Although I chose to leave my home town of Manchester in Lancashire in the north west of England over thirty years ago, I still miss them both. But much to my surprise over the past decade I have come to miss the more varied charms of Lancashire even more than those of the city in which I grew up.
This has a lot to do with the fact that I then chose to go into the hospitality business. Most Northerners are hospitable by nature but Lancastrians seem to combine an engaging warmth with a genuine interest in their fellow man and woman that makes them the most enthusiastic hoteliers, restaurateurs and chefs.
These charms have been enhanced most recently by the county’s emergence as a source of excellent produce, the consequence of its size and geography (the 1969 Shell Guide to Britain describes Lancashire as ‘a county that gives itself the airs of a continent’).
And if today I had to choose my ideal meal it would definitely include two courses from Lancashire. From the coast I would choose a starter of James Baxter’s Morecambe Bay potted shrimps and somewhere towards the end of the meal a plate of Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese with an Eccles cake, a not overly-sweet pouch of flaky pastry filled with currants that takes its name from the town just outside Manchester, a dish that is permanently on the menu at London’s St John restaurant.
I was reintroduced to this particular Lancastrian penchant for combining sweet and savoury on the same plate at the end of a return meal at The Highwayman in Burrow, north Lancashire. This pub is right by the border with Cumbria, where the sign from the local Tourist Board reads ‘Lancashire, where everyone matters’.
The Highywayman is the original pub Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft from Northcote Manor hotel in Langho, near Blackburn, reinvented with Thwaites the local brewers and this same transformation has now been effected on the wonderfully named Clog and Billycock further south at Pleasington.
While Thwaites provide the sites, the good beer, and a rather limited choice of wines by the glass, Howarth conjures up a mouthwatering menu that credits his suppliers at every turn.
But it was one new dessert, a Bramley Apple Pie for two served with a slice of Lancashire cheese and small jugs of custard and Carnation milk (£8), that caught my eye as soon as we sat down and provided the culinary and visual highlight. The sweet pastry contrasted with the sharpness of the filling while the crumbly cheese (not quite as tangy as Mrs Kirkham’s) added an extra dimension. Its modern presentation only highlighted the fact that we must continue to cherish these long-established flavour combinations and never let them be forgotten.
Charles Bowman, the third generation of the family to manage The Inn at Whitewell close to Clitheroe and the Pennines, which separate Lancashire from Yorkshire, has a similar empathy for his hotel’s history as Howarth does for Lancashire’s food. Bowman’s distinct advantage is that his buildings date back to its origins as a small manor house in the early 14th century. (The surrounding countryside is pictured here.)
The main building retains many of its historic charms: flagstone floors, old wooden furniture, and big open fires (old-fashioned peat fires are also available in certain bedrooms for an extra £6 a night). To these Bowman has added more modern touches such as the cricket ball attached to the room key as a reminder that his father once played for the county. But the inn’s unchanging location at the end of a valley and in the lee of rolling hills continues to make it attractive for those who enjoy walking, fishing – and a break in their Blackberry addiction as there is simply no signal there.
Bowman’s more modern approach to hospitality is most obvious in an oak-panelled ground floor room, at the far end of which is the reception desk. The rest of this room is devoted to rack upon rack of wines, many of which are imported directly by Bowman and his buyer, Miles Corrish, via their own wine company, Bowland Forest Vintners, including an excellent Curly Flat Chardonnay 2005 from Victoria, Australia. This is £55 on their restaurant wine list (£26.99 in the shop) but top quality.
Despite the charm of the service and the elegantly proportioned dining room, complete with another open fire and a view down to the River Hodder, our dinner was not as good as it should have been. The salad with the first course of smoked fish was not dressed; the loin of lamb was tough; and the unseasonable mange-tout were overcooked. Although the breast of chicken from Goosnargh, a village north of Preston renowned for its poultry, was good, the overall emphasis seemed sadly to be on quantity and carbohydrates rather than flavour and finesse.
These two qualities were, however, firmly back in evidence at our final stop at Ramsons restaurant in Ramsbottom (see article about its wine list here) despite both the head chef and sous chef being away through holiday and imminent maternity.
Ramsbottom, because of its name, has always been the butt of jokes even within Lancashire. But today its many well-preserved Victorian buildings, its proximity to the moors and the fact that the steam trains of the East Lancashire Railway run through it at the weekend, have all contributed to its new role as a place for all hedonists.
To this, Chris Johnson, Ramson’s founder, has contributed in no small measure since he opened here 24 years ago, initially as a restaurant, although he too has now added his own wine business and a less expensive enoteca in the basement.
While Johnson exudes quintessential northern warmth, he has taken a different tack from the others around him as he has increasingly fallen for the charms of Italian food and wine over the years. But geography is no barrier to his approach as he seems to know, talk about and address all his suppliers over 1,000 miles away on the same first name terms as he does when he talks to his waiting team and greets every customer.
He maintains such knowledge by frequent trips to Italy, invariably with his staff, but he has come to realise that chefs learn more readily when they are sent on their own. ‘They seem to appreciate quite how exciting a new dish can be far more openly when I’m not there telling them how good I think it is’, he explained before taking our order.
This included some wonderful Anglo-Italian combinations. Minced roast pork ravioli with Parmesan, a pungent wild mushroom soup, four slices of roast lamb from St Asaph in north Wales, and a plump fillet of turbot bought via the fish market at Fleetwood with an olive oil mash that any Italian chef would have been proud of.
And finally, as someone who still likes to think of himself as a Northerner for whom puddings are vitally important, I found the best rendition of Sussex Pond Pudding I have ever come across. This old English recipe incorporates a lemon steamed in suet with a lot of butter in a bowl and then turned over so that the juices run around the base to give the pond effect. When I asked Johnson for the secret, he whispered, ‘The lemons come from Amalfi.’
The Highwayman, www.ribblevalleyinns.com
The Inn at Whitewell, www.innatwhitewell.com