Ever heard of The Good Pub Guide? Here at I Love MCR we are compiling our very own Good Grub Pub Guide.
No longer just the village local, pubs are fast becoming destination venues in their own right, notching up awards and accolades, with some even making the coveted Michelin Guide.
Seeking out the best food pubs the region has to offer, we give you the heads up for when you fancy a jaunt to the country. Because sometimes no fancy restaurant can better show just how good our traditional British fare can be.
Today we are travelling slightly further afield. Still within an hours drive of Manchester city centre is The Freemasons at Wiswell (pronounced Wizel). It has probably notched up more awards than any other in the north west, including Best Food Pub at The Great British Pub Awards in 2016, as well as being named the AA Restaurant of the Year for England 2017-2018.
Let’s discuss the journey first. Most of us will no doubt enter the postcode into our satnavs and press Go. Heading up the M66 towards Blackburn, you will find little to concern yourself over.
But once you hit the Ribble Valley (which is breathtakingly glorious by the way), you will be led up a series of one-car-only minor roads unless you go into your settings and select ‘quickest route.’ This will stick to the main roads and save you bags of time and avoid much frustrated reversing which the automatic setting of ‘shortest route’ will make you endure.
Once you find the picturesque little town of Wiswell, pull over as you can’t actually drive up the tiny fold on which the pub is located.
Did I mention how picturesque and peaceful this place is? I imagine it’s what the rest of the world thinks the whole of England looks like. Green and flowery, they could set Midsomer Murders here based around The Freemasons – the only public building in the entire village in which there’s not even a corner shop.
And what a handsome and solid old pub it is too. It was previously a Freemasons Lodge – hence the name – but beautifully renovated and designed by chef-proprietor Steven Smith.
Flagstone floors, antique furniture, period paintings, with outside seating the most relaxed I think I have ever sat in. The attention to detail is beautiful. I would love to stay here when they open the recently purchased cottage next door for guests.
We sit in one of the two downstairs rooms for our lunch with two other couples. I know it’s the luck of the draw, but neither couple talked that much, and with music at a very low volume I did feel self-conscious with the atmosphere slightly formal.
I like to talk without feeling like I need to whisper. Had we have sat in the other downstairs room with the larger and more colourful group I think we would have felt a bit more at ease.
The detail in the surroundings is also apparent in the food. Our breadboard of granary and lamb-fat rosemary brioche, served with an amuse bouche of Lancashire whipped cheese, broad bean and wild garlic tartlet, is not your average pub grub. This is fine dining all the way and it’s reflected in the prices, although there is a very good value three-course lunch offer of £27.50.
Rabbit and Langoustine Pie baked in Brioche, Sauce of Chargrilled Asparagus £16.95
Our first course perfectly highlights the seasonality of this menu and the stunning presentation of every course. The actual ‘pie’ would make possible the best party finger food in the world, the sweet brioche the perfect setting for the subtle rabbit meat and luxurious langoustine – both sweet in themselves. But it’s the summery sauce which nails this starter, bringing an earthy and fresh quality.
Risotto – Pearl Barley and Spring Wood Wild Garlic, Roast Lamb Sweetbreads, Pickled Onion Broth, Aged Parmesan £12.95
I use pearl barley all the time in soups but I have never seen any the size of this giant grain I found today. Or maybe I just cook mine wrong. I think it’s one of those grains you either love or hate. I love it and the texture it gave to this risotto was lovely. The roast lamb sweetbreads crumbed and lightly fried to perfection. Another faultless starter.
Fish of The Day – Brill simply grilled with Lemon and Brown Butter, Tenderstem Broccoli, Southport Potted Shrimps, Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes £26
This was the simplest of the dishes we ate today. That doesn’t mean to say it wasn’t as good. Beautiful ingredients, beautifully cooked. The potatoes from Tiptoe Farm in Northumberland grown the old fashioned way and focusing on flavour (as opposed to producing large quantities for supermarkets) were a well-chosen accompaniment, to which we added the Baby Gem with Anchovies (£4.95), a quirky little pickled side with a Polish influence I’m sure.
Organic Chicken – Poached and Roast Breast studded with Black Garlic, Yakitori Livers on Toast, Leek and Miso Puree, New Season Asparagus, Sauce Albufera £27.95
A phenomenal chicken dinner. The plate was pretty as a picture and every single ingredient a triumph, especially the grilled livers and morel mushrooms. I wonder why more chefs don’t serve the breast with the livers. We drank a rather superb red too, their Fleurie Manoir du Carra (£7.95 125ml) a smokey and velvety Beaujolais.
Amalfi Lemon – Meringue Pie inspired by Wiswell Moor £12.95
My companion called this the best dessert he’d ever eaten, and it certainly had the wow factor with the theatrical and floral dry ice. Deconstructed it may have been, but it had every element it needed.
Michael Cluizel Chocolate – Dark Chocolate, Pineapple Poached in Pedro Ximenez Caramel, Rum, Raisin, and Peach Sorbet £11.95
Another show stopper. This chocolate cone, mousse and boozy pineapple are the stuff of dreams. And I would recommend the accompanying dessert wine – more of that lovely Pedro Ximenez.
The Freemasons at Wiswell is a gastronomic delight. It’s fine dining and prices are higher than other pubs we have visited, but still affordable if you visit at the right time and choose the two- and three-course menus.
One thing I will say. I can’t imagine I will find any food in any other pub in the north west that will top this. I would have scored it a 6 if I could. And I would certainly kill to eat that chicken main course again.
8 Vicarage Fold, Wiswell, Clitheroe, Lancashire, BB7 9DF