Tag Archive for: Northcote

Imagine your near-perfect restaurant bucket-list served up over 17 nights in a single venue one chilly January just off the A59. Yes Michelin-starred Northcote’s Obsession festival is back and spreading its horizons. Founded in 2001, this really is a unique celebration of stellar chefs that is really unique. Even the AA Hospitality Awards, not the most adventurous, gave it its ‘Outstanding Contribution Award’.

The 2023 incarnation runs from January 20 to February 5. 20 world class chefs with16 Michelin stars between them will make the trip to the luxury Lancashire hotel, now part of The Stafford Collection. It will kick off on Friday, January with 20, as is customary, Northcote’s own Lisa Goodwin Allen at the stove – this year in tandem with fellow Great British Menu stalwart Niall Keating. 

Lisa has this week been named named Ayala SquareMeal Female Chef of the Year 2022. She said at the ceremony: “Being an ambassador like this and inspiring the next generation of cooks, so that the next cohort of female chefs does great things, is really important to me. It’s vital that we nurture young talent, and provide them with all the tools they need to succeed…As an industry we need to be flexible; something I’m passionate about reflecting in my kitchen and with my team.”

Two women chefs also at the peak of their powers join Lisa to cook at Obsession’s grand Obsession 23’s grand finale on Sunday, February 5 – London legends Monica Galetti of Mere and Nieves Barragan Mohacho of Sabor.

All the meals in between look equally inspirational. What thrills me most about the intense 17 day showcase is that, post-pandemic, there is a returning global presence. France and Portugal feature. 

I’ve been lucky enough to stay and dine at the Yeatman in Porto, so the appearance on Saturday, January 22, of its 2-star chef, Ricardo Costa, is a big statement. 

His restaurant in the wine-driven hotel above the Port houses has been showered with awards and he was named Rising Chef 2016 by Relais Chateaux, Chef of the Year 2009 by the Portuguese magazine Wine; “Chef of the Future” 2012 by the International Academy of Gastronomy; and Best Chef in Portugal (2013) in the Gastro Arco Atlantico prizes.

At the same time the quality of the British contingent is proof of the vibrancy of our own restaurant sector in decidedly difficult times. My pick? Chetan Sharma of Mayfair’s Bibi on January 24, Alex Nietosvuori of Hjem in the North East on February 3 and the Ritz’s dynamic duo of John Williams & Spencer Metzger on February 2. Though I’d not be averse to meeting Anna Haugh of Myrtle on January 27. She has been a breath of fresh Irish air presenting the current Masterchef. 

The full list is here. People can register for tables for Obsession23 from Thursday, November 10. Each meal is priced at £185 per person, including a Louis Roederer Champagne and canapé reception, five course menu, coffee and petit fours. A specially paired wine flight can be added, starting from around £65 per person. The official charity for Obsession23 is Hospitality Action. To date, Obsession has raised almost half a million pounds for the charity.  

Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn BB6 8BE. 01254 240555. For information on a variety of gourmet breaks visit the website.

I’m going to treat myself to all the Spring Gourmet Menu dishes pictured above and below. To celebrate an eight year anniversary of mine, coming up in June. OK, my day in their new Cookery School doesn’t even count as a footnote in the garlanded history of Northcote. The stalwart country house hotel had already held a Michelin star for 18 years when I donned their monogrammed apron and did it less than proud. 

In a 2014 piece for Manchester Confidential I charted the shame of my soggy lamb wellington. I’ve still got the apron; Northcote, at Langho outside Blackburn, retains the star… and perhaps deserves a second.

Much else has changed. Nigel Haworth, whose cooking earned the star, moved on after over 30 years’ at the stove. Good to see his new venture, bringing back to life his own former gastropub, The Three Fishes, has swiftly gained him 2022 Michelin Guide recognition. Now part of the Stafford Collection and handsomely refurbished, Northcote continues Nigel’s Obsession Festival, hosting the cream of the world’s chefs every January.

