There’s a fascinating interview in hospitality bible The Staff Canteen, where chef/patron Steven Smith explains how he has adapted The Freemasons at Wiswell for these difficult staffing times.
We hadn’t read it when we rolled up for lunch at this exemplary gastropub on the fringes of the Ribble Valley. In retrospect it gives a valuable insight into our experience – which was very rewarding. Step forward the Wild Boar Bolognese, Hand Rolled Beetroot Rigatoni, Pickled Walnuts, Aged Parmesan that had me squealing with excitement.
It’s a new starter on the remarkable value set lunch (£22 for two courses, £27 for three, also available early evening). ‘Cutting your cloth’ isn’t usually a benchmark for improvement but on the lunch evidence a serious kitchen rethink has paid off.
He explains in the article: “We always were very mise en place heavy and then service was kept smooth, crisp and clean. but now we have more staff working Monday to Friday doing preparation than we have staff doing Saturday Sundays actually cooking.”
Not only has this helped them redress staffing issues… “We’re also cooking better than we ever have, we’ve slimmed down the menu, we’ve really thought about simplifying a lot of dishes and it’s made the food better.
“The food still has the same Freemasons touch and feel, we haven’t turned away from that, we’re still using all the same sauces we’ve always used and the concept of the dishes is the same, we’ve just refined it and taken a lot of stuff off the plate that didn’t need to be there.”
You’d have to road test the a la carte to properly confirm this. Certainly in the past Steven has seemed to be driven by Michelin aspirations and it has seemed unfair that many of his peers below the Freemasons in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list have secured a star.
To celebrate 10 years at Wiswell, in summer 2019 Smith took the place up a notch with a big investment. Four luxury bedrooms were attached plus a state of the art kitchen as the hub of a new dining experience called ‘Mr Smith’s’… Here’s my glowing report on our stay for Manchester Confidential.
Our return is more back to basics, but what basics. A running thread through the meal is the vivid presence of in-season peas and broad beans. ‘Summer greens’ feature in a velouté starter and a complimentary Isle of Wight Tomato Tea (with its cute cones of whipped curd and herbs). Equally chlorophyll-rich are the simple accompaniments to a roast salmon loin – samphire, dill and an exquisite green forager’s sauce.
French style peas (not mushy) form a base with a mint sauce for my wife’s Suet Pudding with an unctuous filling of Herdwick Lamb Shoulder, while my rival main dunks Loin of Whitby Cod in a sharp vegetable and herb nage that’s a whole intense harvest of those peas and broad beans. No greens were apparent in that debutant Wild Boar, but it was the true star of the show.
We stuck with the two courses but then shared a hard-to-resist Dark Chocolate Delice (£12.95) from the a la carte, a blackcurrant sorbet and cherries giving it a deconstructed Black Forest feel.
The Freemasons Menu, a model of deconstruction in it own right? We like it.
Freemasons at Wiswell, 8 Vicarage Fold, Wiswell, nr Clitheroe, BB7 9DF. 01254 822218.