The heart of Lancashire is home to impeccable produce, charming inns and rolling countryside. Michael Raffael finds himself bewitched by the enchanting Ribble Valley
Ribble Valley is a borough in Lancashire. Travel time from London is around 4 hours. In June the average high temperature is 18C.
Virgin Trains has services from London Euston to Clitheroe, changing at Manchester and Bolton, from £43.50 one way. virgintrains.co.uk
Visit Lancashire is the official guide for short breaks, days out and places to see in area. visitlancashire.com
Visit England also has tips for planning your visit. visitengland.com
The Lancashire Witches by Philip C Almond (IB Tauris & Co, £10.99) tells the bleak story of England’s most notorious witch trial.
The River Ribble’s source lies in the Yorkshire Dales. It empties into the Irish Sea near Lytham St Annes on the Lancashire coast. En route, it curls and wriggles its way between bald-pated Pendle Hill and the fells of the Forest of Bowland.
The Ribble Valley belies its name in both time and space. More a rustic pocket of landscapes than a region, it gained its official status as a borough less than 50 years ago. Beyond the narrow band through which the A59 passes, it balloons out, reaching towards crumpled hills, coombs and copses.
Dry stone walls, ancient bridges at right angles to single-track lanes, villages no more than hamlets, tearooms, stately homes doubling as wedding venues, hills filled with hikers, vintage sports cars racing round bends at 25mph and quintessential inns: it encompasses every image of the Arcadian English countryside.
Clitheroe, recently named as one of Britain’s best places to live by The Sunday Times, ices the idyllic cake. A ruined Norman keep sits atop it. The market with neat rows of stalls, a sweet shop with mahogany fittings unchanged in a century, an emporium selling posh furnishings and Cheesie Tchaikovsky cheese shop all shimmer with conservative cool. Sixth-formers from Royal Grammar own the handful of streets in the town centre during their lunch break.
The one-time cotton mill has been given a new lease of life as Bowland Brewery, which claims to have the longest beer hall in the country. Taking over the derelict building in 2014, the owners recycled floorboards and an antiquated sprinkler system to create refectory tables and a U-shaped bar with 42 hand pulls. A 1910 cross-beam engine shines like a science museum exhibit.
Its beers – Buster, Pheasant Plucker and AONB (a nod to the Forest of Bowland, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) – have their supporters but Hen Harrier is its flagship. The bird polarises opinion: conservationists strive to protect it (the brewery contributes sales from each pint to the RSPB) while gamekeepers blame its raptor instinct for dwindling red grouse stocks.
Pendle Hill looms above the town. It was the scene of the infamous witch trials of 1612. In The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot described ‘Murther [murder], wicked and divelish [devilish] conspiracies, practised and executed by the most dangerous and malitious [malicious] witch, Elizabeth Southerns, alias Demdike.’ The old crone was lucky enough to die before her trial.
Her rival in sorcery, Anne Chattox, hanged. When questioned about her dealings with demons, she complained that Fancy, her familiar spirit, had served the two of them a banquet of ‘flesh, butter, cheese, bread and drink’, adding as an afterthought that the food had failed to either fill or nourish them.
Back then, Lancashire cheese tasted very different from the cheese we know today. Peasants who owned a cow blended the curds from separate milking sessions until they had enough to form cheeses a few inches thick. The current recipe, which dates back to 1892, turned it into the large cloth-bound barrels.
Graham Kirkham is a fourth-generation cheesemaker. According to him, the six farmers who currently produce the cheese all share the same PR3 postcode and view of Beacon Fell. His product, though, is unique as it is made using untreated milk. ‘I really couldn’t imagine making a pasteurised cheese,’ he says. ‘It just wouldn’t be interesting for me. It’s the skill and those flavours that come from raw milk that make it so special. We put in so much effort to produce great milk and then if we pasteurise it, it has all been a waste.’
Lancashire cheese should never be dry or crumbly, he says. ‘What we’re looking for is something soft and buttery. It should be flaky when you cut it, yet moist because the moisture gives it its texture.’ And the taste? ‘I like to describe it as putting milk on a shelf. Our cheese doesn’t get so mouth-rippingly strong that it blows your palate with acidity; it just gets richer, rounder and bolder.’
Dairy farming near Blackburn on the Ribble Valley’s eastern fringes is less prosperous. Amanda Dowson makes ice cream in the parish of Clayton-Le-Dale. In her parents’ day there were more than 50 farms here. Now she’s a lone survivor. She’s experimented with some bizarre concoctions: black pudding, mustard, tomato and asparagus. One that is laced with chunks of pear drops from Blackburn sweetmaker Stockley’s has a cult following.