 The greatest legacy of all, though, is Lisa Goodwin-Allen, still just 40, who was barely out of her teens when she started there and rose to be head chef by the age of 23. These days her profile has never been higher. Only recently she was on telly again as a Great British Menu judge. Alongside overseeing Northcote, she spends a couple of days a month as consultant down in London for the Stafford. Holding the fort for hid exec head chef is 27-year-old head chef Danny Young, 2017 National Young Chef of the Year.

The pair have that Spring Gourmet Menu on the way and March (before it snowed) seemed a good time to revisit to road test their Chef’s Table in the same 16-capacity room that’s still home to the Cookery School. Its large glass doors look out onto the kitchen with a kitchen cam for salivating close-ups.

No wellington flashbacks for me thankfully as we tasted four seasonal courses. Slightly early days for vernal abundance to determine the menu entirely but ample evidence of a kitchen as good as, maybe better, than ever. Remarkable technical skills on show but not for show, the whole focus on enhancing the intense flavours of the raw materials. 

It’s an important balancing act to strive beyond country house food expectations without alienating the well-heeled, middle aged and beyond demographic. Though I do believe veteran MD Craig Bancroft when he outlines the importance paid to making first-timers feel at home, especially if daunted by an encyclopaedic wine list. I have no such qualms, on the day of the lunch recognising Craig’s nous in selecting a canny quartet of matching wines.

Our lunch consisted of Orkney scallop, ‘green curry’, cultured yoghurt, lemon (with the bonus of an extra, tempura scallop); quail, frozen liver parfait, apple verjus, bacon, sweet turnip; aged Lake District beef, allium, hen of the woods mushroom, black garlic; warm Bramley ‘Apple Pie’, nuts, maple, caramelised milk.

I loved that deconstructed apple pie (Lisa’s a technical whizz with puds) but the stand-out dish was the quail, served delicately with the bird’s liver in tiny frozen dice, melting into the gamey breast.

Invention is in a constant flurry of renewal in Michelin-starred kitchen. When we were there that new gourmet menu was on the brink of being approved. It sounds irresistible, hence I’m searching for a booking slot. And saving up. Priced at £115 per person, the menu can be paired with course-selected wine by the glass (£71.15) as well as the addition of The Northcote Cheeseboard (£15 or £20), comprising a selection of either five or seven cheeses from The Courtyard Dairy, served with Peter’s Yard Crackers and Homemade Bread. Available Wednesday to Sunday from 12pm to 2pm. So what do you get for your money?

Chargrilled Wye Valley asparagus, sheep’s curd, sorrel; roasted veal sweetbread, white mushroom, wild garlic, caper; wild turbot, clam, bacon, smoked potato, roe; Yorkshire duck, heirloom beetroot, aged balsamic, bee pollen; and that ‘apple pie’ (main image).

Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn BB6 8BE. 01254 240555. For information on a variety of gourmet breaks visit the website.

A wet Wednesday morning in Mitton, Lancashire and I am admiring a tub of saffron milkcaps. Or to give this delectable wild mushroom its even more exotic Latin tag: Lactarius deliciosus. Not to be confused with the Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus), which is poisonous.

I ask the mycophile (edible mushroom gather) I’ve just met, Matt Rivers, if he every gets jittery about fungi identifications. There have been moments, he admits. He works a carefully chosen woodland patch to the east of Blackburn. He’d love to locate morels, a valuable restaurant staple, but so far no luck.

Matt is here at The Three Fishes, groundbreaking gastropub being brought back from the dead, because he has done business before with its chef/patron Nigel Haworth. In his days fronting Michelin-starred Northcote down the road Nigel – along with arch-rival Paul Heathcote – forged the gastronomic reputation of the Ribble Valley. 

But it was the collection of pubs, trading under the name Ribble Valley Inns, that spread the image of a terroir rich in raw materials and artisan providers. The Three Fishes was the first of these food-centric inns, back in 2004. There were five in total across the North West by the time RVI was bought by big bucks chain Brunning & Price in 2018. Nigel admits the final venture down into deepest Cheshire had been a step too far.

