Why the Howardian Hills are the UK’s most exciting food destination

I hadn’t expected to find our holiday cottage kitchen equipped with vintage china from one of Britain’s finest stately homes. But Coral Cottage is a very special rental, a 16th-century stone dwelling surrounded by romantic flowerbeds and the oldest in the village of Coneysthorpe, a horseshoe of houses around a central green, which since the 19th century has belonged to the 9,000-acre Castle Howard estate.

I followed my appetite to this area thanks to a new restaurant opening, Mýse, in the village of Hovingham between Malton and Helmsley, two popular market towns in North Yorkshire.

Among them stretches the spine of the rolling Howardian Hills, which, on a bright July weekend, are giving a fair impression of Tuscany. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (now known as National Landscapes), it is also the gateway to the North York Moors National Park, where the gentle vales, dales and wolds grow wilder.

Last month, The Good Food Guide named Helmsley and the Howardian Hills its “Most Exciting Food Destination” for 2024.

Rising costs are reportedly driving restaurateurs, and their clientele, away from urban locations such as York and Leeds. The Overingtons – chef Joshua and front of house Victoria – who own Mýse, are an example of this. They closed their popular York restaurant Le Cochon Aveugle in 2022, where the food was infamously served without a menu, to open 20 miles north the following summer.

“One of the reasons we chose Hovingham is that it’s one of the most beautiful places in England,” Joshua Overington told me.

The dishes on the Mýse tasting menu (£125pp dinner/£95pp lunch) aren’t a secret, though the paper is folded in case you choose to maintain the anticipation. I don’t think you’d come here if you didn’t trust the chef, but I can’t resist a peek. 

Most of the produce is local – rhubarb of course if you were to visit at this time of year, though it was raspberries when I visited, candied and served with citrus marigold ice cream. There’s Herdwick lamb, duck, and ox cheek from renowned Yorkshire farmers, and the whole cheese board, including Summer Field Alpine from near Whitby, and Leeds Blue, is locally sourced.

The menu ventures to Lindisfarne and Orkney for seafood. The scallop in sea urchin butter, the size of my palm, is the best I have ever eaten. Bright and sharp herby notes complement hearty meat and fish: oyster with seaweed ice and watercress, ox cheek with fermented cucumber, beef fat poached pollock with lemon verbena. 

Joshua added: “I was fairly confident I’d made the right decision to close in York [he had a wine bar as well as Le Cochon Aveugle] and open here. While we never cook for awards or recognition, but for customers, when we did it [won a Michelin star] after seven months, I was shocked and the staff were too.

“I think probably [at first] everyone was quite bemused as to why we opened here – the village couldn’t be sleepier – but now it has all come together and makes sense.”

What is probably the most modest menu entry, “day-old bread and preserves”, turns out to be a show-stopping pudding. A burnished slab of soaked and sugared bread is served with linseed caramel, raspberry and rose jam, and crème fraîche under a nutty blanket. The alcohol-free drinks pairing is truly novel. A rapeseed oil drink resembles a milkshake. Beetroot, black garlic and red verjus accompany the aged lamb saddle and anchovy.

Research for Visit Britain revealed that 88 per cent of tourists want to try local food and drink when travelling and Yorkshire has worked hard to promote its food bounty, with 18 million annual visitors spending £205 million on food and drink.

Where Mýse excels is in telling the story of the region’s produce and culinary history through a menu that’s delicious and surprising, providing a sense of taste that translates into an acute sense of place.

A 24-cover restaurant, it has a pared-back Scandi aesthetic, with exposed stone, stripped floors, wooden furniture and animal skins. There are three rooms (£235pp incl tasting menu and breakfast, one is dog-friendly), but I take my mutt back to Coral Cottage to sink into the deep armchairs and admire the art.

Next I visit Malton, which the late restaurateur Antonio Carluccio crowned “Yorkshire’s Food Capital” over a decade ago. But the town didn’t need an Italian to teach it about great food. I was drawn into a café, Lutt & Turner on Market Street, by a magnificent Battenburg in the window, and stayed to enjoy the Miner’s Benedict, a black pudding brunch with oozing egg yolks, a crisp twist of bacon, hot tea and very warm service.

The town’s cobbled streets were overflowing with independent cafés and produce, including vegetarian Purple Carrot, the Deli of Malton, the Talbot Yard Food Court with Bluebird Bakery, Groovy Moo Gelato, Roost coffee roastery and Florian Poirot patisserie. There’s a busy monthly market and the two-day Food Lovers Festival this year falls over the Whit bank holiday weekend (25–27 May).

Castle Howard itself, a majestic 300-year-old stately home inhabited by the Earls of Carlisle until the early 20th century, is recognisable as a location for the BBC’s Brideshead Revisited and, more recently, Bridgerton. The china collection takes pride of place here too, on the China Landing at the top of the Grand Staircase, the main entrance to the 145-room Baroque wonder designed by John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Remarkably – or ill-advisedly – in 1699, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle asked his friend the dramatist Vanbrugh, who had never built a thing, to design his new house. Vanbrugh then wisely employed Hawksmoor, who had already worked on St Paul’s and Hampton Court with Christopher Wren.

Castle Howard has featured in period dramas (Photo: Getty)

About 15 miles north-west is another new opening singled out by The Good Food Guide. The Abbey Inn is a gastropub with rooms from Great British Menu winner and local food hero Tommy Banks. I’ve enjoyed his Made in Oldstead food box deliveries, but I’m too slow to bag a table this time. And so, I continue to Helmsley, where there’s just time for a swift look around the ruined castle, an English Heritage property, before lunch.

While envious of those enjoying the sunny terrace at Mannion & Co Kitchen, when I eventually settled for an inside table, I found a cool retreat with friendly dog owners and seriously impressive sandwiches (£15pp for sandwich, drink and tip). Time restraints meant I have saved many more recommendations, from Bantam and Pignut to established favourite The Star Inn at Harome, for a future visit, already planned for spring.

No doubt our morning stroll across Slingsby Banks, three miles north of Coneysthorpe, only walks off a few crumbs of that memorable ‘day-old bread’. Either way, we’re rewarded with views across Ryedale, a shady descent through the woodland, and finally a spellbinding few minutes watching that one true highlight of any stroll in the country – a combine harvester, hard at work so that we can eat another day.

Staying there

Coral Cottage sleeps six in three bedrooms, with free admission to Castle Howard and a farm shop voucher, from £774 in low season to £1356 for the equivalent July wkd when we visited in 2023, castlehoward.co.uk

Further information

howardianhills.org.uk
yorkshire.com