Google tells me that Northumberland was once the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, which sounds like something out of Game of Thrones, only with a far better ending. Once the drive into the furthermost north of England is complete it is easy to see why: the coastline is rugged and handsome, as wide as it is long, dotted with castles perched high upon the banks of land that lay above the dunes. Like Game of Thrones these castles were once a defence point to stop the Wildlings from passing beyond a great wall, and just like the ending I’d quite like to live among those Wildlings having seen the mess that is the battle to be leader of our realm.
Back in reality, I fell hard for this part of the world. The beaches had the brutal quality that I love about North Cornwall only without the crowds, and there is an attachment to nature here unlike anywhere else in the country. I defy anyone to not be enchanted by the beauty of Barter Books in Alnwick, or the total charm of The Origami Cafe around the corner. I’ll be checking for a pulse if anyones fails to fall in love with the walk from Craster to Dunstanburgh castle, or looks to the majestic Bamburgh castle with anything other than doe eyes. Northumberland gave me a once in lifetime view of puffin season over on the Farne Isles, and then the best fish I’ve eaten later that day in Seahouses. It does it all with a shrug of the shoulders. There is no ego here, no bravado. Despite the postcard perfect locations that roll one after another, the residents of these towns seem happy to help everyone. Even the bloke from Birmingham who asks far too many questions.
Central to this little visit was an afternoon in Berwick-upon-Tweed, with dinner booked at Audela. It was the menu that swung it for us; one that sang of local produce at every point, utilising the North Sea and the meat from beyond the borders. The room is tasteful, though very warm, with deep chairs and heavy wooden tables. It is clear that they have aspirations, even if those are aligned to a style of cooking that Michelin has edged away from over recent years. We start with an amuse for our bouche of mushroom soup, a dish rooted in 80’s dinner parties. The soup has good clarity, the ideal consistency, and seasoning is punchy in a good way. It’s a very good cup of soup. The bread on the inside is a fraction dense, though this makes it the ideal vessel for chasing out the last of the liquid.
Twice cooked cheese and leek souffle continues with the dishes not seen on Masterchef since the Lloyd Grossman years. It’s the weak point of the meal; too hot, too heavy, with not enough cheese flavour. Another starter has delicately dressed crab meat with an accurately cooked scallop, pea mousse, fresh peas, and mint. The handling of the seafood is impeccable, though it would be improved by removing the pea mousse which overloads the softer textures.
The best bit of a monkfish main sits on the base of the plate. Both sauces – one a slightly saccharine bisque, the other lightly scented with lemongrass – play off one another to tease the natural sweetness out of the fish. The fish has been finished in plenty of butter so that a golden crust forms on top and the muscle inside remains translucent. Pink fir potatoes taste like they have also absorbed a lot of the butter, which is never a bad thing, whilst the tussle of veg in the middle are presumably here to fool you into thinking that this dish is healthy. Do not be fooled by the green stuff in the middle.
Top billing goes to a chicken breast with haggis that packs the biggest of punches, served with a caramelised cauliflower puree, carrots, and silky mashed potato. It sums up what the kitchen do best; maximising a few basic ingredients with salt and pepper. The sauce is a deep glossy reduction that speaks loudly of roasted carcasses and joins the dots. It’s a proper bit of cookery.
Desserts look glorious on paper though there is no room for them and we find ourselves apologising to the charming front of house for not ordering them. The bill, with three glasses of wine, hits just over £70, which is clear value when you consider the skill shown in the plates. Audela isn’t pushing the envelope of pioneering food, instead choosing to focus on familiar flavours done well, to a room filled with customers who know what to expect. They do that mostly sucessfully. Should we find ourselves this close to the border again, I’d gladly return.