The new owners, with a strong presence in that county, chose not to add the Nag’s Head, Haughton to their 62-strong pub portfolio. Out of the four they did purchase Three Fishes was shut down within year. Bizarrely B&P already owned The Aspinall Arms a third of a mile away. Big money had been lavished on its refurb and consequently the Fishes languished in its shadow.

Nigel and his young staff have taken possession of the shiny new kitchen in the build up to November 12

All this is in the past, as is Nigel Haworth’s involvement with Northcote, now owned by the group behind London’s Stafford Hotel and Norma restaurant (read my review). In an act of of fate his current resurgence stems from a chance meeting at his beloved Obsession chef festival (the last one held, in 2020). Martin Aspinall’s family have been Ribble Valley grandees for centuries and he agreed to go 50:50 to fund The Three Fishes rebirth. 

As we negotiate a hectic construction work in progress Nigel tells me: “It was always in the back of my mind that I’d go back, though even I didn’t realise what a sorry state the building was in. New electrics, windows, a new kitchen and so much more, but we are getting there.”

The reopening was scheduled for the end of October but after “unexpected hurdles” the official opening date has now shifted to Wednesday November 17. Such is the popularity of Haworth and the Fishes’ reputation they have already been inundated with enquiries. Christmas should be sold out.

So what should returning devotees and a new generation of customers expect? “An offering somewhere between gastropub and fine dining with an emphasis on farm to fork sustainability,  new beginning” says Nigel.

Back in the day the pub’s walls were festooned with arty monochrome images of its suppliers, moody poses with pigs or cabbages and there was a map charting North West suppliers. Many of these veteran supporters are rallying to the new venture but Nigel’s new focus is growing on site with an acre of veg plot, a 30m x 10m poly tunnel and an emphasis on permaculture. “We’ll be composting all our own waste, aiming eventually at zero waste. For long term we are creating our own orchard, too. Giving back to the land. We are not looking back, we are looking forward.”

The food offering will concentrate on four course seasonal set menus – £50 at lunch, £65 in the evening. Mains will be in the £20-£30 bracket, puddings around an £8 price point. There will be a selection of 60 wines and beers will be local. A 16-capacity private dining room, with baronial sliding door symbolises the aspiration to transcend the old Fishes, which occasionally felt formulaic and canteen-like (in my opinion) despite the quality of the food.

The legendary Haworth hotpot, star of the BBC’s Great British Menu that has even been an upmarket ready meal

Lancashire hotpot is the dish synonymous with Nigel Haworth after his refined version, using local Lonk lamb, went all the way to the Banquet in Great British Menu a decade ago. Would it feature on the new Three Fishes Menu? I forgot to ask in the makeover tumult. Thanks to Nigel for mailing me a specimen menu later. No sign of the hotpot, but there’s grilled turbot, roasted red leg partridge and a fascinating Herdwick lamb combo – loin, liver, sticky belly, turnip gratin and pat choi. The whole menu goes up on the website by midday on Sunday, October 31 when bookings go live.

Behind schedule, having just lost a key member of his kitchen brigade, with the price of that favoured Herdwick lamb going through the roof, yet you sense it is not just The Three Fishes that is being reinvigorated. “Why am I doing this? Well, I just love to cook, that’s what I do.”

It’s too easy to pin ‘Magnificent’ to Obsession but it’s a perfect fit for Northcote’s gourmet festival. For over two decades, with ever-starrier line-ups of guest chefs, it has lit up the depths of January. Last year, alas, the lights went out as the shadow of Covid cancelled all hospitality.

Now it’s storming back, ambition undimmed, from January 21 to February 6 2022 at the Michelin-starred Ribble Valley stalwart. Caution remains with an absence of global big hitters but this is more than made up for by 16 chefs, with 15 stars under their belt, from the UK and Ireland.

In announcing the cast of Obsession 22 Northcote exec chef Lisa Allen was quick to point out the big plus of this approach and I’m inclined to agree. After a torrid 18 months and more for the industry, and with staffing and supply headaches that won’t go away let’s celebrate ‘our own’. Their world class quality but also their energy and durability in the circumstances.

