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.
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.
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.”