The Black Bull in Sedbergh - a new foodie destination
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One of Sedbergh’s newest inns is leading the charge as an exciting dining destination
Sedbergh's a place you're likely to find book lovers, cyclists and bird watchers. But James Ratcliffe and Nina Matsunaga are turning the town into a place for serious food and drink lovers too. The couple, who opened The Black Bull last year, are building a loyal foodie following after their 18-month long renovation of this rambling inn. They have swapped old, tired interiors for bold, striking designs with bedrooms that have Japanese Thinking Baths, completely glazed bathrooms (builders joked they were a "pervert's paradise") and a bar and restaurant where the furnishings have been taken as seriously as the food on the menu.
But the real feather in their cap is the food and drink they serve James and Nina have used their extensive hospitality experience and put it into the business. They were stars in the Manchester dining scene -both working with chef Robert Owen Brown at the Mark Addy - and they ran successful street food business The Moocher, which celebrated wild, rare breed, fresh ingredients.
But James, who grew up in nearby Ireby, longed for the Lake District and in 2014, after the birth of their son, they made the move. For some time they shuttled up and down the M6 keeping The Moocher going while they opened The Three Hares café, bakery and bistro in Sedbergh - a small but perfectly formed venue that quickly garnered a loyal following and national attention. They still run it now but when the opportunity came to take on The Black Bull, it was too much to resist.
'We were having a great time at The Three Hares, people absolutely loved it, so much so that we started opening in the evenings,' said James. 'The kitchen, and the whole premises were tiny though and we outgrew it.
'We knew we wanted something more and the temptation for something bigger was there. We couldn't resist.'
They have a hyper-local approach using produce from what James refers to as the neck of Britain - where several counties meet. This has played a big part in their success. In fact lots of the produce comes from very near to the inn's front door. They use locally-reared rare breed cattle like Herefords and English Whites, local sheep breeds like Rough Fells and Herdwicks, wild venison, rabbit and grouse and sustainably sourced fish from the North Sea. James also forages local hedgerows for ingredients.
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While championing locally sourced is nothing new, what this couple do goes one step further. Chef Nina takes these wonderful ingredients to create menus that reflect her heritage - she has Japanese parents and grew up in Dusseldorf. Signatures dishes like her Lancashire blood cake are popular, along with interesting plates like Howgill Herdwick lamb belly with coffee, date and kohlrabi that sit alongside local game. Kokedame moss balls sit on each table and the wine list - James' domain - has a distinctly German flavour to it.
What makes the Bull extra exciting is their work with a young, local grower who cultivates food on a plot at the back of the pub and on grass verges just outside the town. He grows usual allotment fare but is also working on more exotic ingredients - almonds.
'It's exciting to have someone who really wants to try new things,' said James. 'It really is just an experiment but that's often how the best things happen. We're happy to give it a try.'
It's fair to say not all of the locals were pleased when they opened - the rise in the price of beer compared to its previous owners was something that split opinion. But the couple soon won the community around and you'll find locals and holidaymakers enjoying The Black Bull's delights on any day of the week. Their success is down to creating a place with a great community focus - they have hosted local bands and held events in a barn at the back of the pub. They also hope to convert a building so they can hold cookery classes in the future.
James and Nina's hard work has been recognised far beyond the county's borders. A number of national food critics have sung the inn's praises and National Geographic Traveller recently named it one of the best gourmet getaways in the world in their Big Sleep Awards. They came second only to a Madrid hotel headed by a chef who has accrued 10 Michelin stars.
'We are immensely proud to be listed alongside some seriously illustrious international company. We never rest on our laurels and strive to be the best we can possibly be; after all you never know where it might lead to.
'The team are totally dedicated, they are people who love what they do day-in and day-out because they are passionate about the food they create. When you combine that with some of the best produce available anywhere you really can't go far wrong.'
What the couple have achieved is remarkable. Innovation is at the heart of what the couple do and by fusing Nina's rich Japanese and German heritage with James' Dales upbringing they are creating something special.