Nigel Ha­worth talks about his life-long love of Lan­cashire’s plen­ti­ful larder

The god­fa­ther of Lan­cashire’s food scene tells Imo­gen Lepere about his mis­sion to get lo­cal cook­ing the recog­ni­tion it de­serves

Food and Travel (UK) - - Contents -

Nigel Ha­worth was born in Ac­cring­ton, Lan­cashire in 1958. He trained at Rossendale Cater­ing Col­lege be­fore work­ing at the Royal Berk­shire Ho­tel, the Ritz, the Grosvenor and Gle­nea­gles. After hon­ing his craft at some of Switzer­land’s lead­ing ho­tels he re­turned to teach at Rossendale Col­lege. In 1984 he be­came head chef at the North­cote in Lan­cashire, of which he has been co-owner since 1989. His ac­co­lades in­clude a Miche­lin star, which he has held since 1996. He was named Egon Ronay

Chef of the Year in 1995 and won Great Bri­tish Menu in 2009. His group of gas­trop­ubs, Rib­ble Val­ley Inns, is flour­ish­ing, with a sixth open­ing this year. He has four chil­dren with his wife, Kath.

Nigel Ha­worth is into carv­ing. Not joints of meat on a butcher’s block as his din­ner-plate-size hands sug­gest, rather in­tri­cate fig­urines. ‘Have you heard of Capodi­montes? I used to carve them out of but­ter.’ His broad Lan­cashire ac­cent re­ver­ber­ates through May­fair. ‘Oh yes. Greek god­desses, old men trout­fish­ing. That sort of thing. I’d spend whole nights in the fridge per­fect­ing them.’ His blue eyes scour the Stafford ho­tel’s sit­ting room for in­spir­ing knick-knacks.

It all sounds un­likely, but there’s some­thing in­nately com­fort­ing about Nigel Ha­worth that makes you take him at his word. A warm smile, the hint of a belly un­der his jacket and a snub nose all com­bine to cre­ate an avun­cu­lar fig­ure you can imag­ine chat­ting with over a pie and a pint.

It’s a marked con­trast to the tat­tooed, rock-and-roll chefs with big so­cial me­dia fol­low­ings and even big­ger egos who pop­u­late Lon­don’s restau­rant scene. Yet Ha­worth is some­one who has plenty to be proud of. He has been at the helm of the North­cote restau­rant in his na­tive Lan­caster for 33 years and has held a Miche­lin star for more than 20 of them. In 2009 he won the BBC show Great

Bri­tish Menu with a lonk lamb Lan­cashire hot­pot, re­turn­ing as a men­tor for a new generation of young chefs in 2012.

His lat­est ven­ture, Rib­ble Val­ley Inns is go­ing from strength to strength, with a sixth pub due to open in Alder­ley Edge in Cheshire this Oc­to­ber. The first in the group, The Three Fishes, opened in 2004 and quickly be­came the pre-em­i­nent gas­tropub in the area, prov­ing that bril­liant cook­ing and top-drawer lo­cal in­gre­di­ents don’t have to come with a hefty price tag. ‘There’s noth­ing more sat­is­fy­ing than run­ning a restau­rant that peo­ple are queu­ing to get into,’ he says dream­ily. ‘And I’ve been lucky enough to have that.’

BRO­KEN BIS­CUITS

Born shortly after the Sec­ond World War, Ha­worth’s child­hood food mem­o­ries are typ­i­cal of mid-cen­tury Bri­tain. ‘The big­gest ex­cite­ment was go­ing to the lo­cal mar­ket to buy black pud­ding, tripe and dan­de­lion and bur­dock. My mum used to treat all four of us kids to a bag of bro­ken bis­cuits, which al­ways wowed us. I’ve got it in mind to cre­ate some­thing with bro­ken bis­cuits. I can see it in a cook­book now – bro­ken bis­cuit pud­ding.’ This is typ­i­cal of Ha­worth’s cook­ing. His food al­ways con­sists of lo­cal sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents crafted with re­gional tech­niques and laced with lash­ings of nos­tal­gia.

His ca­reer took him to Lon­don and Europe be­fore he felt con­fi­dent enough to re­turn to his roots, how­ever. As a young chef he worked at the Grosvenor Ho­tel, Gle­nea­gles and the Ritz, be­fore em­bark­ing on a culi­nary jour­ney that took him to St Moritz and Gs­taad. ‘I chose to go to Switzer­land, be­cause when I was in Lon­don 30 odd years ago it felt like what was on of­fer wasn’t that ex­cit­ing. Switzer­land was the place to learn high-end patis­serie and butch­ery.’

A few years later he re­turned to Lan­cashire, be­com­ing a lec­turer at Ac­cring­ton and Rossendale Col­lege, where he had trained. ‘I love teach­ing, but it be­came quite

‘Pro­duc­ers are try­ing to find ways of stretch­ing the sea­sons be­cause of the de­mands of the public. But it’s nice to be a bit stub­born with sea­son­al­ity and not give ev­ery­thing that ev­ery­body else gives.’

frus­trat­ing when some of my pupils weren’t that in­ter­ested be­cause I’m an ab­so­lute foodie. Now peo­ple come to my school at North­cote be­cause they really want to learn cook­ing.’ His most suc­cess­ful pro­tégée is Lisa Allen, who has been ex­ec­u­tive head chef at the North­cote for more than a decade and whom he met when he pre­sented her with an award when she was study­ing at Lan­cashire Col­lege. ‘I’m just lucky she’s de­cided to stay with me for 15 years, and long may it con­tinue,’ he says.

