would have it, The Rat Inn at Anick, near Hexham in Northumberland, has just been voted number 15 in the Estrella Damm Top 50 UK Gastropubs – up two places from 2019 and its fifth consecutive year in the top 20. Locally, The Staith House in North Shields is number 13 and Broad Chare in Newcastle sits in 30th position.
This is an amazing feat, as according to co-owner Karen Errington (with partner Phil Mason), “keeping the pub element is really important to us and cask beer is the best seller above anything else”. Put simply, The Rat isn’t a restaurant that happens to have a bar – but significantly the food is some of the best in the region.
“The year we moved in – 2008 – was also the Year of the Rat,” says Karen. “It was also the time of the global financial collapse, so now it’s the same this year with Brexit. Things really do go in cycles.”
The current Rat Inn started life as a farmhouse and outbuildings constructed with stone from Hadrian’s Wall, in common with most of the farms around this part of Northumberland. Then it became the Board Inn, a drovers’ stop-off on the road to Hexham Mart.
Karen says: “Someone mentioned that it became The Rat Inn in the 1930s or 40s and that there’s a rat carved into the lintel above the front door – which was itself built over in the 1950s. There’s every reason to think it might still be there.”
Rat references around the four-part pub include several pictures on the walls, fireplace tiling, on floorboards, small statuettes, tiny models and from time to time, an ale called Ratty from First & Last Brewery, also in Northumberland. There might be rat images on the overhead chamber pots but you have to be tall to inspect them.
“Things are going really well; lunchtimes are all good,” says Karen, also happy in the knowledge that weekends are particularly busy with drinkers and diners. “Our style is traditional and relaxed with an emphasis on local produce. All our suppliers are listed on the board and all from local farms.
There’s no real pattern to it, if something looks like it might work we’ll put it on the menu. We concentrate on cooking with flavours that go together. People like that.
“For example, the parents of staff member Amy Stephenson rear the pigs for the pork that we use, plus we try and recycle all we can, so waste vegetable peelings go back to their Dukesfield Hall farm for feed.”
So Amy, what’s it like serving slow roast belly pork, black pudding, leek and cannellini bean stew knowing that you once knew the live animal?
“You can’t let that get to you,” she says. “It’s quality pork and I know the pigs have had a good life.”
The mainstay of all menus at The Rat is a wide range of locally sourced, seasonal produce and the menu changes daily to incorporate the best produce available.
And, when you have a kitchen brigade that includes the highly experienced co-owner Phil Mason, head chef Kevin Maclean and chefs de partie Connor Mackinnon and Dylan Banks-Johnson (Kevin and Connor came from the celebrated Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye) there’s an awful lot to be said about what appears through the swinging doors.
Diners can choose from three areas to enjoy their time at The Rat; the cosy bar area, the conservatory with its stunning views, or the more restaurant-style atmosphere of the dining room for a special occasion. Then there’s the beautiful beer garden overlooking the Tyne Valley, perfect for enjoying a drink or al fresco dining in the warmer weather.
Karen says: “We purposefully keep the bar tables free for drinkers – you can’t book them for dining – but at the same time it’s fine if people are already there and they want to eat.
“As for great beer, there’s no real need to go further afield than the locality, plus picking up casks from other parts of the country is always a problem, so we concentrate on Allendale, Hexhamshire, Corby and Potting Shed (High Spen) breweries. Walking groups are a regular feature and the Beaufront shoot come in twice a week, brvinging pheasants with them.”
Karen and Phil are concerned with environmental issues and the climate crisis, doing as much as they can to recycle things like coffee grounds and tea bags which they compost. Plastics are being phased out; herbs are grown in raised beds at the rear of the pub while leeks, onions, beetroot, speciality potatoes such as pink fir apple, and salad crops are grown in their home garden.
Just how the Rat Inn come by what must surely be one of the oddest names in the country for a pub remains shrouded in mystery. Several interesting theories are offered – some say that it was a regular meeting place for local rat catchers; others say that the largest rat ever seen was caught here.
