A flock of dark birds shoots up off Standridge Hill as I hurtle north from Clitheroe to my destination, the newly crowned UK number one gastropub. A conspiracy of ravens? A murder of crows? Far from an ill omen in fulfilling times for the Parkers Arms.
It has already been picked over (in a positive way) by the swooping media in the 12 days since triumphing in the Estrella Top 50 list. If levelling up in any meaningful economic sense is light years away, well all the better to salute a plucky Northern food success story. And the hard-fought 15 year tenure of Stosie Madi, Kathy Smith and Adrian Nolan is the very definition of that.
At least I know my way well to the white-washed inn in the remote hamlet of Newton-by-Bowland. I‘ve booked this Saturday lunchtime treat well before all the ‘four minutes of fame’. Back to omens. I have previous this year with Estrella Damm. For my June birthday I’d booked Yynyshir in February; two weeks later it won its second Michelin star and three days before our arrival it topped the Estrella 50 Best Restaurants list. So don’t call me an albatross around the neck.
Enough ornithology. The main room fire is lit and Captain Smidge the chihuahua and I are ensconced beside it. “That’s lit by the cleaning lady … one of the few tasks we don’t have to do,” Adrian, aka AJ, confides as he pours me a large Viognier. He’s 65 next birthday, a couple of years younger than his sister Kathy. Stosie’s in her fifties. Their energy is remarkable. All three remember the desolate times when punter footfall didn’t match their ambition. Even at the pinnacle they modestly tell me: “We went along to the awards, more than happy not to drop out of the Top 10.” They inched into second last year after a steady climb up the charts.
At the end of the glorious meal to come the trio, good sports, will join Smidge for a photo destined for my chefs’ calendar project ‘Tongues Out for the Chihuahua’. Not quite the accolade of the Top 50 celebrations with their peers but an honour none the less. And a rare chance to greet chef Stosie outside the kitchen, where she is intensely focused.
She tells me she had been so delighted I’d resisted ordering a pie. This might seem contrary when the house pies are justly celebrated (proper pastry courtesy of front of house Kathy) but Stosie is keen to demonstrate her considerable range.
As it happens there’s no way I‘m ordering curried Burholme Farm Mutton with its offal pie in roasted mutton fat pastry, however tempting; my home-made supper later is a mutton dhansak. As for a potato and Lancashire cheese pie, well it fades in its allure when there’s the prospect of a Grilled Whole Cornish Turbot (at a £15 supplement) among the mains on the £45 three course menu.
There’s a whopper turbot in the fish larder, so Stosie offers me the option of a less fiddly tranche off it in a Champagne sauce. I accept. With in-house cured anchovies my chosen starter and the chef sending out ample tasters for me of Whitby crab and charcoal-grilled mackerel I‘m definitely steered towards the sea.
Those anchovies, done boquerones style, weeks in the creation, are sublime. With springy house bread I mop up every drop of parsley flecked olive oil and fork up seasonal blood orange segments.
Smidge shares the bread and my mackerel – Cornish sourced, like the anchovies and turbot. The crab is Whitby and comes pleasantly ungussied up in a brown meat bisque. If this is superior pub grub, the turbot is something else, pearly flesh in a shimmering pool of buttery sauce. I am tempted to stay on for evening service and order a whole one off the grill.
Most of the lunchtime customers around us are ordering Valrhona chocolate and peanut butter slice for their puds. I stay seasonal with an iced rhubarb parfait, using the proper forced stuff from the legendary Robert Tomlinson of Pudsey. Tough choice, though, with competition from Seville orange marmalade ice cream accompanying Wet Nelly tart – Kathy’s homage to her frugal Lancashire roots.
Business partner Stosie’s own roots are more tangled. Senegalese by birth, of Lebanese heritage, she quit strife-torn Gambia when her daughter was 10. She had already run three well-respected restaurants with Kathy over there. It was quite a leap in 2007 to take over a creaky pub on the edge of the Trough of Bowland.
Down the road at The Three Fishes in Mitton Nigel Haworth was putting a supplier-led spin on regional food, but he was a prophet in the licensed wilderness. It was hard to imagine the current embarrassment of culinary riches across the region. At no.3 in the Top 50 Gastropubs is the Freemasons at Wiswell, The White Swan at Fence is at no.7, one place behind Michael Wignall’s Angel at Hetton, just across the Yorkshire border.
As I round up the little hound to leave Adrian is bolting the front door. Parkers shuts each day between 3pm and 5.30pm, Thursdays to Saturdays and is open 12pm-4pm on Sunday. The pub accommodates hikers and the like popping by for a pint with Bowland Ales on handpump, but serving food is priority. Acclaim has only increased the pressure there. “We couldn’t survive as an off the beaten track, wet-led boozer, opening most weekdays,” says Adrian. “Without the food we wouldn’t still be here.”
And what food. Better than ever. Flying high.
Parkers Arms, Hall Gate Hill, Newton-In-Bowland, nr Clitheroe BB7 3DY.