Although he was born four years after ra­tioning ended, he be­lieves it had a mas­sive in­flu­ence on the coun­try and re­gional food in par­tic­u­lar. ‘Peo­ple started see­ing food as a sub­stance that kept them go­ing, rather than some­thing to cel­e­brate and be creative with. A lot of other Euro­pean coun­tries didn’t have that. Their re­gional food, which I think is aw­fully im­por­tant in a coun­try, still flour­ished and ours was dec­i­mated. It’s only really in the last 20 years that the culi­nary rev­o­lu­tion has taken hold. Be­fore that it was still pretty scary out there for Bri­tish food.’

For the vast ma­jor­ity of Ha­worth’s ca­reer, be­ing a chef du ter­roir (a French term for a rus­tic chef that typ­i­cally has deroga­tory con­no­ta­tions) has been un­fash­ion­able, to say the least. ‘The in­flu­ence of non-Bri­tish chefs was there right through­out the Fifties and Six­ties in the grand ho­tels of Lon­don. The Bri­tish guys were cook­ing Franglais then. It was a French­in­flu­enced, Bri­tish kind of food. When I came to North­cote in the early Eight­ies the of­fer­ing was what you’d ex­pect from ev­ery av­er­age coun­try house ho­tel up and down the coun­try: chicken liver pâté and prawn cock­tail. Ev­ery­thing was in the freezer.’

Nowa­days, with most prod­ucts avail­able in su­per­mar­kets all year round, he works hard to stick to sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents. ‘Pro­duc­ers are try­ing to find new ways of stretch­ing the sea­sons be­cause of the de­mands of the public. But there’s a nat­u­ral path with food and it’s nice to be a bit stub­born with sea­son­al­ity and not just give ev­ery­thing that ev­ery­body else gives.’ Ha­worth has worked closely with bio­dy­namic gar­den­ing ex­pert Phil De­whurst to cre­ate an or­ganic gar­den at the North­cote, which now sup­plies the kitchen with more than 90 fruit and veg­eta­bles.

KNOW YOUR ONIONS

His favourite sea­sonal dish at the mo­ment is a tra­di­tional one from Lan­cashire. ‘August and Septem­ber is when the new sea­son English onions are out. Boil them in a lit­tle bit of wa­ter, but­ter and salt and pep­per and when they’re soft just flake some cheese on top un­til it melts. It’s funny you know, but that would be as good as a pot of caviar at the right time and in the right place.’ This love of sim­plic­ity and au­then­tic her­itage is Ha­worth through and through, telling of both his hum­ble roots and years of graft and ex­pe­ri­ence.

In the past ten years the food scene in the north-west has blos­somed. Although there’s still no Miche­lin star in Manch­ester or Liver­pool, chefs such as Ai­den Byrne of The Church Green and Paul Askew of The Art School Restau­rant are lead­ing a rev­o­lu­tion. And with Michael O’Hare open­ing The Man Who Fell To Earth in Manch­ester soon, it seems a Miche­lin twinkly one can’t be far away.

Yet Ha­worth was there be­fore all this, qui­etly and con­sis­tently stick­ing to his guns. His pas­sion for the Rib­ble Val­ley’s nat­u­ral larder is in­fec­tious. ‘It has ob­vi­ously got the pas­tures that give us our milk for the in­cred­i­ble Lan­cashire cheese. The coast has beau­ti­ful black moss sands and re­claimed farm­land that has all the nu­tri­ents of the sea. It’s just a beau­ti­ful part of the coun­try.’

Ha­worth en­tered Great Bri­tish Menu with the aim of get­ting hot­pot recog­nised as the iconic Bri­tish dish. ‘I wanted to put it up there with the coq au vins of the world and say this can com­pete with any dish Europe can put out. I still be­lieve re­gional dishes are the bedrock of Bri­tish food. There’s a time and a place for fine din­ing, but some­times you just want to eat beau­ti­ful in­gre­di­ents, freshly cooked.’

He’s stuck by this motto through­out his ca­reer, im­mune to the rise and fall of Franglais fu­sion, con­ve­nience food in the Eight­ies and more re­cently molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy. Now, it seems, the rest of the coun­try has fi­nally caught up with him.

From left: beet­root dish at North­cote; Lisa Allen with Nigel Ha­worth. Right: The Three Fishes. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: broad bean salad with poached egg; sous-vide guinea fowl; Ha­worth; view of North­cote; sous-vide sal­mon

From top: Nigel Ha­worth in the North­cote kitchens; Ha­worth with the cook­ery school head tu­tor Michael Van­heste; ap­ple crum­ble souf­fle from the North­cote; home-cured trea­cle sal­mon

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