Quality is obsession at a country retreat
A commitment to the very best has pushed Northcote to even greater heights, writes PAUL OGDEN
TO be the very best destination for a country break, you need your unique selling point to be spot on – and this is especially true of food.
If you have a golf course or spa that brings the guests in, being in the heart of the countryside is obviously the place to be – all those rolling green fields and tranquillity.
But huge numbers of people are now travelling to cities across Britain for weekend breaks to sample the nation’s booming culinary scene.
Take Manchester. The large increase in hotel construction and the unparalleled amount of restaurant and bar openings are going hand-in-hand, fuelled, in part, by tourism.
So, the traditional country house-withrestaurant hotel is having to work much harder to stay ahead of the pack – something that Northcote has always done and has now consolidated with a recent megabucks refurbishment.
A few years ago, it dropped the ‘Manor’ from its original name. A good move. Northcote was never fusty. High class, yes; expensive, reassuringly so; snobbish, no. But the original name brought connotations.
Chef Nigel Haworth and hospitality and wine expert Craig Bancroft have run the place for almost 30 years now, 20 of that with a Michelin star, but their down-to-earth approachability has meant Northcote has never been a place where you feel intimidated.
And despite the redevelopment, expansion to 28 bedrooms and business sidelines, Northcote has food and drink at its very core.
In my estimation, the north west is home to the most high-quality and varied food producers in Britain and (sorry Cheshire!) Lancashire is the very best part of our region for ingredients.
It is a world-class larder for meat, fish, some seafood and veg – and is near the top, too, for dairy and game.
Northcote has always had an enviable relationship with these food suppliers. Before it was trendy for restaurants to name-check every producer, Northcote, and later its spin-off pub chain, Ribble Valley Inns, printed biogs and photographs of them on the menus.
Haworth is one of the chefs you can thank for putting that northern cuisine on the map. So the good news is that he is back in the Northcote kitchen. He has always been involved, obviously, and has been a wellknown face on TV cookery programmes – but the business recently kept him from his apron.
However, head chef Lisa Allen has been on maternity leave and Haworth has been bedding in Northcote’s new and jaw-dropping £400,000 kitchen, a vast stainless steel workshop of fine dining with a 12-seat chef’s table diners can book that doubles as a cookery school.
It is part of a £7m revamp that includes the construction of the Garden Lodge, an eight-bedroom building in the manor house gardens that fits in perfectly with the original late-Victorian pile, built in 1883 as an industrialist’s hideaway.
We were in one of its Superior Rooms, with a gorgeous bed, lovely textures in the furnishings coloured in mocha and creams, a huge rain shower wet room and free standing bath. There are even better Deluxe Rooms and a sumptuous Master Suite, which go some way to explain why Northcote is now a member of the Relais & Chateaux association.
The Lodge has little hospitable touches, too, like the guest raincoats at the entrance if you want a stroll to take in the Ribble Valley views on a drizzly afternoon.
We were at Northcote on a Gourmet Break, which includes a fivecourse menu from the Michelin-starred kitchen, half a bottle of its house champagne, Louis Roederer, and a traditional breakfast. We had the champers with canapes in the revamped bar, as opulent as the Louis Roederer itself with its sexy, shimmering New York feel.
Northcote hosts an annual culinary festival of food, called Obsession, which attracts chefs from all over the world to cook alongside Haworth. This year’s lasted 15 days and included Ken Hom, Vivek Singh and Angela Hartnett.
As we were staying just after Obsession so Haworth was still offering his own tasting menu from the festival – and he was cooking it himself!
It was a tour de force of sublime Lancashire produce married with genius execution.
It would be churlish to eat at Northcote without having your courses matched with wines from its famed and awardwinning cellar by the hotel’s experts. It’s head sommelier is Adam Powlowski, who has just qualified as a Master Sommelier.
So we ate smoked eel and Morecambe Bay shrimp caesar paired with a Reserve Chamonix, from South Africa’s Cape Chamonix, before a perfectly executed tempura scallop with salmon belly, laverbread and sea vegetables. That came with a succulent, fruity, creamy Albarino O Rosal, from Bodegas Terras Gauda.
The Scotch broth with puff pastry wrapped salt marsh lamb was a liquid roast dinner – stunningly constructed and intense of flavour. That was married with Don Nuno Oloroso sherry – an unusual but brilliant choice – that stood up to the richness of the dish.
Then there was guinea fowl breast with bacon, damsons and leg meat casserole with a classy Pernand-Vergelesses premier cru Burgundy.
A beautifully balanced dessert wine, Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling, handled the rhubarb and custard, white chocolate, ginger and jelly with ease.
The staff are young, but elegant, knowledgeable and affable in a way that breeds confidence in their recommendations.
It would be a pity if all this indulgence dulled your appetite in the morning, because there is a luxurious breakfast, with more premier suppliers giving up their goods.
I went for the Lancaster Smoke House juniper and beech smoked salmon with free range scrambled eggs, which just edged the Mrs Kirkham’s melting Lancashire cheese souffle opposite. But only just.
After a relaxing flick through the papers in the lounge, I made sure I kept hold of not only the tasting menu, but the breakfast one too.
Both proof, if needed, of Northcote’s USP of top-notch quality.
●● Northcote’s Garden Lodge and, right, one of its luxurious rooms