Many things have made me feel old this year. Learning that Die Hard is 30-years-old. A nostalgia for Saturday mornings watching scratchy black and white Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone. Sinéad O’Connor turning 52. Admittedly, that last one probably depresses her more than it does me.
But nothing has made me feel more like a woman in her mid-40s than the involuntary post-prandial nap I took last Friday afternoon. With my parting words to Prof Nuge (my dad – age 71) ringing in my ears (“I expect you’ll be going home for a bit of a sleep now”), I promptly returned to my house-cum-office and passed out on the sofa.
In my defence, the two Nugents had spent a couple of hours thoroughly enjoying the Christmas Menu at The Fisherman’s Retreat in Ramsbottom. And I’d challenge every goddamn one of you to eat the equivalent of a xmas dinner and do anything productive in the next (depending on age) 24 to 48 hours.
Still, it was mildly embarrassing to come to on the couch and realise that Prof Nuge had probably finished his nap and was now watching The West Wing for the 73rd time (you know, the one where Josh and Donna pretend they don’t like each other but they do). Nevertheless, I had few regrets. Not the pint of Wainwright’s crafted golden beer nor the comfortable and entirely pleasant (not a criticism) time spent in a family-run restaurant nestled rather splendidly in the undulations of the Lancashire hills.
It’s been around six or seven years since I last crossed the doors of The Fisherman’s Retreat. I remember a cosy pub and restaurant room to the side. But now this local favourite, built in 1992 by the men and women who still run it, has reinvented itself as a specialist whisky-tasting venue, bar, wedding destination, and spacious eatery. It’s a far cry from its first incarnation as a trout fishery which catered for cold and hungry fly fishermen.
The Fisherman’s Retreat may be new in terms of its near neighbours (hostelries dating back to the Industrial Revolution) but there’s more local history than you can shake a stick at in its walls. Consider the fact that the building was constructed using 90 per cent reclaimed materials. There’s the stone that once held together the 19th century bleachers and dryers’ mills, and the reclaimed Accrington bricks from the old Ramsbottom bus station. Oh, and the wood from Prestwich Hospital Chapel, not to mention the seating grafted from church pews. Those London industrial chic scrapyards that charge a fortune for anything vaguely musty must be doing themselves a mischief.
Anyway, this industrial heritage is still in evidence in The Fisherman’s 21st century incarnation, although I’ll admit to being a little disappointed by the sense of ‘newness’ imbued by its more recent renovations. Still, in an area where many restaurant tables sit cheek by jowl in ancient, cramped spaces, there’s something to be said for a spacious interior that allows little opportunity to eavesdrop on the next table’s conversation.
And then there’s the window. In a feat of engineering that would have Kevin McCloud sweating at the temples (on seeing it I got all Grand Designs and fretted as to how on earth they wangled such huge panes of glass up a road that is impassable after a light dusting of snow), the ‘feature’ window did its job. After all, what’s the point in having a restaurant with views of hills that make you cry with relief that you don’t have to scale them if you can’t actually see the buggers.
So I was already replete with the view when the food arrived. For me, a gently satisfying spiced butternut squash and roasted garlic soup to start with and, to steal a line from another Northern Soul writer, a mini chestnut loaf ‘cuter than kittens falling off tables’; for Prof Nuge a slew of Atlantic cold water prawns and hot smoked salmon. I tried to explain that the green stuff on his plate was smashed avocado. It soon became clear that an attempt to describe the theory of relativity may have been easier.
The mains were less stressful. For him the slow braised shoulder of local lamb, haggis potato rosti, green vegetables, tomato and saffron sauce (I didn’t attempt to explain saffron – I’d learned my lesson) with parmesan shavings. For me roast Goosnargh turkey with sage and onion stuffing, homemade chipolatas wrapped in home-cured bacon, goose fat roasted potatoes, winter vegetables and pan-juice white wine gravy. That last one was a brain-teaser. I can see the thinking behind a sauvignon-stylee jus but when I’m about to hoof my entire month’s calorie allowance in one meal, I’m looking for a red wine gloop that pulls no punches.
Do you know what, though? In the words of Kevin McCloud, Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer, the meal ticked all the boxes. Sprouts? Plenty of bite. Lamb? Tender. Potatoes? Moreish. Stuffing? Flavoursome. Prof Nuge’s pronouncement was “not bad”. As a daughter who yearned for this kind of affirmation when he cast his eye over her politics homework, I knew the gravity of the compliment.
However, prior to our meal I sensed an anxiety in Prof Nuge. Would the portions be big enough? Would they be Northern? “I hope it’s none of that haute cuisine rubbish,” he muttered as I attempted my second hill-start. After all, this is a man who once complained of a local gastropub that, when his fish and chips arrived, “I only got one pea, Helen. One pea!”
Prof Nuge needn’t have worried. The plates were so vertiginous that, long after I’d eaten more than my skin elasticity would allow for, he was still ploughing on with his gargantuan serving.
“Would you like dessert?” asked the waitress. My mouth said, “no, thanks”. My brain said, “For the love of god, no! I’m already full of self-loathing.”
I’m fairly sure that’s exactly what I’ll be saying, out loud or in my head, around about 4pm on December 25th.
By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
The festive menu is available until December 24, 2018. For more information, follow this link: www.fishermansretreat.com