The Observer Magazine - - NEWS - Jay Rayner

A con­tender for dessert of the year is the ic­ing on the cake at this supreme ex­po­nent of in­ven­tive pub grub If you were to as­sess the Cartford Inn based solely on its in­te­rior de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture you might con­clude it to be ei­ther charm­ingly eclec­tic or ex­haust­ingly con­fused. A clas­sic pub bar gives way in one di­rec­tion to a mod­ern din­ing room with huge pic­ture win­dows look­ing out across a churn­ing river. In the other di­rec­tion there’s a space laid out with an Ikea-style blond wood float­ing floor. There are nooks and cran­nies, and paint­ings of farm­yard an­i­mals – some mag­nif­i­cent, some rather less so. There are flag­stones and there is car­pet. Out­side, housed in a gnarly beamed Hob­bit cot­tage, is a lit­tle deli and shop. Fur­ther down the gardens you come to a mag­nif­i­cent pair of mod­ernist lodges, ham­mered to­gether from re­claimed wood, all jaunty an­gles and hard­core at­ti­tude. It’s the sort of thing to get Kevin McCloud drib­bling with lust.

The menu tells a dif­fer­ent story. The Cartford Inn, near Lit­tle Ec­cle­ston on the west­ern side of Lan­cashire, knows ex­actly what it’s do­ing. It is firmly a part of the Gravy Moderne move­ment. You haven’t heard of the Gravy Moderne move­ment? That’s pos­si­bly be­cause I’ve just in­vented it, but not be­fore time. It de­scribes a kitchen an­chored in French clas­si­cal tech­nique, but one that puts all that knowl­edge and skill in the service of a recog­nis­ably Bri­tish pub reper­toire.

There’s an aw­ful lot of this go­ing on in Lan­cashire at the mo­ment. It has a con­cen­tra­tion of out­stand­ing food pubs, work­ing hard to serve pub food while not be­ing hide­bound by the tra­di­tion. There are the glo­ri­ous pies and pasties cooked by Stosie Madi at the Park­ers Arms, along­side her more ob­vi­ously Mediter­ranean dishes. There’s the gutsy meat cook­ery of Tom Parker at the White Swan in Fence. There’s the way Nigel Ha­worth took the Lan­cashire hot­pot and pol­ished it up un­til it went from repos­i­tory for cheap scraps to gleam­ing lux­ury item. It’s the big­gest seller by far across the chain of pubs with which he’s in­volved.

The Cartford Inn is a part of that. The kitchen can clar­ify a con­sommé, make a silky duck-liver par­fait and rus­tle up a per­fect choux bun the size of a baby’s head. But they are also cheer­lead­ers for the pasty, the suet pud­ding and the fish pie. Hence Gravy Moderne. It’s like the Paris­born Bistro Moderne move­ment. Only, you know, with more gravy.

We are given a ta­ble in that airy, mod­ern din­ing room with the view out over the mud-churned river and the flood plain beyond. On a week­day lunchtime the place is do­ing brisk busi­ness; it is full of

You haven’t heard of the Gravy Moderne move­ment? That’s pos­si­bly be­cause I’ve just in­vented it, but not be­fore time

grown-ups who have some­how found the time for a good lunch. Cer­tain starters de­mand at­ten­tion. There is a Bury black pud­ding dough­nut. And read­ing those words, why wouldn’t you? It’s a crispy, doughy orb stuffed full of Bury’s finest. Un­derneath is a sprightly coleslaw bound with a grain-mus­tard dress­ing. Piped on to the plate as a frame is a square of torched tar­ragon meringue. Yes, I know. What the hell were they think­ing, trau­ma­tis­ing the finest of black pud­dings with un­ex­pected dessert in­ter­ven­tions? How bloody dare they? It re­ally shouldn’t work, but it does, the sud­den mea­sured hit of aniseed-flavoured sugar giv­ing an ex­tra di­men­sion to the huge savoury ob­ject at the cen­tre of the plate.

A bronzed and golden game pasty, the colour of the cast of is made with the flaki­est of short­crust pas­try. The fill­ing is a lit­tle dry, but no mat­ter – they have made their own brown sauce. It’s a big slap of tamarind and spice, which sends the pasty hap­pily on its way. The clos­est thing to wild in­no­va­tion is a pile of deep­fried, breaded snails on a big dol­lop of may­on­naise flavoured with nduja, that fiery, chilli-boosted soft salami from Cal­abria. Snails are gen­er­ally a ve­hi­cle for other flavours, and that’s the job they do here. Starters are mostly be­tween £5 and £7.

It’s the de­tails that count. A large breast of roast chicken, with bub­bled and golden skin like one huge scratch­ing, comes with both lightly pick­led girolles and a “chicken Kiev” of the leg. The meat is shred­ded, spun through with gar­lic, but­ter and pars­ley, lightly breaded and then deep-fried. There is gravy. There is mash. From a list ti­tled Pub Clas­sics comes an ox­tail, beef skirt and ale suet pud­ding. It is a truly beau­ti­ful thing, the soft, steamed dough, rich in an­i­mal fats, giv­ing way to lus­cious glossy strands of long-braised cow marshy with even more gravy. This is my sec­ond suet pud­ding in a month, which sug­gests they are mak­ing a come­back. It is a trend we can all get be­hind. Along­side the usual let­tuce leaves and rings of onion in a side salad are fresh quar­tered figs and the oc­ca­sional black­berry. They pro­vide a sweet-sour punch which puts the rich­ness of that ox­tail ex­trav­a­ganza firmly in its place.

A bread and but­ter pud­ding made with black­ber­ries and sour­dough drenched in cream has a crisp caramel top and rests in a lake of cus­tard. It would have sent us out into a breezy au­tumn af­ter­noon hum­ming con­tent­edly were it not for the “dessert of the day”, which is one of their choux buns. Oh gosh and oh my. A choux bun of this size and this crisp­ness takes skill. It is filled with lay­ers of both a vanilla and a caramel crème pâtis­sière, with whorls of ex­tra caramel. Be­cause this is a dessert item that does not un­der­stand the word enough. A lit­tle more caramel cream is piped on top, and that is fin­ished with a lat­tice of sugar work, flavoured with lemon. It’s £5.95 and is an aw­ful lot for not very much. It’s a se­ri­ous con­tender for my dessert of the year.

What’s more, they sell them in the shop just out­side the back door, for a mere £2.50. Ap­par­ently, some peo­ple come here for lunch and then, feel­ing guilty they’ve in­dulged them­selves, buy a cou­ple to take home for the kids. Well, you need to give them some­thing while you sleep all this off. The wine list is priced to en­cour­age sec­ond and third bot­tles. It starts at around £16, with se­ri­ous choice be­low £30.

To de­scribe the Cartford Inn as an undis­cov­ered gem would merely be to shine a light on my own ig­no­rance; it has won plenty of awards in re­cent years. It’s just that I hadn’t stum­bled across it be­fore. Hav­ing found it, I de­clare it a stan­dard bearer for the Gravy Moderne move­ment. Long may it flour­ish.

The Cartford Inn, Cartford Lane, Lit­tle Ec­cle­ston, Lan­cashire PR3 0YP (01995 670 166). Meal for two, in­clud­ing drinks and service: £60-£100

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