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Gold standard at Northumberland House

A five star self-catering cottage in the heart of Northumberland has just won a gold award for its food. Surely a contradiction in terms? Jane Hall finds out more.

FRESH food and local specialities abound in England�s Border county. From lobster to oysters, mussels, salmon, sea trout, venison, hill lamb, beef, game birds, poultry, heritage potatoes, asparagus, strawberries, real ale, mead and rum, Northumberland has it all.

Yet while places such as Yorkshire, Cumbria and Cornwall have firmly established themselves on the international foodie map, tourist-wise Northumberland is not seen as a particularly tasty destination.

Cornwall in particular has blown away its pasty and cream tea image as a wave of gastronomic tourism, led by the likes of chefs Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver, has filled its plates.

But while Northumberland at the North East end of England is more than a match for its competitor at the South West tip when it comes to magnificent castles, sandy beaches, rolling hills, unspoilt moorland and World Heritage sites, outside the region the county is unfortunately regarded as a culinary desert.

Indeed, a relatively recent survey commissioned by Northumberland Tourism focusing on accommodation and food found visitors less than enthusiastic about county cuisine.

When it came to gourmet breaks, the likes of the Lake District, Cornwall and North Yorkshire beat Northumberland hands down.

So, a tourism-backed project was set up 18 months ago to promote Northumberland to the food premier league by increasing the range of locally generated goods offered to visitors, as well as helping businesses reach and market the great products on their doorstep.

The Made in Northumberland initiative � which also advances the area�s distinctive cultural heritage � has since been spreading the word locally and nationally. The Journal�s buy, use, eat local Taste campaign and prime-time TV exposure courtesy of Hairy Bikers Simon King and Dave Myers, who this year sang the praises of their North food roots in a one- hour BBC special, have also helped push the county�s cause. But that�s not to say its rich culinary traditions and homegrown foods weren�t already being championed.

And two of the most vociferous supporters have ironically been Yorkshire natives Jean and Mike Cockerill. The self-confessed foodies own The Northumberland House at Longhoughton, near Alnwick.

The five-star self-catering cottage, which sleeps 12 in six en suite bedrooms, has regional and national awards for excellence.

But perhaps the Cockerills� most prized accolade came seven weeks ago when their �lair with flair� less than a mile from the stunning heritage coast, won public acclaim for its food.

The cottage picked up gold in the first North Northumberland Local Food Awards. This may seem a contradiction in terms. Self-catering cottages by definition don�t offer food. But then The Northumberland House is no ordinary self-catering property.

Apart from being a luxurious detached stone built allergy- and eco-friendly house with underfloor heating, a 22ft dining room and a kitchen to die for, it also puts local food high on the list of offerings.

The Cockerills� website is an unrivalled source of information on food in Northumberland, with an eating out guide listing more than 70 opportunities for discovering delicious local food, from hiring in-house chefs for special occasions to restaurants, cafes and farm shops.

There are also links to attractions such as the annual Alnwick Food Festival as well as a wealth of local producers.

Guests are even encouraged to break their journey by visiting farm shops and tea rooms, such as Blagdon and Lowick.

And when guests make their booking they are sent an extended eating guide, containing helpful information on style and opening times. They can make their chef selection from an impressive list including Fiona Burn, Fresh Element, Martin Hutton, Delicious Occasions and Wilkins Fine Dining.

Jean and Mike want to ensure visitors sink their teeth into more than the area�s natural and cultural attractions, which is why guests stepping over The Northumberland House�s impressive threshold will also find a free welcome hamper of quality local foods. Dry-cured bacon from Stannington�s Moorhouse Farm jostles for space with preserves from Newcastle�s JR Jams and WS Robson�s honey from Berwick.

Free-range eggs come from Sunny Hill at Belford; Oleifera rapeseed oil from Border Fields, the farmers� co-operative with its headquarters at Coldstream Mains; cheeses from Blagdon�s Northumberland Cheese Company; organic milk from Acorn Dairy, of Archdeacon Newton, near Darlington; fruit cakes from Heatherslaw Bakery of Cornhill, while tea and coffee is supplied by familiar North East names Ringtons and Pumphreys.

