In its heyday, Aitch’s was an institution...
The area’s first wine bar, this Bakewell landmark had a slightly raunchy reputation, attracting everyone from Peak District farmers to Sheffield Wednesday footballers, all in search of a great night out.
It first made its mark in 1982 and illustrious visitors over the next two decades included Daily Telegraph journalist Max Davidson, who described it as “a modish eatery with an intriguingly varied clientele”.
Mind you, there wasn’t a lot of competition: “The entertainment on offer during my visit included a Methodist coffee morning, a Buddhist meditation class and the annual meeting of the Bakewell and District Bird Study Group,” he wrote.
Aitch’s certainly led the field and long after it closed, in 2004, locals still look back fondly on this cornerstone of the area’s social scene.
So much so, that last week the team decided to reform for one last gig.
Television has made food matching sexy...
In its day, Aitch’s was the ‘in’ place to see and be seen, setting the trend with its moody interior, curving spiral staircase and jazz nights. Above all, it had a reputation as the place where anyone of discerning taste could be sure of a decent bottle of wine – or two – and a slap-up meal.
The key movers behind this hotspot were wine merchant John Hattersley, after whom the place was named, and head chef Bryan Moran.
More than a decade on, they were determined to live up to the hype, even if the scene of Aitch’s revival was the altogether more decorous surroundings of Hartington’s cookery school, based in a converted mill, a few hundred yards down the road.
The idea was to conjure up a little of the old magic for anyone who cared to join in.
The crowd on the night was as eclectic as ever – including around 10 former staff and hangers-on as well as current customers and others eager to rediscover their lost youth.
Back in the day, the bar employed seven full-time chefs and around 30 staff. This was a more laid-back affair.
Bryan’s wife Sarah had stepped in to act as commis chef for the night and that wasn’t the only change.
“Our kitchen at Aitch’s was tiny,” he recalls. “And it was sweltering hot! There’s no comparison with this.”
Food trends have changed too. Instead of 1980s staples such as chicken kiev, beef wellington and black forest gateau, Bryan now favours more rustic dishes.
After leaving Aitch’s, he spent a decade running his award-winning Moran’s restaurant in Abbeydale Road South (now Peppercorn). And these days he is serving up hearty meals and winning a new generation of fans at The Manners pub in Bakewell town centre.
He has never been one to seek the limelight, but agreed to team up with John, one last time, for the revival.
Hattersley – who now runs a successful wine merchant’s just up the road – was in his element.
He says: “Food and wine is my passion. Television has made food matching sexy and people are interested in it these days.
“Talking about what wines go with the food isn’t like work to me!”
We have a chance to mingle with other guests as we arrive, sipping extra dry Selvaggio Prosecco and whetting our appetites with canapés: little squares of granary toast topped with tangy goat’s cheese and horseradish, or 1980s-inspired duck and orange pâté.
Hartington’s works better as a cookery school than a bistro, but low lighting softens the edges of the two long tables, where we’re soon chatting like old friends with our fellow diners.
First up is a meaty ham hock and rabbit terrine, the meat poached for four hours with herbs, garlic and onions. It comes with chunky piccalilli, sweet roast beetroot and crisp shavings of fennel – and goes beautifully with a crisp, zippy French Viognier.
Next is a wonderfully thick, creamy chowder of smoked haddock and mussels, leek and chervil – the vegetables cooked separately so they retain some bite.
It’s served unusually with a classic Fino – sherry to the uninitiated. This is the dryest wine in the world, John tells us, with only a 10th of the sugar used in most sherries. It works beautifully, cutting through the richness of the soup.
Hattersley’s commentary is an education; he explains how to taste each wine and what to look for.
A Côtes du Rhône is next, to complement rich slow-roast belly pork. Melt-in-the-mouth fat contrasts with a crisp herb and breadcrumb crust and the dish is completed with crushed root vegetables, grain mustard sauce and shards of crunchy crackling.
Next is dessert of lemon tart, gum-suckingly sharp, with a crunchy, blow-torched caramel glaze, crumbly sweetcrust pastry, raspberry coulis and cubes of raspberry jelly.
Sweetly fragrant Gewurztraminer is the perfect accompaniment – from Italy, we’re told, not Germany as most believe.
And finally a taste of rich Hartington Stilton with plum chutney and a delicious late bottled vintage port.
I never did make it to Aitch’s, but if this is a taste of its delights then I’m not surprised it was so popular.
And anyone whose appetite has been whetted can still try Bryan’s cooking – at The Manners, where regular favourites include Aitch’s Revival Sweet and Sour Duck.
* The Manners, Haddon Road, Bakewell (01629) 812756