30 June 2020

Dining Under Lockdown: Hjem Comforts Box

Food ✪✪✪✪✪ 
Value for money ✪✪✪✪✪ 
Pandemic friendly? (Ease of procurement, social distancing etc) ✪✪✪✪✪ 

The Hadrian Hotel
NE46 4EE

01434 681 232


Gluten free options? A number of items contain wheat, rye and barley- full allergen sheet provided in box.

Under the normal run of things I try to keep this site relatively comprehensive, taking in every notable restaurant opening across the North East, and even a few further afield. This inevitably means the occasional long, hopeful trek ending in bitter disappointment. If you want to experience real pathos and melancholy, try journeying the length of our wonderful region only to be rewarded by a microwaved, bought in sponge with the temerity to call itself a sticky toffee pudding. It happens. The struggle is real. 

Well, just as long as we continue to experience very much not the normal run of things, you’ll excuse me if I don’t eat, or write about, anywhere that I don’t know in advance is likely to be great. I don’t know about you, but I’m currently viewing every meal as an opportunity to replenish my frayed soul in one way or another. When I’ve got the energy that means cooking something a bit fancy and delicious. Other times, when I’m feeling really frazzled, it means the biggest bag of Kettle Chips I can find, and a Double Decker for pudding. It certainly does not mean expectations of a nice take-out or DIY restaurant meal being dashed on the rocks of ineptitude or halfed-arsery. I don’t think I could take that just now. 

So yeah, as long as I’m writing about not-quite-restaurants, it’ll just be the good ones. And I think I might be doing so for a little while to come, one way or another. July the 4th is scheduled to be the day bars and restaurants are able to reopen, but under what circumstances remains unclear. There are mixed messages coming from Government, to put it very charitably. And while some of us can’t wait to sit elsewhere than our own table to eat, others will be understandably nervous of doing so. Restaurants that want to trade are probably going to have to continue figuring out how to get food to people who aren’t sat in their room. 

And as long as that’s the case, I reckon you’ll do well to find anything to beat the offering of the wonderful restaurant Hjem, situated in Wall, just north of Hexham. I raved about them when they opened last year and, well, I’m about to again. Everything that Alex Nietosvuori, Ally Thompson and their team do is just so much care and excellence, and their “Hjem Comforts” box is no exception. For £50, including delivery, you get a treasure chest of wondrous bits and bobs dropped off at your door, enough to create probably a couple of meals for two. If you like a picky lunch, followed by a picky tea, this is the business.

We began a day of joyfully languorous eating with a plate of their ethereally light potato blinis, warmed through, topped with sharp, bright crème fraîche and the salty pop of trout roe. Swoony. 

We had added a bottle of red to our order, and copped a pretty forthright biodynamic Malbec blend from Bergerac. It went rather nicely with the platter of first-rate cured meats from Berwick’s Hammond Charcuterie. Their air-dried ham has a lovely salt/sweet balance, but their fennel and pepper-spiked coppa is something else entirely, tasting a little wild and funky and free-range and wonderful.

Oven on, the better to warm up some of the most banging versions of pub classics in living memory. The scotch egg magically withstood the reheating to retain a gloriously liquid yolk. The forcemeat around it was well seasoned, coarse and - there’s no other word for it, really - juicy. We laid siege to these in solemn silence, punctuated only by the occasional joyful profanity. 

Ditto sausage rolls which sported a flaky, herb-flecked pastry and nuggets of a devastatingly good black pudding. That did it for lunch.

A game of socially-distanced tennis (insert joke about disinfected balls here) and an online Laura Marling gig (yeah, we're middle class AF, so what?) later, and it was time for dinner. 

We hacked up the neat little boule of Hjem’s own sourdough and slathered care-free quantities of Robin Baty’s astonishing North Acomb farm butter over it. There were crisp flatbreads that tasted magically of the toasted seeds they contained and little else - potato starch trickery? - which were a fine accompaniment to two of Doddington’s excellent cheeses. Slices of Hjem’s own ham were tremendous with their accompanying piccalilli that was all punch and mustard thrust. You could taste every bit of Alex’s quality as a cook in the ultra-smooth chicken liver parfait which inspired another outbreak of reverential swearing.

The sweet treats - canelles, strawberry jam biscuits and chocolate cookies - were all unusually wholesome and hearty. I don’t generally anthropomorphise biscuits, but if I did, these would have been wearing an Icelandic jumper and have an excellent complexion. I imagine some really good wholewheat flour must have been employed for the goodness that they tasted of. We chased around the last crumbs of a very, very fine day of eating.

So, thanks Alex, and Ally, and Hjem for making everything better for a while with your brilliance. And thanks for making it so easy, although you'll need to follow their social media and be ready when they release new batches of boxes to snap one up. Demand is high. You can pick up at the restaurant, or have it delivered for a fiver

Even as I tap this out I read that the Ledbury, arguably London’s finest restaurant, will not be re-opening, which is tremendously sad. That place was unbelievably good, and it feels like a symbolic loss. The future of high-end cooking and dining is terribly uncertain. Moments of the joy that such great food provides, like those you’ll be treated to if you can get hold of a Hjem comfort box, feel, at the moment, like a familiar, safe port in a maddening storm.

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