THE Courtyard does not have an online presence. Mention the web in here, and they reach for their dusters.
No WAGS or minor soap stars could ever find its hideaway at the northern fringes of Little Crosby village. If they did, they would only be disappointed.
The nearest thing to glamour was the day footballer-turned-high-priced-BBC-property Alan Hansen came in; the nearest thing to trouble when, more than once, he threatened to “take a free cake”. At least I think that's what he was saying but, then, he is Scottish.
A toasted sandwich combined slices
of molten roast beef, cut thinner
than a Lib Dem policy document
If it's edgy and anarchic you want, you'll have to go somewhere else. Nobody here is going to shout the odds or give you daggers across the poached salmon.
The only hard stirs are from those attempting to beef up the content of their teapot, of which more later. Otherwise, you are invulnerable to improper language, inelegant behaviour or, God help us, loud music. In short, it's a good place to take your mother.
“What?!” said my mother, with a look that suggested I was mumbling.
“HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN Y0UR HEARING AID AGAIN?”
She nodded, ruefully. “Ah, well, I don't think there's a battery in it, anyway.”
We were here for the birthday outing I had promised her three months earlier. Ever the dutiful son.
At 83 and a quarter and requiring the assistance of a walking frame in order to remain standing, lunch at The Courtyard is not without its challenges; entry is via a gravel drive and a trip to the toilet involves a short – though extremely pleasant – tour of local flora and fauna.
Other than the zimmer, my mother's roughly perpendicular bearing is maintained by a pharmaceutical regime holding at bay an impressive list of complaints: high blood pressure, low back pain, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, occasional gastro enteritis, spondylitis, women's problems, Meniere's Disease, Parkinson's, bunions, water retention worthy of mention, dyspepsia, myopia, angina, neuralgia, and acute nostalgia. The latter condition has no cure, but tea and warm buttered scones are known to bring relief.
The Courtyard provides succour to those aching for the Fifties or, rather, those bits that don't include rationing, smog, and the threat of imminent nuclear destruction. This is the rural idyll of selective memory, with scratching hens, China cups, ever-so-polite service and more preserves than a bring-and-buy.
Even the outside toilet – brick symbol of Post-War grim – is a sanitised, romanticised version here. That said, if a fair proportion of your clientele comprises those whose years have surpassed the number on their favourite old gramophone records, and for whom the days now come round at 78 revolutions per minute, chances are they may require the facilities more than once. So you may as well make it a pleasure for them.
For my mother, the Fifties were the years she gained a husband, two children, a home of her own and a limited financial stability that eluded her own mother. It would be understandable if she were nostalgic for a decade which gave little clue to rigours ahead.
After my father's death in 1963 she was left to provide for two boys, aged 10 and four, relying on hard work, charity, and the kindness of others. Who knows if the worries that entailed contributed to the unforgiving arthritis that has beset her later years.
Whenever she expresses doubts about her own achievements, I remind her that, in spite of everything, she made men of those boys; men who, albeit clumsily at times, try to do right. I point to grandchildren whose values of honesty and decency have at least in part found their way down from her.
And I insist, as she grimaces, that the dignity and abiliity, no matter what, to laugh at herself, that I have always recognised, have not withered whatever age, a sloping frame and a medicine cabinet that would stock a small branch of Boots may say about it.
“DO YOU WANT TO HAVE A LOOK AT THE MENU?”
She waves it away. “I've forgotten my glasses.”
We sit in the body of a long, shallow, former agricultural building whose handsome features are displayed to best effect by exposed stone walls and beams, and frames which continue the theme.
Outside, the colour scheme comes courtesy of summer flowering blooms. Tables and chairs strew the lawn, at the edge of fields and woods stretching out to Hightown, Somewhere about are plum trees and raspberry canes whose bounty will find its way to the kitchen, and, over to one side, a smaller building converted from rural to lavatorial use, and fronted by a vegetable garden.
There were no hens this time; perhaps their cluck had run out, though chicken does not feature on the menu. A fish platter featuring Coln Valley gravadlax is as exotic as it gets with much of the rest reading like standard cafe fare – soup, sandwiches, toasties, baked potatoes – but what they do, they do well.
And there is enough of a homegrown, homemade effort to mark them out from the Costco crowd. Not forgetting their cake. You won't forget their cake.
Home-baked quiche (£8.99) is a no-nonsense affair; egg-rich, substantial and laced at its base with a scrape of piccalili, it defies the perception that quiche is for tarts. So to speak. On the side, crusty bread, creamy kitchen-made coleslaw and salad, featuring mizuna and chives from the garden, in a simple, precisely applied balsamic dressing. I would happily do without the crinkle cut crisps if they knocked off 50p.
The toasted sandwiches (£6.50, with salad and coleslaw) might not look much, but they're brilliant. This one, using bread from a local, small-scale baker, combined slices of molten roast beef, cut thinner than a Lib Dem policy document, with a good wad of sweetly caramelised onions.
The bread used to be baked on the premises, but with 15 from 16 choices of cake (all £3.95 and served with cream) made in-house, maybe they reached baking breaking point.
They keep things manageable by preparing the same madeira sponge for all the cakes. Moist, rich and dense, only their fillings change; in our case, a delicate pear and almond, and a lavish peach and raspberry, the latter's slight sharpness a sublime foil for the sweet stodge of the sponge.
Cake this good calls for tea to match but whether it's the quality of the leaf or an excess of H2O, it was a weak effort. So, instead, coffee, which is excellent; smooth with a good body but no bitterness – like Bond before Daniel Craig.
The non-appearance of hearing aid and spectacles did not impair my mother's experience, only rendered it a little fuzzy, rather like her memory of the bygone age a visit recalls, here among the dandelion and burdock and old-world service afforded by an all-female staff, The Courtyard's rose-tinted lasses.
ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL. Critics dine unannounced and the company picks up their bills - never the restaurant, never a PR company.
The Courtyard (daytime only)
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it; 6-9 get a DVD; 10-11 if you must; 12-13 if you’re passing; 14-15 worth a trip; 16-18 very good to exceptional; 19-20 As good as it gets.
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