Picture a postcard of a Yorkshire market town and Helmsley may well spring to mind.
A drive through the rolling hills of North Yorkshire leads you this to this picturesque slice of medieval history which is woven with the rich tapestry of rural English life.
Over the centuries, it’s bore witness to the boom and decline of many industries and today tourism is one which helps it thrive.
As such, it’s got plenty to keep visitors entertained, from the aforementioned undulating roads, which lure in bikers, to the architecture admirers who can fill their boots at the palatial Duncombe Park, the medieval crumbling 12th century ruins of Helmsley Castle or the nearby Rievaulx Terrace in which Greek-style temples punctuate lush English gardens.
And there’s plenty to fuel the flocks of tourists with a range of accommodation, artisan delis and quaint coffee shops.
I stayed at one of the town’s most historic hotels, The Black Swan, which overlooks the heart of Helmsley: its bustling market square.
In keeping with the history of its location, the boutique hotel is a higgledy piggledy jigsaw of Georgian, Elizabethan and Tudor architecture.
We stayed in the oldest part, complete with traditional black and white Tudor panels, creaky floorboards and low beams that make you duck to enter the room, which all adds to the charm of this former coaching inn which has been hosting guests for more than 500 years.
In the downstairs rooms you’re transported to a country cottage-esque hunting lodge, all tartan armchairs and open fires. And, on the walls, a veritable gallery of artworks, picturing everything from the Tour de Yorkshire to Holy Island, which are available to buy.
But while the decor and design of the hotel may be a jigsaw of traditional motifs, its menu is more forward-thinking.
As well as being a quirky hotel, over the years The Black Swan has also built a reputation as a dining hot spot.
Donning the whites today is Alan O’Kane, formerly of Wynyard Hall in his native North East and The Savoy in London, who’s taken over at the helm of the three AA Rosette The Gallery restaurant at the hotel.
A shooter in his spare time, he’s inspired by the provenance of food and he has an abundance of ingredients on his doorstep in North Yorkshire, or “God’s pantry” as he calls it.
He’s not afraid to toy with textures and flavours, a culinary approach that shines in his tasting menu.
It takes you on a foray to Yorkshire - with its lamb, ham and classic Northern delicacy pease pudding - and further afield with raw Scottish venison and European wines.
The tasting menu on the night we visited eased us in gently with snacks comprised of confit of lamb beignet with mint puree; smoked salmon and caviar toast and white onion and 36 months-aged Parmesan velouté with black truffle toasty. They came served as pretty as a picture morsels, the plump beignets were tightly-packed parcels of a light and tender lamb while the fish snacks were served as mini ice cream cones, which swapped hundreds and thousands with caviar.
Meanwhile, the velouté was beautifully silky and rich, complemented well by the dense truffle toasty. I’ll never look at a humble toasty in the same way again.
Next up, ham knuckle & foie gras served with celeriac remoulade, caper jam, pease pudding and quail egg.
Though tasting menus may be seen as a formal affair, there’s nothing stuffy about The Black Swan and the cheery serving staff did a great job of talking us through our courses and the accompanying wine flight. The complementary tipple to the ham course was a bold and fresh Riesling which contrasted well with the richness of the dish.
Next, the red mullet fish course was served with an English wine. We were both unfamiliar with Kenton Vineyard, but it was so refreshing we jotted the name down so we could seek it out at a later date.
The most experimental of the dishes was the raw Scottish venison, which was served with burnt orange, smoked coconut, beetroot emulsion and yolk. It’s not a combination that seems to work on paper, but in practice the springy lean meat worked well with the zing of the orange, which kept the often overpowering coconut in submission.
At this point you think it’s all over, but there’s still a duck and sweet courses to come. The latter included a beautifully-bitter chocolate namelaka. It means creamy texture in Japanese, and it lives up to its name: a decadent death by chocolate.
No tastebud is left untickled here, but if you’ve got room for any more, there’s always port, cheese and grapes to be had by the roaring open fire - a quintessentially English finish to a classy evening in the country.
•For more information on The Black Swan Hotel, Helmsley, visit http://www.blackswan-helmsley.co.uk/
We’ve teamed up with The Black Swan in Helmsley to give away a Champagne afternoon tea for two, worth £31.95 each, served in its award-winning tearoom.
To be in with a chance of winning, answer this question: in which National Park is Helmsley?
A) North York Moors
B) Peak District
Send your answer on a postcard with your name and full contact details to Black Swan Competition, Katy Wheeler, Johnston Press North East, 2nd Floor, Alexander House, 1 Mandarin Road, Rainton Bridge Business Park, Houghton, DH4 5RA.
Alternatively, email your answer and full contact details to Katy.Wheeler@jpress.co.uk.
Closing date: August 4.