I’d been invited to lunch at the Freemasons Country Inn in Wiswell, Lancashire, by the fine folks from American Express and the London Restaurant Festival. This year’s LRF sees chefs from ten London restaurants pair up with ten restaurants from all over the country to produce gala menus on October 10, especially for American Express card holders. (If you don’t have an American Express card, get a friend who does to book for you.) There are some big names taking part – Alain Roux, Raymond Blanc, Mitch Tonks, Richard Corrigan – alongside some rising stars you’re bound to be hearing much more about very soon.
Wiswell is a tiny village, arranged precariously along a single-track path that curves up a dripping wet Lancashire hill. I got lost on my way there, and had to stop at a petrol station in nearby Clitheroe to ask for directions. A man wearing a fuzzy jumper in the crisp aisle knew exactly where I was meant to be going: he’d just had his wedding anniversary meal there. (“Seven courses! You’ll eat like a king; it’s a magnificent restaurant.”) Locally, the Freemasons has developed a huge and loyal following, as evidenced by the fact that they were packed to the gills with diners on a soaking Monday lunchtime in August, traditionally one of the restaurant industry’s slowest months.
I was here with Matthew Foxon from the Criterion, who has been paired up for Amex’s shindig with Steven Smith, the Freemasons’ chef. They met precisely two hours before I rolled up, and in that time had become such firm friends that I found myself addressing them as one chefly entity called Matt’n’Steve. They announced in unison: “This is a good pairing. We’re on the same wavelength.” They have lots in common besides the haircuts: a very similar approach to sourcing ingredients, to the importance of texture in a dish and to flavour combinations. Steven’s team prepared lunch from the Freemasons’ menu, Matt’n’Steve developed a dish for October while I watched, and I ate myself silly.
The Freemasons was not what I’d expected from a country pub. Downstairs, it’s pure pub: a bar, wooden tables, stone flags, shootin’-huntin’-fishin’ prints and the odd bit of taxidermy. (The upstairs houses a more formal dining area and two private dining rooms.) At a first glance, the menu looks like solid, pubby, starch-and-stodge stuff. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll be disappointed. Steven has subverted the standard pub menu and made it a jumping-off point for some of the most elegant restaurant food I’ve eaten this year. These were jewel-like, complex presentations, with each beautiful element on the plate calculated to complement the whole dish. No bangers in a bun here. Sourcing is a matter of pride for this kitchen – by the end of the meal I knew the first name of the man who grows the restaurant’s beets, the life history of the piglet who sacrificed himself for my superb terrine (and that of his parents), and the precise bit of Scottish coast my scallops had lived on.
Steven draws inspiration from the best bits of English cuisine and from the local area. He’s a Lancashire lad, and knows the countryside and its suppliers intimately. There’s a nod to the local Asian population in the spicing of the scallops; some traditional piccalilli and pork scratchings are given a very unconventional treatment; and what looks like a walnut whip but turns out to be a light-as-air puff of caramelised meringue. A pork jelly sits on the plate with no pork pie in sight, and works as a salty, mellow foil to slivers of sweetly pickled fennel. And who knew that pear and beetroot were such a good flavour match?
Once service was over, I was invited to the kitchen to have a look at one of the dishes the two chefs are developing together for the LRF event. Matt was busying himself about some exquisitely delicate sheets of pasta while Steve piped a coil of leek and potato purée onto a pasta base, dropped a fresh yolk into the centre and topped the lot off with another pasta sheet to make a large piece of ravioli, which was poached briefly so the egg was barely set. Matt had brought a large and handsome truffle up on the train with him (I feel for the hungry souls who shared a carriage with him) – it made a heady sauce, drizzled around the pasta and some more leeks with another leek purée, with more of the truffle grated over the top. I’ve seldom seen such focussed attention as Steve gave that single raviolo – and it did them both proud. I was caught swiping at the yolky, truffly, leeky bits on my empty plate with a finger and sucking it, and was roundly laughed at; I felt somewhat less than proud, but it didn’t stop me going back for more.
Wiswell is easy to get to from either side of the Pennines (I was coming from a weekend over the hills in Leeds; Manchester is close by, and the M6 is right on the doorstep), and this restaurant should be a must if you’re in that part of the world. Book early; it’s guaranteed to be packed out. (See the links at the top of this page for booking details.) If you’re down south, try to get an American Express card-holding friend to grab you a table for the 10-10-10 event, where you’ll be able to try several of the dishes above – but get in quickly, because tables are selling out fast.