Emma Robinson and Ian O’Reilly at Gazegill Organics farm in Rimington sell raw milk at their farm shop. They call themselves organic grass farmers. ‘We have wild fennel that is a natural antidote to mastitis, wild garlic that acts as an antibiotic and meadowsweet – nature’s aspirin,’ Emma says.
They butcher their own meat, too. Aged shorthorn beef, lamb and veal go to La Locanda in Gisburn, where Cinzia and Maurizio Bocchi’s Slow Food osteria disproves the chestnut that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Every Thursday, the restaurant offers a meal for residents, many of whom are elderly. ‘There were some people from the village who never went out,’ Cinzia tells me. ‘Where I grew up, it was normal for everybody to talk to each other and help each other out. You could leave the door open and not be worried about intruders. In modern society we have been losing the value of neighbours.’
Maurizio’s cooking doesn’t attempt to disguise Gazegill’s meats. Dry-cured hocks of rare-breed pork are slow-cooked with rosemary, while classic carpaccio uses beef matured for 35 days. The roasted rack of lamb has a crisp bark and sage-scented veal and prosciutto (saltimbocca alla Romana) sings with a lemon sauce.
Without fuss and with little publicity, the Ribble Valley has turned itself into a compact centre for good food. The movement started about 20 years ago with Nigel Haworth. The chef and co-owner of Northcote was the first to attract notice from guides and culinary pundits. His Michelin-starred Lancashire hotpot bucked the trend of refined cuisine. Lamb or mutton baked with sliced potatoes and onion with a bowl of pickled red cabbage, it turned it away from more ostentatious styles of cooking.
He still pops into the kitchen to peel cauliflower stems or to discuss menus with Lisa Allen. His executive chef for more than a decade, she has ‘moved things forward’. Techniques have changed but not so much that they outshine the produce. A starter of house-smoked pork jowl, organic garden carrots cooked in beeswax, Bomber and garden mint sounds robust but it turns out to be delicate and feminine. ‘We grow most of our own carrots and we cook them in the beeswax from our own bees,’ Lisa tells me. ‘The jowls are lightly smoked for three hours and then slow-cooked for another eight.’ The Bomber? It’s a new cheese, quite young, quite acidic and it looks like a small cannonball before it is cut.
For the hot pot à la Nigel, trenchermen now drop by The Three Fishes at Mitton. It was the first of an expanding chain of Ribble Valley Inns that Haworth and business partner Craig Bancroft span out of the Northcote yarn. At the confluence of the Ribble and the Hodder, he turned it from a decaying village pub into one that set a benchmark. It proved good cooking need not cost the earth.
Like La Locanda and Northcote, the kitchen uses Goosnargh ducks and chickens. Raised just a couple of miles from Graham Kirkham’s dairy, they used to be an insider’s delicacy. Named on menus, they acted as a badge showing that the chef was buying local and choosing only the best. Since their early days, the birds have flown the coop into the restaurants of Raymond Blanc, Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White.
At Food By Breda Murphy, Goosnargh pâté is listed on the menu. Creamy yet not overpowering, it is everything that a chicken liver parfait should be. An Irish graduate of Darina Allen’s famed Ballymaloe Cookery School, Breda opens for lunch and afternoon tea, as a deli and for fish and chips on Fridays.
Before she launched her own place in Whalley, she was chef at The Inn At Whitewell. The 18th-century former coaching inn is a celebrity in its own right by association with The Trip. First a TV series, then a movie, it starred Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon hamming it up as themselves. Ostensibly visiting the hotel to review it for The Observer, the pair swapped Michael Caine impressions over a gourmet lunch in the dining room.
Seen in retrospect, the setting is perfect: a powder-blue Bentley is parked outside the door; the bar buzzes with Ribble Valley gentry and their wives; rooms, in particular The Piggery suites, have the polish of film sets, with keys attached to cricket balls in honour of a past owner who played for Lancashire; below the dining room windows, the River Hodder ripples with trout and grayling.
Freemasons, Assheton Arms, The Red Pump Inn, The Higher Buck and The Spread Eagle Inn are all Ribble Valley pubs that survive by dishing up no-nonsense meals. Picking out one may be invidious but Parkers Arms, among the bare moors heading towards the Trough of Bowland, stands out. Cook Stosie Madi calls herself a patte noire, a vaguely derogatory term for a French person who has ties to North Africa. Her cooking hinges on the odds and sods that she can lay her hands on from farms around her: maybe grouse from a shoot or a hatful of ripe damsons.
Curnonsky, the critic who almost single-handedly created cuisine régionale, wrote: La femme cuisine comme l’oiseau qui chante (a woman cooks as a bird sings). Glued to the stove, too shy to parade in front of customers, Stosie lives for cooking. Her food, whether it be a venison bresaola or a plum clafoutis, express who she is.
