Right 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.
Better 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.
This 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.
Although 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.
Haworth 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.
The 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 Manor.
One 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.
The 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.
Whatever 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.
But 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 below ground.
And 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.
Northcote 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