Perhaps the most intriguing tale tells of the then innkeeper who gave information to the Crown during the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 45 and thus became known as “The Rat”. Historically, Northumberland had a strong network of Jacobite sympathisers who met under cover of games of bowls and horse races at local pubs and alehouses. Government spies were posted across the county to gather information.
Karen recalls the previous Year of the Rat. She says: “Twelve years ago, some people commented that what we proposed to do wouldn’t work. It’s too expensive, they said. We’re a seven-day-a-week operation now. We’ve had people work with us while they were at uni who now have families and still come back to see us, which is really nice. They all say, ‘You’re still here’.”
A Northumberland butcher is now selling sausage in support of wildlife charity Northumberland Wildlife Trust. Bellingham Craft Butcher has created a Ratty delicacy in support of the Restoring Ratty project with a percentage from each sale being donated to a project working to reintroduce water voles to the Kielder Water and Forest Park area of the county.
However, the sausages aren’t made from water voles but Ratty Pale Ale (4.1% abv), first brewed by First & Last Brewery in Elsdon in 2018 to mark the reintroduction of the creature made into a lovable character in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.
First & Last Brewery, owned by Sam and Red Kellie, donates 20p from every bottle sold, and at the end of 2019, the couple were able to donate £700.80 towards the project.
This comes as no surprise. First & Last is deeply entrenched in everything Northumberland; it’s part of their DNA, their USP and their raison d’être.
Sam Kellie says: “Northumberland inspires us. As a family-run business, we believe in living life to the full and contributing to the community that we live in. We also like having as much fun as we can along the way.”
A recent Twitter post from the Mean Eyed Cat in Newcastle read: “We’ve sold 604 pints of White Rat this week. Well done for breaking the record all concerned. We’re proud of ya!”
White Rat Pale Ale (4.0% abv) is produced by the Rat Brewery in Huddersfield and s hugely popular around the North East for its easy drinking character. The Crown Posada in Newcastle hosts regular Rat Brewery tap takeovers which feature other rodent-inspired beers as Rat Sputin Imperial Russian Stout, Dirty Rat Mild, Ratmospheric Hoppy Pale Ale and Black Forest Rateau Cherry Stout.
• Rats can’t vomit
• In New York there are two distinct species of rat: Uptown Rats and Downtown Rats which rarely mix
• When happy, rats have been observed to “chatter” or grind their teeth
• Rats’ teeth never stop growing
• A rat can swim for three days without drowning
• Rats can live for up to 18 months but most die around one year old
• A group of rats is called a mischief.
• Male rats are bucks while females are does.
RAT AS FOOD
According to The Penguin Companion To Food (Alan Davidson) rats are a major item of diet in West Africa.
These include the cane rat, the giant rat and also the common house mouse. In some areas this group may provide as much as half of locally-produced meat.
In rural Thailand, particularly in Pathum Thani province, small rice rats are relished, usually when pork and chicken prices are seasonally high.
YOU DIRTY RAT
The James Cagney line “You dirty rat, you killed my brother” was never actually said in a movie, although he did utter something similar in Taxi (1932) and Blonde Crazy (1931). Why let facts get in the way of a good tail?
THE YEAR OF THE RAT
Legend has it that the Lord Buddha summoned all the animals to come to him before he departed from Earth. Only 12 came to bid him farewell and, as a reward, he named a year after each one in the order they arrived – Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.
Rat is the first of all zodiac animals, as according to one myth, the Rat tricked the Ox into giving him a ride. Then, just as they arrived at the finish line, Rat jumped down and landed ahead of Ox, becoming first.
In Chinese culture, Rats were seen as a sign of wealth and surplus. Because of their reproduction rate, married couples also prayed to them for children.
Optimistic and energetic, people born in the Rat year are liked by all. They are sensitive to other’s emotions but are stubborn with their opinions. Their personality is kind, but due to weak communication skills, their words may seem impolite and rude. On the financial side, Rats like saving and can be stingy. However, their love for hoarding will sometimes cause them to waste money on unnecessary things.
Recent Years of the Rat are: 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020.