Statistics rarely make good copy but the Ribble Valley’s population is a tad under 60,000 – fewer than the Kent town of Margate – yet it has created a unique identity for itself. Whether it’s those who live here or people just passing through, they expect to eat well. While we are at the Parkers Arms, a lorry pulls up outside. The driver could simply order a burger at the bar but instead he thinks about the grouse and then plumps for Dover sole. He knows he won’t be ripped off and doesn’t balk at paying what it costs.
Where to Stay
Assheton Arms In the bijou village of Downham, where every house looks perfect, the pub seems perfectly in place. Book one of the rooms in the adjoining cottage for peace and tranquility. Its young, helpful staff are never phased and add to the sense of relaxation. Doubles from £110, including breakfast. Downham, Clitheroe, BB7 4BJ, 01200 441 227, seafoodpubcompany.com
The Inn at Whitewell If you want to stay in one place that encapsulates the best of the Ribble Valley, this is it. Located in the Forest of Bowland and backing on to the River Hodder, it’s a manor house with history. Although the bedrooms are luxurious, the public spaces have that comfortable air that comes with a good local. Doubles from £132, including breakfast. Near Clitheroe, BB7 3AT, 01200 448 222, innatwhitewell.com
Mitton Hall The 16th-century panelled hall is baronial to say the least, especially when there’s a wood fire burning. In contrast, rooms have a quirky under-designed feel about them, some romantic, others garnished with flock wallpaper belonging to another era. Doubles from £80, excluding breakfast. Mitton Road, Mitton, Whalley, BB7 9PQ, 01254 826 544, mittonhallhotel.co.uk
Northcote Sleep here and there’s a high chance you’ll want to dine here. Lisa Allen’s Michelin-starred cooking grows more refined by the day. A permaculture-inspired garden is expanding so that the hotel can produce more of its own fruit and vegetables. Rooms and suites have a Victoria Beckham-esque vibe with ultra-modern bathrooms. Doubles from £295, including breakfast. Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn, BB6 8BE, 01254 240 555, northcote.com
The Spread Eagle Inn Opposite the ruins of Sawley Abbey, it’s a classic hikers’ inn. The bedrooms are decorated with charm and taste. It’s comfortable, friendly and welcoming. Doubles from £87, excluding breakfast. Sawley, Clitheroe, BB7 4NH, 01200 441 202, spreadeaglesawley.co.uk
Where to Eat
Prices are per person for three-course meal, excluding wine, unless otherwise stated
Food by Breda Murphy Open Tuesday to Saturday, it doubles as a diner and deli but is so much more than that. Breda Murphy’s cooking is fresh, colourful, simple and assured. Her pies, tarts and puddings deserve a special commendation. From £12. Abbots Court, 41 Station Road, Whalley, BB7 9RH, 01254 823 446, foodbybredamurphy.com
Freemasons at Wiswell Order chef Steven Smith’s roasted butternut squash soup and you’ll also get a fresh bread roll served with Lancashire cheese fondue and a truffled cheese hot dog. Generous, imaginative and tasty, his cooking shows all the signs of a star in the making. When he was recently interviewed, he said he wanted it to become ‘the best pub in the world’. It’s definitely heading that way. From £40. 8 Vicarage Fold, Wiswell, BB7 9DF, 01254 822 218, freemasonsatwiswell.com
La Locanda One of England’s most decorated Italian restaurants outside London. Maurizio and Cinzia Bocchi rely on farms within 25km for much of their materials and also import some of the finest olive oils in the UK. From £30. Main Street, Gisburn, BB7 4HH, 01200 445 303, lalocanda.co.uk
Parkers Arms Adrian Nolan is a jovial host, while behind the scenes, Stosie Madi cooks with passion. Her menus switch according to her mood or the freshest ingredients that she can lay her hands on. Mixed in with the French provincial dishes are some Lebanese specials. Her desserts have a depth of taste that complex patisserie can’t equal. From £20. Hall Gate Hill, Newton-In-Bowland, BB7 3DY, 01200 446 236, parkersarms.co.uk
The Three Fishes The first in chef Nigel Haworth’s chain of Ribble Valley Inns. The co-owner of Northcote kicked off the trend of opening top-quality pubs in the region. ‘The Fishes’ has plenty of rivals now, not least The Aspinall Arms, also in Mitton overlooking the river. Both serve imaginative modern British cooking. From £25. Mitton Road, Mitton, BB7 9PQ, 01254 826 888, thethreefishes.com
Michael Raffael and Gary Latham travelled to Ribble Valley, courtesy of Visit Lancashire. visitlancashire.com
This article was published on 21st June 2017 so certain details may not be up to date.