Even in the middle of Storm Malik, with trees flattened atop of each other like a domino run, and gusts of wind so strong that the articulated lorries stagger and stumble along the motorway like a drunk trying to get home, Northumberland cuts a picturesque scene unlike anywhere else in England. It is the finest English county, even from the slow tumble of the A1, the painfully dull road which has done more to protect the borders than any wall or castle. From here the hills to either side are filled with pine trees and heather, split by walls of grey stone which slither through the landscape. Grouse totter along its lawns, their breasts fat and ready for eating. At some point Bambi runs in front of us, possibly in mourning of its mother. It is the county for castles, of barren beaches, and well-trodden coastal paths. It’s prettier than any face, more rugged than second-day stubble. It’s as earnest as the people who inhabit it. 


Inland, the road meanders around the medieval town of Hexham and gentle climbs above it to Anick, the pretty setting for this late lunch at The Rat. The pub is nestled on the hilltop, with a garden outside where an elderly couple is proving that nobody does hardy quite like ramblers. The interior is smaller than expected, born out of wood and cleaved stone. A menu is scrawled on a blackboard, the letters smudged like a sobbing girl in a kebab shop’s mascara. It talks in a language I understand, with no frivolity or tarting up. There are soups, and platters of meats, steaks, or some of that locally shot game. 


I start with that soup. It’s bacon, leek, and butter bean today. Silkier than Saint-Maximim, with a five-a-day smokiness from the bacon, I request more bread and butter than needed to sponge up the last of the dots. Elsewhere there are fat flakes of baby pink trout, with eggs boiled until the yolk is jammy, and broccoli where the heat of the grill has tinged the frills of the tenderstem. Both starters are simple; humble, even. An ode to the few items of produce still found in the depths of winter. Both are technically spot-on. 


It’s the last of the season’s game for main. Pheasant, shot just down the road we are told, dusty pink breast, a little pleasing chew. There is a cream sauce with plenty of mushrooms and a hint of mustard, and mashed potato with little in the way to dilute the flavour of the vegetables. As rustic as the walls which make up the building, it packs a huge punch. The other main is parsnip and Parmesan risotto. The grains are a minute overcooked, with loads of umami from the cheese. The parsnips on top appear to have been roasted in honey, pushing the sweetness over a bit too much for me, and the portions would be massive for even a passing American tourist. But these are just minor niggles. 


Dessert is the highlight of a very good lunch. A mousse of stem ginger full of brightness and gentle heat, with poached rhubarb and rhubarb gel. Perfectly in keeping with the idea here that no dish requires more than two or three ingredients, using combinations older than the pub itself (probably). It was glorious; balanced and intelligent, with just a hint of citrus coming from somewhere. It takes skill, serious skill at that, to make a dessert this good. 


The bill is £68 for five courses between two and a couple of drinks. It is embarrassingly cheap for a meal rife with honesty and flavour. The Top 50 Gastropubs list presently has The Rat at number 18, a lofty number for a pub that I Imagine focuses on diners leaving happy over everything else. This isn’t a place for Instagram; there are no tweezers involved, no fancy tuiles or fanciful presentation. It’s the place you come to get fed by a team who genuinely cares. The Rat is as earnest as the county it resides in, and that is more than enough for me.