Not that there’s anything remotely parochial about the schedule below, tickets for which go on sale on Tuesday, September 28. It ranges from the high profile Michelin likes (above) of Matt Abe (Restaurant Gordon Ramsay), Simon Rogan (L’Enclume) to Obsession newcomers Roberta Hall McCarron from Edinburgh and Jordan Bailey from Co KIldare (below) alongside familiar telly faces Tom Kerridge and James Martin. Bailey, who runs two Michelin-starred Aimsir with his wife Majken, particularly intrigues me. Once a key part of the Restaurant Sat Bains team, he was later head chef at 3-star Michelin Maaemo in Oslo before they moved to Ireland in 2018.

As is traditional, Lisa Allen kicks off the 14 days of dinners on January 21 and she returns for a formidable female Grande Finale on February, when she teams up with Monica Galette and Nieves Barragan Mohacho.

The lineup: 

  • Fri Jan 21: Lisa Goodwin Allen, Northcote, Ribble Valley (1 star) 
  • Sat Jan 22: Matt Abe, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London (3 stars) 
  • Sun Jan 23: Mickael Viljanen, Chapter One (previously The Greenhouse), Dublin  
  • Mon Jan 24: Jordan Bailey, Aimsir, County Kildare (2 stars) 
  • Tue Jan 25: Simon Rogan & Tom Barnes, L’Enclume, Cumbria (2 stars) 
  • Wed Jan 26: Roberta Hall McCarron, The Little Chartroom, Edinburgh 
  • Thu Jan 27: Alex Bond, Alchemilla, Nottingham (1 star) 
  • Fri Jan 28: Galton Blackiston, Morston Hall, Norfolk (1 star) 
  • Sat Jan 29: Hrishikesh Desai, Gilpin Hotel & Lakehouse, Cumbria (1 star) 
  • Sun Jan 30: Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides, Newcastle (1 star)  
  • Wed Feb 2: James Martin, celebrity chef and TV presenter 
  • Thu Feb 3: Tom Kerridge, The Hand & Flowers, Marlow (2 stars) 
  • Fri Feb 4: Atul Kochhar, Atul Kochhar Restaurants, London  
  • Sun Feb 6, Grande Finale feat Monica Galetti, Mere, London; Nieves Barragan Mohacho, Sabor, London (1 star); Lisa Goodwin Allen, Northcote, Ribble Valley (1 star) 

Lisa said; “Obsession 22 is particularly special. After having to cancel this year’s festival due to the pandemic and with the hospitality industry taking such a hit, we’re all ready to put on a show of culinary brilliance. This year it was only right to bring all corners of Britain and Ireland together, focusing on the incredible talent that we have on our shores, but still with an injection of different styles of cooking, different regional ingredients and different flavours. We have some great emerging chefs like Alex Bond, and much-loved household names, as well as some of the UK’s best female chefs, joining us.”  

Tickets for Obsession 22 go on sale on September 28 and are priced at £160 per person, including a Louis Roederer Champagne and canapé reception, five course menu, coffee and petit fours. A specially paired wine flight can be added, starting from around £65 per person. For more information visit this link.  VIP hospitality packages are available to book for six or more people in the Louis Roederer Room or at the Chef’s Table, from £2,350 + VAT. A few lucky (and swift) guests might be able to book one of Northcote’s 25 boutique bedrooms. Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn BB6 8BE. 01254 240555. Here’s my review of Northcote’s five-course tasting menu.

Last October at home prepping up my Northcote Autumn Gourmet Box I wore the apron that was the legacy of a 2014 Cookery School experience there (I buggered up the Beef Wellington, as I recall). I’ve a soft spot for the place, love the Obsessions festival every January that has brought a global smorgasbord of chefs to this corner of the Ribble Valley and go back further with them than1996 when they won the Michelin star they’ve held ever since.

It’s 38 years since Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft were given the chance to turn this Victorian pile into a fine dining mecca with rooms. In the Nineties when Ribble Valley Restaurants were suddenly ‘rock n’ roll’ you were either Haworth or Heathcote (Paul), like being Beatles or Rolling Stones. Well, almost.

