The last time I ran into Matthew Fort he was with fellow food critic Tom Parker Bowles at Booths Salford Quays flogging an upmarket brand of pork scratchings they were both associated with. They later jumped ship when the actual producers abandoned a core selling point – the use of English pigs.
Not the high point of Fort’s championing of British food. That would have to be the publication 25 years ago of Rhubarb and Black Pudding (for evocative northern cookbook titles it vies with Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle, in which I admit a vested interest). I hugely enjoyed his foodie romps around Italy on a Vespa, but his account of a year in the Lancashire kitchen of chef Paul Heathcote was equally evocative… and benchmark influential at the time. A real fly on the wall record of an exceptional restaurant’s workings and relationship with suppliers in the unlikeliest of regional settings.
In the preface Fort wrote of the Eureka moment of his first visit to the Longridge Restaurant – to review for The Guardian. “I was immediately transfixed by the style and quality of the food. I was served poached salmon with a courgette flower stuffed with courgette mousse, smoked chicken and broccoli soup, slow-roasted shoulder of lamb braised with an aubergine mousse, and chocolate parfait with honey and oatmeal ice cream (all for £12.75!). Although the influence of French cooking and finesse were uppermost, nevertheless there was English sensibility running through the flavours, the textures, the combination of ingredients.”
The influence of one of Paul’s mentors is obvious. On occasions he had crossed swords with Raymond Blanc while working for him at the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons but also found inspiration for when he set up his own restaurant. Aged just 29 and with a £200,000 loan he opened in 1990 and within four years had won his own two Michelin stars.
I treasure my copy of Rhubarb & Black Pudding as much as the memories of meals Paul cooked for me over the years. But as 2023 stumbled into life it took an image re-Tweeted by my friend, the food historian Dr Neil Buttery, to tangentially remind me of its distant impact. Ah, rhubarb. There, glowing enticingly crimson in a custom-built ‘forcing’ shed in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, was the first of the new season crop, due to be harvested by candle light in a week’s time.
The social media charting of the coveted stalks’ development is a recent phenomenon, but Twitter poster Robert is the fourth generation Tomlinson to grow forced rhubarb by this traditional method. The plants first spend two years outdoors to harden against frost, then are brought in to a dark, heated habitat, to grow quickly, while straining for light. Once ready, the spears are picked by candlelight because too much light causes photosynthesis, which can halt the growth of the crowns. This process produces a sweeter fruit with a white core – a kind of Rhubarb ‘premier cru’.
It’s estimated only 12 such producers remain across the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell. Originally the trade benefited from a surplus of cheap heating coal from the local pits.
Paul Heathcote’s rhubarb source has aways been from nearer his Lancashire base in Longridge – via long-time veg and fruit supplier Eddie Homes, who set up a supply chain of raw materials of the quality he required.
“Rhubarb and asparagus were just two items we persuaded local allotment holders to grow for us,” Paul tells me as I catch up with him at Preston North End, another connection that goes back a long way. His Heathcote & Co team have been responsible for match day dining and events since launching in 1997 (with a six year hiatus). His flagship restaurant, eponymous Brasseries and Olive Presses are now all in the past, the Longridge site forlornly on the market, but his corporate catering business maintains the iconic Heathcote brand.
No looking back for Paul? “Until you told me I hadn’t given it a thought it was a quarter of a century since the book came out. It certainly took longer to do so than we envisaged! It was expected to come out in 1996 or 1997 after first being mooted in 1994.
“I remember vividly Matthew turning up at what was our makeshift front door – we were having a new kitchen fitted on the other side. He’d got off the train at Preston and, satchel on his back, walked the 14 miles as the crow flies, a lot of it along an old railway track. It was a warm day and he looked knackered.”
Matthew Fort’s personal Lancashire journey had begun long before. The family home for generations was Read Hall, near Padiham, his father (who died when Fort was 12) the MP for Clitheroe. After Eton, the food critic to be studied at Lancaster University, further sowing the seeds of his knowledge of the county’s topography and cuisine.
The acquaintance was resumed during his exhaustive research for Rhubarb and Black Pudding. Paul agrees with me: “Yes, there was a lot of Matthew in the book, but there have been few better evocations of how a restaurant works. Certainly not a place as off the beaten track as ours.”
A quarter of a century on what still shine vividly are the portraits of the suppliers who Paul cultivated primarily to have the freshest raw materials to hand. “It was not deliberate policy on my part to promote the area’s produce as such. It never occurred to me to put images of my suppliers on the walls. Good products come to you or in some cases you create them. There was so much enthusiasm but it could be a slog at times. In Fleetwood Chris Neve (still an active supplier of fine fish) got it straight away. Reg Johnson down the road recognised what I wanted but it took a bit longer to produce the quality of corn-fed poultry I required. It was frustrating at times, there were failures along the way if I’m honest.”
Still poultry farmers Johnson and Swarbrick never looked back as top-end restaurants across the land coveted their speciality chickens and ducks. And Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese from down the road gained much needed national recognition.
Black pudding, too, got a serious profile upgrade thanks to Paul. And it was all down to his old friend and Ribble Valley gastro rival, Nigel Haworth, once of Northcote, now back at the Three Fishes, Mitton (where he once dispayed images of his suppliers).
“We were in a team of chefs, who travelled over to Champagne and had to cook for our French equivalents and Nigel challenged me to create something different. So I decided upon my own refined version of black pudding and it was a success – the dish I’m most proud of.
“I used to make black pudding from scratch, using fresh blood in those days, but after BSE came along we had to change to powdered. The texture of the original was different – much creamier.”
It all seems far off now. The last black pudding of PauI’s I tasted was in a main at The Northern, a restaurant Heathcote & Co launched briefly pre-Pandemic inside the town hall complex of his native Bolton. It tasted good but no fine dining aspirations with its mustard grain sauce, mushy peas and triple-cooked chips. Alas, no rhubarb on the menu. Maybe it was the wrong season. Maybe you can be too elegiac.