There is something inexplicably compelling about the wild North York Moors, Britain's second oldest national park, founded in 1952. The landscapes in Yorkshire change constantly under shifting skies, from bleak wintry fog to the cheerful springtime eruption of daffodils. In summer the heather moorland is a billowing carpet of purple, in autumn the woodlands are ablaze with colour.
But ask Aidan and Sue Nelson what makes the region special and they will answer without hesitation: the food and the people who produce it. Until recently, searching for top quality local produce in this remote, windswept swathe of northern England was like hunting for a needle in a haystack – too many country lanes, too many valleys, too many back-of-beyond farms. So the local couple created the Yorkshire Food Finder trails, culinary tours offering an insight into how the region's specialities are created, bred or grown. "We've always been interested in where things come from and the story behind them," Aidan said. "So we spoke to Yorkshire's best chefs and asked them to reveal their suppliers."
Launched in November 2012, the 15 six- to 10-hour trails are aimed at serious foodies and designed to show the hard work and passion that goes into producing Yorkshire's finest grub. Depending on the time of year, tours range from charcuterie master classes at The Star Inn in the small village of Harome to deer stalking in the grounds of Baroque manor house Duncombe Park. There are behind-the-scenes visits to often-closed-to-the-public, family-run enterprises such as Anna's Happy Trotters in the market town of Howden, which won the 2012 Good Pig Award for its outdoor-reared pork; and award-winning Justin Staal's smokehouse in the village of Long Riston, which gives the inside scoop on smoking fish and meat. Many of the trails end with a dinner that makes the most of local produce at one of the highly regarded restaurants or gastropubs in the area.
Star of the 10-hour year-round Botton's Up! trail, which spotlights local cheese and beer, is Botton Creamery in the small North Yorkshire village of Botton, reached by a narrow country lane that meanders past dry-stone walls, honey-coloured Yorkstone villages and fields where red grouse, pheasant and hefted sheep roam freely. Here cheese-maker Alastair Pearson takes 90,000 litres of milk a year from five biodynamic farms and turns it into enormous rounds of nutty, muslin-wrapped cheddar, creamy brie, Swiss-style mountain cheese, gouda and mature, tangy tomme. As he guides visitors through the complicated process of heating the milk to 32C, adding the rennet, cutting the curd and moulding – all done by hand – it becomes clear that cheese-making is both an art and exact science. From here, the trail heads over the moors and down to the village of Cropton and the Great Yorkshire Brewery, established in 2010, for a tasting of their malty, hoppy beers, such as Yorkshire Lager and Two Chefs, a winter beer infused with nutmeg and cinnamon and inspired by local chefs Andrew Pern (The Star Inn) and James Mackenzie (The Pipe and Glass)
From Botton the road wends 45km southwest to Sutton Bank, described by All Creatures Great and Small author James Herriot as having "the best view in England". From this Iron Age hill fort, built in 400 BC, the views sweep down from the North York Moors and over to the Vale of York and the Vale of Mowbray to the distant Pennines, a low-rise mountain range sometimes dubbed "the backbone of England".
A few miles from here is Taste Tradition Abbot’s Close Farm in the village of Cold Kirby, the focal point of the 10 hour Meat Me at the Star trail which showcases rare breeds and butchery skills. Here the Ashbridge family lovingly nurtures native English breeds such as Gloucester Old Spot and Saddleback pigs, and Longhorn and Dexter cattle, the latter known for its creamy yellow fat and the marbling in its meat. Such exceptional quality has attracted the attention of some of London’s best restaurants, with the farm supplying Gordon Ramsay's Savoy Grill, Fergus Henderson’s St John and Jamie Oliver's Fifteen among others. The tour continues with a butchery skills master class at the Taste Tradition butchery 13km away in the market town of Thirsk, where participants learn how to butcher a pig and make the most of each of the cuts, while preparing half an uncooked pig to take home and enjoy.
Fans of cider and beer should sign up for the 10 hour Match Made in Heaven trail, which takes in Ampleforth Abbey. Founded in 1802, the abbey is home to a 70-strong brotherhood who were content to make juice from the orchard's abundant apples and plums until a visionary German monk named Father Rainer Verborg arrived in 2001. True to Benedictine rules of self-sufficiency, Father Rainer saw the future in apple cider and brandy, damson, sloe and elderberry gin. On a tour of the orchard and cider mill, manager Cameron Smith explains how they now produce 25,000 litres of cider a year from 2,000 trees bearing 48 different varieties of apple; some of which, such as the 300-year-old native Ribston Pippin, are extremely rare. A tasting of the excellent ciders, liqueurs and full-bodied, Trappist-style beer in the onsite Windmill Pub concludes the tour on a high spirited note.
Yorkshire born and bred chef, cookbook author and proprietor of The Star Inn, Andrew Pern championed local and seasonal food long before they became buzzwords. Many of the Yorkshire Food Finder trails begin and end at his 14th-century inn, which is big on old-world charm with its wonky walls and low beams. A finalist in BBC2's Great British Menu, a TV series in which the country’s top chefs compete for the chance to cook a banquet, Pern takes sourcing seriously and cooks with flair and precision, dishing up specialities like pan-fried wild Whitby sea bass and 36-hour Ampleforth cider-braised pork belly. Dining by candlelight at the huge octagonal table in the Wheelhouse private dining room or in the eaves of the thatch is the perfect coda to one of the Yorkshire Food Finder trails, which are putting the moreish back into the moors.
Where to stay and eat
The Star Inn, Harome. This warm, woody 14th-century inn is a foodie bolthole. Eight rustic-chic rooms sport individual touches from rope-slung beds to jacuzzi bathtubs.
The Pipe and Glass, Beverley. A cosy 15th-century inn with just two rooms – called Sage and Thyme -- on the site of the original gatehouse to Dalton Park, awarded Michelin Pub of the Year 2012.
The Pheasant, Harome. Pared-down elegance rules at this hotel, with 14 rooms decorated in plaids, a garden duck pond and a restaurant putting a gastronomic twist on seasonal fare.
Butchers Arms, Hepworth. Chef Timothy Bilton serves everything from Greedy Little Pig Yorkshire pork to locally stalked venison under the beams at this cosy gastropub, which featured in the Last of the Summer Wine TV series.
The Star @ Sancton. Try signatures like Anna’s Happy Trotter pork belly and award-winning Yorkshire pudding with confit oxtail at this Good Food Guide gastropub.