Lisa Goodwin-Allen worked her way up to exec chef through the Northcote ranks

Now part of the Stafford Collection luxury portfolio (not a bad thing) Northcote is definitely on the top of its game despite all the constrictions of a pandemic. All helped by the high profile of exec chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen who took on the Great British Menu mantle of her mentor Nigel.

He is doing his own thing these days and, as I write, is about to bring back from the dead The Three Fishes, the groundbreaking regional produce-inspired gastropub he created a few miles up the road at Mitton. Sold on with the rest of the Ribble Valleys Inn Group, it shut in 2019.

Remaining under the new regime, sidekick Craig (ebullient front of house/wine guru) is,  welcoming us this sunlit Thursday lunchtime to sample Lisa’s £95 five-course Spring Gourmet Menu. For lunch you must book it specially. In the evening, as Northcote cuts its cloth to accommodate the current challenges, it’s available either of two sittings, as we await the reintroduction of a la carte.

The revamped terrace gives Northcote fresh options – and it’s a perfect spot for a wedding shot

Encouraging is the buzz a wedding party on the spanking new outdoor terrace. Along with a full house of folk, most of whose own nuptial are decades back, we are consigned to the dining room, which shares the same rural vistas. Hard to credit the busy A59 is only 200 metres away.

The matching wine flight is £53.80. I’m often wary of ceding choice but this is pretty solid, notably two whites – the Abstraction #1 Muscadet Sur Lie from Guerin (with Orkney Scallop) and Redoma Branco from Nierpoort in Portugal’s Douro Valley (Wild Turbot) – and a perfumed Bruno Sourdais Chinon red from the Loire.

Poussin the boat out! Lisa treats the bird to a garlic and allium makeover

The latter was the perfect match for my favourite dish, a Norfolk Poussin. Also known as coquelets, poussins are the baby chickens much cherished by the French. They rarely weigh in above 500g and are perfect for quick grilling. 

My first encounter came courtesy of enterprising online butcher Farmeson and in my home kitchen I followed a recipe from Wild Honey’s Anthony Demetre. This involved spatchcocking – removing the backbone from tail to neck so the bird can be opened out flat – and an overload of garlic and herbs. 

Lisa treats it differently. Garlic featured again, one white blob and a swirl of on-trend black garlic, its long caramelisation imparting a subtle liquorice tone. Hen of the woods mushroom and a baby allium poached in ponzu ramped up the succulence. 

The trim breast and a cute little croquette of leg meat may have lacked the splayed splendour of my effort but they were  delicious testimony to canny UK sourcing. Norfolk poussins are corn-fed and reared ethically for their short lives in Fakenham as an alterntib from importing from France. 

Lisa’s previous course of Wild Turbot feels very spoonable, foamy GBM. It’s another little marvel incorporating clam, cucumber, sea lettuce and dill in a saline-inclusive broth.

Like the whole menu, it sings of the season. I love the sorrel granita that adds a lemony counterpoint to Yorkshire Asparagus (green, from Sand Hutton I’m presuming) and basil gel but also the combo of Isle of White heritage tomato textures that lifts a perfectly seared Orkney scallop.

Amalfi lemon inspired dessert completed a satisfying meal, but could we resist the petits fours?

Admirable restraint, matched to accomplished technique, culminates in a masterly pud celebrating the Amalfi lemon and Limoncello. It’s a work of art that almost convinces me tangy powders and meringue splinters are for me. Still a pretty Michelin-friendly plateful. Which bring us back to the admirable Michelin substitute delivered to us in October 2020 as an alternative to the forbidden delights of restaurant dining.

It was easily the best menu kit we encountered during lockdown. But this recent Northcote visit was proof that nothing can replace the real thing. Especially where washing up by someone else is concerned.

Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn BB6 8BE. 01254 240555. For information on a variety of gourmet breaks visit the website but be warned, plan ahead. They’re full up well into the autumn.

There’s a fascinating interview with Lisa Goodwin-Allen in trade magazine Supper, where she discusses the challenges that have sprung from the pandemic and lockdowns. She also sing the praises of the Norfolk Poussin! Read it here.