off the motorway a broad, verdant valley opened up with sweeping views
of the hills in the distance. Cattle were grazing down by the banks of
the river and along the road there were various signs of longstanding
prosperity: sheep; horses; stone churches and substantial houses;
several well-maintained inns; one large sign advertised artisanal ice
cream, another a Roman museum.
still, when we arrived at the restaurant nine miles away were the
salads, vegetables and overall attention to detail. The peas and broad
beans, salad leaves, nasturtium flowers, French beans, wilted greens
and leeks thinner than a pencil had all been grown in the restaurant’s
gardens. We were offered four different kinds of just-baked rolls, and
the owner declared with considerable pride that they were now even
rearing their own chickens for the table.
was not the sun-drenched south of France, Italy or even some lush
corner of Spain but another far-flung corner of the Roman Empire, the
Ribble Valley in Lancashire, ninety miles south of Hadrian’s Wall where
just over twenty years ago chef/patron Nigel Haworth and host Craig
Bancroft opened Northcote Manor.
the potential of the countryside may have seemed quite limited in those
days the practicality of the hotel’s location must have been obvious.
It is ten minutes from junction 31 on the M6 (a good morning’s drive
from London, for instance). A large BAE Systems outpost is five minutes
away and it is equidistant between Merseyside and Manchester - the
accents of those at the table next to ours suggested they were using
the hotel as a convenient meeting point. And with the money that this
region seems so capable of generating comes the requisite glamour for
any successful restaurant - the manager of Blackburn Rovers’ football
team was at the corner table too.
and Bancroft have fashioned an effective and long lasting partnership
by understanding what their well-heeled customers want and then
delivering it to their own personal satisfaction. It is clever to
ensure that the first thing customers see on arrival, on a table in the
hotel’s bow window, is an inviting bank of several dozen champagne
glasses, part of Bancroft’s simplistic but highly effective approach to
customer care that - "we make sure that they’re happy when they arrive
and then keep them going" perhaps.
kitchen’s distinctive contributions begin with a comprehensive
reworking of local ingredients: a first course of organic Lancashire
cheese melted over free range eggs with bacon; ducks, bred in Goosnargh
ten miles away, their legs cooked as a confit that would satisfy any
chef or citizen of Toulouse, south west France; and miniature Eccles
cakes as petits fours. Having succeeded from the top down, this
successful partnership are now turning their professional attention to
a local pub, The Three Fishes in nearby Mitton, which will reopen with
an entirely organic menu in early September. Perhaps once that is done,
they will be able to freshen up some of the fustier corners back at the
hundred and fifty miles to the north east, Clive and Anne Davidson have
followed almost the same recipe for almost the same length of time to
bring culinary success to their Champany Inn (a name derived from the
French campagne, countryside). And although this restaurant, now with a
less expensive Chop & Ale House and rooms attached, is renowned for
the quality of its steaks, the restaurant’s management is the first to
admit that location has also played an enormous part in its success.
Once a farm, it evolved into an inn just outside Linlithgow and
therefore very close to Edinburgh and within easy access of Glasgow -
and within one mile of a major outpost of Sun Micros Systems who have
been invaluable customers.
secret of Davidson’s steaks is, tantalisingly, not completely obvious.
The best meat from Aberdeen Angus cattle is hung for at least three
weeks in their own ionised chiller and prepared by their own butcher.
The steaks are cut at least an inch thick before being rubbed with
olive oil before grilling. The customer is provided with the most
efficient knife, made by Tramontina in Brazil with a stainless steel
blade and a large wooden handle, that makes slicing a joy. But just
before the steaks are grilled they are dipped briefly into a secret
marinade to be sealed. And, sadly, nobody was prepared to divulge the
marinade’s ingredients, other than red wine is one of many.
the ingredients, the marinade is clearly effective as the steaks emerge
with a slight crust that not only adds extra flavour but also a sharp
and necessary contrast between the outside of the steak and its juicy
centre. A whole pope’s eye, the Scottish
equivalent of the English rump, was enough for two, and as good as the
best steaks of Argentina and Uruguay.
my first visit to the Champany Inn revealed three surprises. The first
was that although the quality of the cooked dishes other than the steak
was not exceptional, two dishes were memorable: a deep green parsley
soup with ricotta and, even better, a stunning dish of Scottish wild
mushrooms diced and saut15/32ed with onion and garlic. The second was a
visit to the wine cellar underneath the bedrooms which, although
obviously a vital part of the Inn’s business plan, seem to have been
built so that the fruits of Davidson’s vinous passion conceived over
the past two decades can be housed in the most suitable conditions
the third was the round stone dining room which centuries ago must have
provided the pony-driven power for the farm. While the ethos of the
dining room at Nortchote Manor is light and bright, with sunny
paintings and vases of herbs on the tables, Champany Inn successfully
takes the diner back in time. The walls are hung with portraits; the
tables are heavily polished wood; the main light is provided by candles
even at lunchtime in summer, and waitresses are dressed, somewhat
incongruously given that when the door to the kitchen opens it reveals
a massive state of the art cooking range, in a long black dress and
white apron, the costume of a Victorian domestic servant rather than a
twenty first century waitress.
Manor and Champany Inn also share the same service fault. As in so many
country restaurants, the customer is initially taken into a lounge or
bar where the food order is taken before being handed into the kitchen,
a system which allows the restaurant to sell an aperitif and also to
stagger the orders. But in neither case did the manager identify who
had ordered what to the waiting staff who arrived at our table unsure
of which cutlery to lay where and which dishes they should serve to
whom. Not something too difficult for this talented quartet to rectify.
Northcote Manor, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn, Lancashire, BB6 8BE, 01254-240555, www.northcotemanor.com
Champany Inn, Champany, Linlithgow, West Lothian, Scotland, EH49 7LU, 01506-834532, www.champany.com