When Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon careered north on their gourmet road trip for BBC2’s The Trip, their first stop was the The Inn at Whitewell in Lancashire’s unspoilt Forest of Bowland. It’s mine too, after a rollercoaster journey through the Trough of Bowland. There’s not a soul on the road as I weave across open moorland and dip down into bosky dells dodging kamikaze pheasants.
This rambling inn, its old stonework a tangle of creepers, is cradled by rolling sheep-speckled hills above the River Hodder. Inside, fires blaze and crackle in open grates, walls are crammed with hunting prints and men in tweed prop up the bar. You’re not going to stumble on it by accident, but the effort it takes to get here is worth it, as its many punters appreciate.
Even on a Monday night the bar is rammed. From the specials board I’m swayed by a terrine of gamey grouse with slivers of crunchy homemade pickled carrots and sweet quince jelly. Then Lancashire hotpot with pickled red cabbage and crusty bread. Beneath a wafer-thin lid of crispy potato the lamb is soft and doused in a buttery gravy, the shredded cabbage adds a sweet acidity that cuts through the richness.
The Trip helped to put Lancashire’s restaurants on the map, but many tourists still bypass it for the more obvious charms of the Lakes and its traditional rival, Yorkshire. They’re missing a trick. The Ribble Valley, most of which is in the Forest of Bowland (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), is where you’ll find charming market town Clitheroe, with its tiny castle, a clutch of picture-perfect villages and a cast of inspirational chefs and food producers linked by a food trail; it includes a triangle of eight cheesemakers in 10 miles.
Cheese is one of Lancashire’s oldest specialities. As far back as 1199 King John granted Preston a Royal Charter to hold an annual cheese fair. The rich grasslands on the edge of the Forest of Bowland (the name comes from the Norse Bu-land, meaning cattle land) are well-suited to dairy farming and have been dubbed Lancashire’s milk fields. I’m heading there the next day to award-winning Mrs Kirkham’s Cheese in Goosenargh.
The Kirkhams have been making raw cow’s milk cheese from their herd of Holstein Friesians for 35 years. Mrs Kirkham turned an old piggery into a cheesemaking dairy in 1978. She’s retired but her son, Graham, has taken over, doubling the herd and building a bigger dairy. We don white coats and hairnets and walk through the process.
They still make cheese the traditional way, blending the curd and covering it with salted butter – rather than wax – to protect it. “We are the only ones left making a true, old-fashioned, two-day curd raw milk Lancashire cheese,” he says, slicing a slither and wrapping a giant slab
to go. It’s deliciously tangy and crumbly.
One of their stockists is dairy farmer-friendly and community-minded supermarket chain, Booths, which has pledged to pay farmers the highest market price for their milk. Originally a Blackpool tea merchant, Booths now has 28 stores across the north-west including one in Clitheroe. I stock up on more local cheese here including Garstang Blue and Garstang White (a Lancashire-style Brie that’s so good the French import it).
Another High Street highlight in Clitheroe is D Byrne & Co, a notable collection of great wines. It’s worth a rummage in the underground warren of cellars. I leave with a pinot and a primitivo before heading on to Cowman’s Famous Sausage Shop, another High Street stalwart. The shop’s 70-strong sausage recipes range from pork and plum with mulled wine and spices to lamb, mint and rosemary and a beef and beer version made with local stout.
There’s more beer on the edge of Clitheroe. The Bowland Brewery is an exciting new development in a 19th-century cotton mill. The sprawling buildings now house a café, artisan bakery, beer hall and ice-cream parlour, with a boutique hotel on the cards. The beer hall lays claim to the longest continuous bar in the UK (made from old mahogany floorboards). And the beer? Try the Pheasant Plucker, a copper-coloured bitter with bright berry flavours.
For lunch, I visit an award-winning gastropub. They’re two-a-penny around here. The Assheton Arms, in the picturesque conservation village of Downham, is now part of the Seafood Pub Company, a group of Lancashire pubs run by fishmonger’s daughter Joycelyn Neve. It has smart bedrooms and a menu featuring cockles with spiced vinegar and clotted cream mashed potato with homemade fish fingers.
The Freemasons, meanwhile, in Wiswell is a fine-dining pub complete with tasting menus; chef-proprietor Steven Smith’s hot dog of proctors’ kick ass cheddar with Wiltshire truffles is a breadcrumbed cheese ‘sausage’ topped with pungent truffle shavings in a crisp roll.
