THE CARTFORD INN
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