Thursday, 16 August 2018

The Freemasons at Wiswell, Bowland

I know I end up saying this whenever I write up anywhere in the countryside but good lord, Lancashire really is a beautiful part of the world. An hour's drive out of Manchester or Liverpool you are plunged into rolling hills, narrow lanes and picture-book stone-built villages like Whalley, Waddington and Ribchester, each boasting at least one gorgeous old pub with a verdant beer garden, and with miles of tranquil footpaths connecting them all. It would be easy to have a very pleasant time here even if all said pubs were serving was frozen scampi and Carling, and indeed many of them do. But on top of everything else, this neck of the woods is also home to places like the Inn at Whitewell, the White Swan at Fence, and the Parkers Arms, serving some of the very finest food in the entire country.

Another proud member of the Lancashire foodie elite is the Freemasons, tucked away up a narrow alley on the top of a hill in the achingly pretty village of Wiswell. It had been on my wishlist since it started appearing on the Morning Advertiser's Top 50 Gastropubs list, but when it broke the top 10 I decided it was finally time to go to Bowland for dinner and not go to the Parkers Arms again, a difficult decision made over many weeks that left me genuinely traumatised. Even as we headed towards Wiswell on that Saturday morning I was seeing if I could invent reasons to divert to Newton after for a summer berry pie or marmalade ice cream. Which I realise doesn't display much confidence in the Freemasons, I just really really like the Parkers.

Anyway, I needn't have worried. The Freemasons was well worth the trip on its own, and left us with a smile on our faces despite the efforts of a large, noisy group of bellowing imbeciles to derail it all. I should have said something when they pointed us towards what would otherwise have been a lovely window nook corner table, because even at that stage they were making enough noise to be heard from the street. But as the lunch wore on and the amount of beer consumed increased, we gave up attempting to hold a normal conversation and resorted to the occasional shriek of "this is nice" above the cacophony from next door. I've had more relaxing lunches.

Objectively, though, and ignoring the idiots for now, the food at the Freemasons is pretty impressive stuff. Pea soup, emerald green and combined with a rich cheddar fondue, was the perfect way to start a lunch, with texture provided by what I think were little bits of puffed wheat. I always think a soup is a good test of a kitchen's skills; technique, seasoning and stock work all need to be on-point and if you slip up on any of them you'll end up with a bit of a mess. This was great, though.

Flame-grilled mackerel had a fantastic dark crisp skin, smokey from the grill, with a colourful mint dressing and neat cubes of cucumber. The standout element of this dish however wasn't the fish itself, or the mint dressing, but a quenelle of horseradish ice cream, smooth and peppery and quite the most enjoyable thing involving horseradish I can remember eating in a long time.

Courgette flower filled with shellfish was another clever showcase of a range of tricky techniques, the flower encased in a transucently thin tempura batter, and the shellfish mixture fresh and full of flavour. I'm still not 100% convinced of the wisdom of adding strawberry to the sauce vierge, which seemed an experiment too far, but I'll forgive them that as everything else about it was so nice.

Duck leg and anchovy is a marriage that's always going to work, and piled up with summer herbs, pickled radishes, fresh peach and a lovely zingy plum sauce, this was about as good a way of eating roast duck and anchovy as you could imagine. Working within the confines of a gastropub style of presentation - ie. no cylinders, no tuilles, no foams or smears, just ingredients presented and dressed simply - the Freemasons makes everything look easy, though one taste of the plum sauce or that pea soup is enough to demonstrate that a huge amount of work and technical expertise goes into some elements of the dishes.

Haddock, the fillet coated in breadcrumbs as a large flat "fish finger", came with more colourful summer veg including an almost neon yellow lemon oil. Again, everything here was cleverly done and colourful, the fish flaky and fresh and the vegetable accompaniments chosen well.

On paper, "Suckling pig pie baked in brioche, XO sauce, buttered Jersey Royals" looks like the kind of dish that could change lives. And when it arrived, glossy and gleaming on the table and soaked in a dark, thick sauce, I was absolutely expecting it to be the highlight of the entire meal, if not the entire month. How odd then, that it ended up being a bit of a letdown; the sauce had a great texture but a strange slightly funky pig-offal taste, sweet, bland and unbalanced; the brioche was strangely crumbly and dry, despite being soaked in the sauce; and inside was a weirdly unseasoned and unsatisfying mixture of lukewarm chunks of black pudding and pig paste. Look, I'm sorry, really I am - I wanted to be able to tell you the Freemasons suckling pig brioche pie was brilliant every bit as much as you wanted to hear it, but it just wasn't to be. Most frustratingly of all, I can't really put my finger on why - it just seemed to be missing something. It lacked soul, if that makes sense. It doesn't makes sense, really, does it. Made a good Instagram post though, so there is that.

Desserts got things back on track. Double cream ice cream with summer fruit did everything you'd hope it would - we particularly enjoyed a layer of strawberry mousse underneath a neatly constructed millefeuille, and it's surely impossible to not fall in love with "double cream ice cream".

A peach, poached in sweet Pedro Ximenez cherry, was an absolute revelation - I honestly didn't think peaches could taste this good. The sherry sweetened the fruit, obviously, but the slight alcohol tang added a beguilingly heady extra set of flavours itself, the overall effect best described as a kind of vegan rum baba. Oh, and next to it, a shockingly red raspberry sorbet, as good as I've had since my first trip to Little Barwick House all those years ago.

Only a treacle tart was a bit disappointing, being quite heavy on the oats and quite short on, well, the treacle. Ice cream was good though, and we liked the little blobs of summer berry coulis.

And all said and done, there were far more things that were impressive, and enjoyable about the Freemasons than disappointing. And I can't take more than a couple of points off for the suckling pig pie and the treacle tart because it's clear that this is a kitchen that is trying very, very hard to add value and excitement into everything they do, to the extent of offering all this food at a bargainous £27.50/head. With a couple of glasses of wine the bill came to £103.95 for three - good honest Northern value for money - and having to suffer the roaring of a pissed-up table of morons seemed, once we'd settled up and had a nice settling stroll around Wiswell, a pretty small price to pay. Hand on heart, it's the Parkers Arms that's more likely to get my return custom, but there's clearly room - and demand - for seasonal gastropub cooking in all corners of Bowland, something we should all - locals and visiting London types alike - be very pleased about indeed.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi C&B!
Been following you for years on and off!
Blackburn bloke who's lived in Tokyo now for 25 years.
I remember going to the Freemasons in the early 80s with M&D. Looks a bit different now!
Spot on. It's not a bad part of the world!
Parkers Arms looks a bit different as well!
Have you been to Northcote Manor? Got married there!
The Clog and Billycock is good as well. Or it was last time I was "home"

BTW, I am not a robot!