Bread, biscuits, butter and chocolates are also bought in locally.

But it�s the large sticky toffee sponge pudding that has had guests reaching for the superlatives in the visitors� book and seen scores knocking on the door of Susan Green�s kitchen at Heckley High House, just outside Alnwick, in search of a souvenir with a difference to take home. It�s offerings like this from The Proof of the Pudding, that brought Jean, Mike and their holiday home to the attention of the judges of the North Northumberland Food Awards.

The awards were set up to recognise the contribution catering and hospitality firms in Alnwick and Berwick areas make to using and promoting local food and drink and judges were impressed by Jean and Mike�s passion for introducing outsiders to a taste of Northumberland in every sense.

It�s no idle boast when they describe The Northumberland House as �a cottage for genuine food lovers�.

The pair have utilised years of experience staying in self-catering properties, drawing inspiration from the best and adding their own unique stamp, to create what would be their ideal holiday home � with the focus very firmly on food.

Originally from near the spa town of Ilkley in West Yorkshire, Jean, 59, and Mike, 58, were seduced by Northumberland�s beauty on holidays with their two sons.

So when they decided to take early retirement from their jobs as a primary school teacher and geologist and project manager, they bought a plot of land at Longhoughton and built their dream home.

But then sons Paul, 30, and Simon, 29, decided to fly the nest. With just the two of them in a six-bedroom house, Jean and Mike weren�t sure what to do.

�The children decided they weren�t coming home after university,� Jean recalls. �The house was massive for us, but we didn�t want to let go of it.

�Everybody agreed we shouldn�t, including the bank manager. He came around, took one look at the kitchen and said, �Oh yes, you must keep it�. So now we live in more modest circumstances in Boulmer and run this as a luxury self catering home. We knew nothing about the business before going into it, but we knew we wanted to offer something more than your average self catering cottage. Having been to holiday cottages ourselves, we did know that people are staying in the UK more and that they are becoming more demanding about what they rent.

�Being foodies who when we go anywhere like to hunt out the quality local produce, we decided to make local food an important part of what we offer guests.

�Wherever possible we endeavour to promote those people who are passionate about the use of locally grown and sourced ingredients and chefs who use such delights as Carroll�s Heritage potatoes, Lindisfarne oysters, Doddington�s ice cream and Cheviot lamb.

�Northumberland is a very special and exciting place and The Northumberland House aims to reflect some of its unique qualities and excitement.�

Mike and Jean have taken the time to meet many of the producers they promote � and they have deliberately sought out foods they believe guests will not have come across before. �We have some wonderful food producers in this area,� Jean enthuses. �The welcome hamper contains produce many guests will never have seen before. They are thrilled to discover delicacies such as Chain Bridge honey, Moorhouse Farm bacon, Northumberland cheeses, Pumphrey�s coffee, Heatherslaw cakes and not least sticky toffee pudding from Heckley Farm.

�We wanted to help promote them, and by so doing encourage people to shop here and find out more about the quality foods available in this area. Guests love the hamper, and their comments show how much they appreciate the attention to every detail.�

The latter includes a cupboard packed with essentials from dried herbs to flour, icing sugar and even Marmite, that visitors are free to use.

One entry in the visitors� book complimenting Jean and Mike on the welcome hamper reads: �A lovely idea, especially using local products.� Another says: �A special mention for the star guest, the sticky toffee pudding.�

Catering for parties of up to 12, since opening three years ago The Northumberland House has proved popular with those marking anniversaries, parties, reunions or Christmas in luxurious surroundings.

The south-facing dining room with its 14ft table and kitchen full of gadgets, appeals to passionate cooks.

Northumberland Local Food Awards alongside their regional and national accolades have proved to Jean and Mike they are treading the right path.

�Winning awards does make a difference,� Jean says. �And to be recognised in our local area for what we are doing to help promote local food is extra special. We hope our guests continue to feel extra special too.�


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