The Odd Couple

Cary Brown and Marcus Lane at the Royal Oak

Cary Brown and Marcus Lane at the Royal Oak

Do you ever wonder ‘What happened next?’ when a chapter in the life of a restaurant ends? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin.

When Cary Brown, former enfant terrible of the Sheffield restaurant scene, closed the doors of his ill-fated steak and fish London Club in Surrey Street for the last time in 2012 it was the latest in a series of eateries he had either owned or run: the Charnwood Hotel, Carriages, Browns, The Limes, the Mini Bar, Slammers, the Supper Club (and I may have missed out a few).

Then, strangely for a man who was never out of the newspapers and who inspired a generation of young chefs, silence.

Rib and chicken but where do we start?

Rib and chicken but where do we start?

A year and a bit later, beset by ill health, Marcus Lane decided to sell Rafters on Oakbrook Road, his culinary home for more than a decade. Quiet, modest, he was the man who told Michelin not to bother awarding him any more Bib Gourmands because he wanted to concentrate on the food, not the fripperies which ensure an entry. He’s the chef’s chef and got a gong from his peers for just that in the Eat Sheffield awards. But now he was taking it easy.

So it’s a lovely sunny Sunday in the Derbyshire village of Millthorpe, down the road from Owler Bar, and here’s Cary, pulling a pint of Seafarers Ale behind the bar of the Royal Oak, the little pub saved by villagers when there were plans to turn it into a house.

And who’s that in the kitchen, peeling the carrots and checking that the rib of beef in the poky little oven is progressing nicely? Why, it’s Marcus. He’s helping out his old mate, the pub’s landlord.

I think of two brilliant chefs in one tiny kitchen and wonder about the dynamics. Who’s in charge? “No one. We do whatever’s needed. Marcus doesn’t work for me, he works with me. The only time we fall out is over who’s going to have the ‘oyster’ of the chicken,” says Cary.

They make an odd couple but food in the pub is only part of the story. They do outside catering. The snug, which can seat 14 at a pinch, had been hired by a christening party. They are planning afternoon teas on the lawn.

“This is a community pub still used by drinkers so food will not take over,” says landlord Cary.

The Royal Oak only does food on Saturday and Sundays. On Saturday it’s whatever they feel like cooking – a Scotch egg, pizzette, pork scratchings – but it’s unlikely you’d get a three course meal out of it.

Sundays are traditional. “We cook the stuff we’d want to eat, a proper roast. You won’t find a water bath on these premises,” says Cary darkly. There is no starter, unless you count Marcus’s beautifully soft bread rolls, served in an upturned flowerpot, or choice of main. At £16.50 a head you share a big wooden platter piled with thick, pink slices of rib and hunks of chicken. Honestly, it was so good I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.

The meats were very tasty and tender and the flavours were first class. Massive roast potatoes were golden and crunchy, soft inside. A pair of Yorkshire puddings towered upwards. There were little cubes of exquisite stuffing. Cary’s partner Shelley brought dishes of greens and cauliflower cheese. And there was a big jug of rich gravy.

It was the sort of meal you have dreams about on Saturday night but then are so often disappointed with the next day’s reality. This is probably the best traditional roast you’re ever going to eat. We followed it with very probably the best Bakewell tart, so light it could almost have floated in the air, and lemon posset (£5 each).

I ate as much as I could and took the rest home in a doggy bag. But I was ruined for the rest of the day.


Royal Oak, Cordwell Lane, Millthorpe, Sheffield. Tel: 0114 289 0870.

(This meal was paid for)

I've got a plateful!

I’ve got a plateful!

My Bakewell tart was so light it could have floated away

My Bakewell tart was so light it could have floated away

The Royal Oak at Millthorpe

The Royal Oak at Millthorpe

Brown sauce – a short history

Some of my brown sauce

Some of my brown sauce

What could be more British than brown sauce on a bacon sandwich? So isn’t it a scandal that famous brands such as HP and Daddies are now owned by a bunch of Yanks, J J Heinz, and made in Holland? There is only one solution – make it yourself.

That’s what used to happen. Large households made their own sauces. Later, during the commercialisation of the High Street, sauces were brewed in each town by local manufacturers. HP began life in Nottinghamshire in the 1870s. Hammonds was made near Bradford and still gives its name to the Hammond Sauce Works Band although the factory has been pulled down. I think the sauce may still be available in Morrisons. OK started life in London in the late 1800s.

Gradually leading regional brands became national ones although sometimes they switched countries. Yorkshire Relish was established in Leeds as early as the 1830s and continues life in Donegal, Ireland, as YR Sauce in glass and plastic squeezy bottles.

Occasionally stories surface in the regional Press about ‘secret recipes’ being found in old factories although there isn’t much of a secret to the recipe, a combination of fruit, onion and spices cooked to a puree then thinned (but not too much) with vinegar and sweetened with sugar.

That doyenne of food writers Dorothy Hartley in her seminal work Food in England (1954) traces its origins to the shelters or cafes used by London cabmen in the mid-19th Century, each of which had its own version to pour on chops after a morning ‘pea souper.’

She gives a basic recipe as a pint of chopped shallots, clove of garlic, teaspoon each of salt and black pepper, tablespoon of sugar and mushroom ketchup boiled with water to a pulp. The café proprietor might add spices to his own preference. The mixture was then sieved, boiled again with a pint of vinegar and bottled.

This is very much the recipe I use today although the fruit is missing. I started making my own brown sauce because I found my wife’s HP sauce too thin, too sharp, too vinegary (and too American) and thought I could do better.

Luckily for me it was a fashion a few years ago for posh chefs to make their own brown sauce and I so particularly enjoyed the sauce at Cary Brown’s short-lived London Club restaurant on Surrey Street, Sheffield, that I acquired the recipe. I have no idea where Cary got it but I use it almost unchanged.

This is what you do. You need the following for 3-4 bottles of brown sauce.

450g cooking apples, peeled , cored and roughly chopped

110g dried prunes,

1 small onion, diced

400ml malt vinegar

1/2 tsp each of nutmeg, allspice, cayenne

1/4 tsp ground ginger

2tbspns sea salt

240g sugar

Put apples, prunes and onions in a pan, just cover with water bring to boil then simmer til soft. Blitz.

Return to cleaned pan, add rest of ingredients, boil them simmer until thickened to a sauce consistency. Adjust for sweetness or vinegar.

Allow to cool slightly then funnel into sterilised jars or bottles.

Now who would have thought there was so much history in a bottle of brown sauce?