In the tiny hamlet of Mitton, The Three Fishes’ claim to fame is its chef patron, Nigel Haworth, arguably Lancashire’s most lauded chef. I grab a table beside the open fire (think stone-flagged floors and tweed curtains) and order Morecambe Bay shrimps swimming in hot butter with a sweet toasted muffin. Heaven.
The Three Fishes Classics includes Haworth’s Lancashire hotpot, of course, the winning dish on the Great British Menu back in 2009. But the venison cobbler in Lancashire ale stew with root vegetables, smoked bacon bits and crispy suet dumplings is too tempting. It’s pungent, rich and gamey, and perfect for a cold winter’s day.
I’m staying at Northcote, the hotel that’s home to his Michelin-starred restaurant, so get a double helping of Haworth’s expertise courtesy of his five-course dinner menu. The Orkney scallop tartare, organic leeks, fresh wasabi and caviar is fresh, fragrant and feisty, while the caramelised celeriac and chestnut ravioli with celeriac tea is perfectly paired with a sake. Dessert is Brockhall Orchard apple cheesecake, in the shape of an apple with salted caramel, cider sorbet, herbs and flowers; the sharp sorbet at its heart is a tongue-tingling surprise after the salty sweetness of the caramel.
The next morning Haworth is teaching a game larder masterclass in the hotel’s new cookery school. The first recipe is game terrine with fig chutney. “Terrines are coming back into fashion,” he says. “This is my favourite winter snack, with watercress soup.” He demonstrates the dish before letting the group loose on duck, rabbit and pheasant.
Haworth is a strong supporter of Lancashire’s artisan producers, among them Gazegill Organics. Threading my way through narrow, hedgerow-trimmed lanes I pull up in a muddy farmyard to meet Emma Robinson and Ian O’Reilly. The 250-acre farm has been in Emma’s family for 500 years, but they now have 120 Hampshire Downs sheep, Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, polytunnels of vegetables, and plans for a zero-food-miles, off-grid café to run alongside their farm shop. They also have 140 Old English Shorthorns; a heritage cattle breed rather than high-yielding Holstein Friesians. They’re out to grass as long as possible and are smaller so have less impact on the environment.
Robinson and O’Reilly walk me into their barn to see the latest calves – and DC (Dad’s Cow) who is 20 years old. In cow terms that’s ancient. Most dairy cows, Ian tells me, have a lifespan of around six years because of the intensive dairy farming’s methods. At Gazegill Organics they do things differently. “This is where dairy needs to be going,” he says. “It should be compassionate.” At Gazegill all the heifers go into the herd and bull calves go for veal.
Iain is an advocate of Slow Food and they farm organically. Cows fed on corn and a cocktail of drugs is the antithesis of Gazegill’s ethos. “They need to eat grass full of flowers and herbs. Meadowsweet is nature’s aspirin, fennel protects against mastitis, valerian is a natural sedative.” The milk they sell is raw and organic. And delicious, I think, as I drink a chilled glass.
Other fans of Gazegill Organics are Maurizio Bocchi and his wife, Cinzia, whose restaurant La Locanda has won a Taste Lancashire Award for two years running. This little restaurant could be a neighbourhood trattoria in Italy. Instead it’s in the village of Gisburn.
Their menu combines regional Italian cuisine and seasonal Lancashire produce. A blackboard is scrawled with the season’s bounty: in winter artichokes, garlic, hake, broccoli, mushroom, butternut squash, pheasant, leeks, apples, pears, pumpkin, truffles… I try pear wrapped in bresaola with a gorgonzola and walnut sauce; the soft sweetness of the fruit is the perfect foil for the dark, pungent sauce and salty meat. The star of a moreish charcuterie board of truffle mortadella, Goosenargh-cured duck and figs, meanwhile, is a bergamot marmalade, a Calabrian speciality that’s a fabulously citrussy palate-cleanser.
Maurizio is famous for his homemade pasta and the ravioli with goat’s cheese from nearby Longridge – plus honey, butter and mint – is plate-scrapingly good. I tear myself away reluctantly. “Come back and stay longer. There’s a good b&b in the village,” Cinzia coaxes.
I’m sure I will, as I’m now more than a little in love with this rural corner of Lancashire – still, surprisingly, one of the country’s best kept secrets.
HOW TO DO IT
Double rooms at The Inn at Whitewell cost from £132, b&b, at the Assheton Arms from £120 b&b, and at Northcote from £230 b&b.
More info: visitlancashire.com.
Words by Lucy Gillmore
Image credits: Getty, Alamy, Adam Riley, Rachel Warne, Lucy Gillmore