There are some foods that I never expected to let past my lips. Kangeroo and crocodile were on this no-no list until, ten years ago on a trip to Australia, I sampled both delicacies. Well, it seemed rude not to.
But this was down under and they are much less squeamish than us Britons when it comes to making the best use of the food in front of them. So it came as some surprise when, a few weeks ago, I found myself abandoning more of my culinary taboos in a village less than half an hour’s drive from my house.
Freemasons at Wiswell (pronounced ‘wizel’) is one of those places that you would never, ever stumble across. I had sat nav and I still failed to find it at the first attempt. But, under the auspices of Blackburn-born chef-patron Steven Smith, this charming inn in the picturesque Ribble Valley has gained a reputation for fine fare and gastronomy on a par with the poshest city centre restaurant. Its position on the national stage was cemented earlier this month when it made it onto The Sunday Times top 100 restaurants in Britain. Freemasons debuted at number 83, beating both J Sheekey in London’s Covent Garden (a popular celeb hangout – Kevin Spacey is a regular late diner; the last time I was there I saw Miranda from Sex and the City with her lesbian lover) and Scott’s of Mayfair (now forever associated with the end of Nigella Lawson’s marriage to Charles Saatchi). Not bad going for a four-year-old country eaterie.
On the night I visited Freemasons, the restaurant was half-way through its annual Game Week. It’s a neat idea: Smith invites some of the region’s best chefs to create bespoke menus each evening, all showcasing the very best British Game produce. I was lucky enough to be there for the cook-off between Mary Ellen McTague (head chef at Aumbry in Prestwich, a restaurant with food so good that I still wake in the middle of the night salivating) and Chris Holland (head chef at the award-winning Alderley Edge Hotel). Each chef cooks a dish, the diners are in the dark as to which dish belongs to whom, and there is a vote at the end to decide the victor. Now, I’m not usually one for competitions but this was something I could get on board with.
In all honesty, me and me mum were a bit nervous. I was a vegetarian for a good many years and neither of us are the type of person to choose pheasant over a chicken dinner. But it was too late for the jitters, we were in it for the long haul.
First up was Hare Consomme. Putting all thoughts of the John Lewis Christmas advert aside, we sniffed its strong odour with a degree of suspicion (although the Turnip & English Truffle went down a treat). It wasn’t unpleasant but, to a Game novice, the taste was a little overpowering. Not so the Juve y Camps Pinot Noir Brut Rose from Spain. Declan, the sommelier, was absolutely spot on when he described it as a palate cleanser with the body to take you into the next course.
Smoked Roe Deer Tartar arrived. It was served with Roasted Langoustine, Pickled Turnip and Cinnamon. Oh god, I felt like the hunter who killed Bambi’s mother. The menu dubbed the dish ‘Surf & Turf’ which makes it the poshest version of this meal that I have ever eaten or am ever likely to consume. D’you know though, it was tasty (sorry Bambi). The wine – a 2009 Australian Kilikanoon Prodigal Grenache – slipped down like silk.
Next up was Duck and Rosehip: Slow Roasted Mallard, Salt Baked Salsify, Rosehip Wine Jelly (the star of this offering) and Artichoke. Ducks are my second favourite animal, could I eat Daffy? As it turns out, yes, I could. I scoffed him and he was good. And, again, Declan outdid himself. The Andre Dezat et Fils Cuvee Prestige 2011 was so light on the taste buds that me mum and me nearly wept. “You can taste it at the back of throat,” Declan said. He was right, it was the perfect sensation.
Onto the Pheasant Pie. This I felt less guilty about. Apart from Danny the Champion of the World, no childhood films sprung to mind. I dug in. Combined with Celeriac, Toasted Chestnuts, Savoy Cabbage & Bacon, this was the best savoury dish of the night. Everything melted in the mouth, including the pastry. As a pie veteran, I know this is no mean feat.
And so to the desserts. Jostling for our attention was Pumpkin & Parkin and Beetroot & Chocolate Cakes. A smorgasbord of sweetness, from the Nutmeg Cream and Honey Poached Pumpkin to the Carrot Toffee and Hazelnut & Bee Pollen, this was a perfect way to end a meal that, matters of conscience notwithstanding, was an unforgettable experience.
As for the location, if you’ve seen The Trip (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s food odyssey across the North of England) you’ll know what I mean when I say Freemasons is every bit as inviting as the restaurants visited by the comedy pairing. Now we are getting into proper Winter, I can only imagine that Freemasons’ flag stone floors, real fires and comfortable furniture are more inviting than ever. They even have a ‘Chippy Tea’ evening. Totes amazeballs.
Review by Helen Nugent
Where: Wiswell, the Ribble Valley
More info: www.freemasonsatwiswell.com