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taste: Back to school; Still not persuaded to eat breakfast every day? Then perhaps the award-winning version served up at a Northumberland bed and breakfast will change your mind. Jane Hall reports. FOOD MATTERS BUY LOCAL CAMPAIGN.

Byline: Jane Hall reports

OLD School by name; old school by nature. That's not to say there's anything out-of-date or fuddy duddy about The Old School near Alnwick.

On the contrary, the bed and breakfast in the Northumberland village of Newton-on-the-Moor, just off the A1, epitomises all that is good about being old school: homely, restrained, dignified and charming.

It also harks back to an era when people knew the importance of starting off the day on the right nutritional note; to a bygone age of porridge, kippers and bacon and eggs packed with carbohydrates and protein that is a world away from the hastily-eaten slice of toast or sugar-packed cereal bar that now characterises breakfast for the time-starved masses.

Breakfasts don't come more leisurely, more hearty or more Northumbrian than the menu conjured up by Kath and Malcolm Downes at The Old School.

Guests at the five-star 18th Century stone house on the outskirts of the village are spoilt for choice.

They can start with porridge made to order using oats from Heatherslaw Mill at Etal and served with seasonal fruit poached in Lindisfarne Mead and drizzled with honey from Chain Bridge near Berwick. They can then move on to the Old School Platter, a belt-loosening combination of rashers of bacon, pork sausage and black pudding all supplied by Longframlington butchers, R Green and Son, accompanied by sauteed heritage Ratte potatoes from Carroll's of Tiptoe Farm, Coldstream, freerange scrambled, poached or fried eggs from Sunny Hill at Belford, toasted muffins from Rothbury Home Bakery, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes, which in season are picked from the Downeses' own greenhouse.

Fish lovers could opt for kippers from Craster or an omelette topped with smoked haddock and grated Cuddy's Cave cheese from Wooler-based Doddington Dairy.

Those with room to spare can then round off their morning repast with buttered toast served with jams or marmalade from Coquet Valley Preserves based just a few miles down the A1 at Eshotthaugh.

It's this attention to detail that has contributed to The Old School House walking off with a clutch of gold and silver awards. Since opening four years ago the bed and breakfast has taken top honours in both the North East England Tourism Awards and the national Enjoy England Awards. More recently The Old School was honoured with a gold medal for its breakfasts in the inaugural North Northumberland Food Awards.

It's just reward for Kath and Malcolm's belief that when it comes to food, local is not only best, but their guests deserve to be served the best of local.

Tourists in a recent survey revealed themselves to be less than enthusiastic about the standard of cuisine on offer in England's border county. The lack of local food on menus came in for particular criticism.

Steps are now being taken to rectify this, and the Made in Northumberland project has been tasked with enhancing the value and appeal of local goods.

The assumption outside this region is that the North East is a culinary desert, with nothing to offer in the way of quality food.

Kath and Malcolm, however, are vociferous in their praise for the food bred, grown and made in the county they have called home for the past eight years.

"There is no doubt in our minds that Northumberland has some of the best local foods on offer anywhere in the UK," Kath says.

"We have the wide open spaces, a lack of pollution and plenty of fresh air, all of which add up to a great place to both produce and find local food - and consistently good food at that. Why travel for miles to buy food when we have so much quality on our doorstep?

"We felt it was only right that our guests should start off their day with a quality breakfast made using the best the county has to offer.

"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and our breakfasts certainly take centre stage here at The Old School. They are an essential part of the five-star experience our guests enjoy with us."

Kath, who runs her own graphic design firm alongside the bed and breakfast, and Malcolm, a former food technology and hospitality management lecturer at Newcastle College, who now holds court in The Old School's kitchen, have set up what would have been their ideal guest house.

The 59-year-olds currently offer three double bedrooms with a fourth due to come online at the end of this month when The Old School reopens after a short winter break. The dining room has four tables where guests can order from the mix of traditional and classic dishes.

The produce has been carefully selected by the Downeses from local independent suppliers. "We use L Robson & Sons for their Craster kippers and Greens of Longframlington's superb meats and Chain Bridge Honey Farm, to name just a few," Kath says. "Our suppliers deliver superior produce that doesn't just taste fantastic, but it's got exceptionally low food miles too, which is reflected in what is on the plate."

Some of the suppliers have been discovered in unusual circumstances - like Heatherslaw Mill on the banks of the River Till, which still produces stone ground whole meal flour from locally-grown wheat and associated cereals.

Kath recalls. "We were on a day trip with our grandson and we went on the little train they have at Heatherslaw that runs up to Etal. We were very impressed with the quality of the baked goods and cereals they had there and thought we would like to support them."

In season, the Downeses put their own vegetables and fruit on the menu too. "I think the guests love to see us on our way to pick fresh strawberries or tomatoes. You can't get any more local than that," Kath says.

"I can remember we once had a lady who asked for herbs with her omelette and she was very impressed when Malcolm went and cut them fresh from the garden.

"It is touches like that which make you stand out from the crowd, make people see Northumberland in a positive light and make people want to return. We have a huge repeat business. A third of our guests are repeat bookings, while another third come on recommendation."

Business like The Old School which are supporting local are also opening up new markets for established artisan producers like L Robson & Sons. Many a guest has been prompted to go in search of Robsons curing sheds in Craster after sampling their smoked haddock served with poached eggs.

Helen Spark, project co-ordinator of Made in Northumberland, says: "The Old School's continued success is certainly well-deserved.

"It goes to show that there are businesses in Northumberland working really hard to use local produce on their menus, producing quality dishes while raising the profile of our wonderful county products and gaining recognition for their success.

"Kath and Malcolm are passionate about local food as well as providing five-star service to their guests giving visitors an experience to remember."

For more information on The Old School call (01665) 575767 or go to


Meat: Sausages, bacon and black pudding from butcher R Green and Son, Longframlington

Fish: Traditional oak-smoked kippers, haddock and salmon from the world-famous L Robson & Sons at Craster

Bread: White, brown and seeded from Rothbury Home Bakery, Rothbury

Eggs: Large free-range eggs from Sunny Hill at Detchant, Belford

Honey: Chain Bridge Honey Farm, Horncliffe, near Berwick

Potatoes: French cuisine classic Ratte, grown and supplied by Carroll's Heritage Potatoes, Tiptoe Farm, Cornhill-on-Tweed

Jam: Jams and marmalades courtesy of Coquet Valley Preserves, Eshotthaugh, Felton

Mineral water: Abbey Well, Morpeth

Milk and cheese: Northumberland farm milk bought locally from the award-winning Carrs greengrocers in Longframlington. Also supplies Cuddy's Cave cheese from Wooler-based Doddington D airy.


HEALTHY OPTION The muesli breakfast from The Old School.; LOCAL HEROES Kath and Malcolm Downes of The Old School bed and breakfast at Newton-on-the-Moor.; NORTHERN PRIDE Craster kippers and honey from near Berwick.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 2, 2009
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