Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Tek me t'Three Fishes Luv

Being taken out for the night by a non drinker is always a huge coup. Like that rogue pound coin found in your winter coat pocket in September, the sly after eight mint that got away in the box full of empty wrappers or weighing yourself at someone else's house only for the scales to have dropped five pounds.

Upon this very evening, my partner in crime and I headed not to far from our hometown of Blackburn to the pleasant village of Mitton.

Having just returned back home to the Lancashire region after a stint of living in the West Midlands I am like a calf finding it’s feet and falling in love again with the natural beauty and magical lure of our humble county.

The drive for us this evening through the charming little chasm of Whalley and on into Mitton itself, was not for hedonistic view finding purposes but to fill our bellies with fine Lancashire fayre. The wipers were working overtime, squeaking innocuously in tune with merriment. A blanket of sapphire blue mingled with slate grey in the sky above us.

The swirling B roads en route to our destination favoured by ramblers, cyclists and bikers always exude to me an air of mystery. The bobbing trees protecting the roads like a guard of honour, enveloped in the swooshing glory of both the Hodder and the Ribble, yes, as my grandparent's would say, and with a gulp and lump in my throat, this truly is God's country.

The despondent and melancholy tones of your typical July evening in Lancashire certainly did not befit our chipper and auspicious mood.

After all. We were hungry people.

The place in question, The Three Fishes at Mitton.

As ubiquitous to our gradely county as creamy Lancashire itself, The Three Fishes has been attracting good Lancashire folk (and those from further afield) since 2004.

Thanks to the genius mastermind of Mr Nigel Haworth, the good townspeople are now able to experience Michelin starred cooking in a homely, toasty environment in the rolling splendour of the Ribble Valley.

A staunch user of local produce, the Three Fishes and it's fellow Ribble Valley Inns are abundant with some of the most shining jewels from the fields and coastlines of Lancashire. Nigel is a champion of sourcing his ingredients within the region and the suppliers sit proudly upon the walls and are mentioned on the menu's. A true ambassador for the county and the amazing array of produce it has on offer, Nigel works very closely with the farmers, suppliers and growers in the quest for creating a menu that will make Lancashire proud.

The produce is used with spirited wit, charm, patience and sensitivity to create a true gastronomic experience.

Only on our journey to Mitton, my friend and I were lamenting on the “good old days of Blackburn” when you could find at least one good place to eat. People loved nothing more than to get bedecked in their finest apparel and enjoy the notion of eating out and sheer enjoyment through food.

Mr Haworth has played a superb role in bringing the best of Lancashire to the forefront our own palates and to the screens in our living room.

An accomplished chef in his own right, Mr Haworth has been “grafting” as we would say in the north for well over 20 years.

Born in Accrington (or Accy) to those on the right side of the Pennines, Mr Haworth has been something of a silent assassin in the culinary world, earning the respect he so rightly deserves from many great chefs all over the world.

Being a Lancashire lass myself, I have studied Mr Haworth’s work since my days as cooking student in Blackburn.

He was the first person we could identify as trying to put Blackburn and indeed Lancashire itself on the map.

The Three Fishes is one of those places that I want to go when I am feeling in the mood for full on comfort eating. The type of meal where you might need to wear a loose fitting dress for that extra boost of support. I am not part of a gang of female dieters who steal other people’s bread, chips, puddings and nibbles of cheese.

If I am ordering. I am having it. All.

My friend in the driving seat had not visited before and having been told in advance that we had to be early, we hot footed it down before 8pm as well advised by the assistant on the telephone.

Our damp 7.55pm arrival was greeted with a bubbly smile and our names were etched onto the already bustling chalkboard. We were told a wait of 45 minutes which soon squashed down to 25 minutes.

Time to sample the fine beverages upon offer.

The décor in The Three Fishes is quintessential countryside chic. I think of a slick saloon vibe when I look around. The bar area has a feel of the “Deadwood Stage” in Calamity Jane with it’s warm chocolate hues and stone floors. An Inn in every true sense of the word. No chrome seats, glass tables or feathered chandeliers here. Real and honest to the core.

A gust of cheese on toast and the faint aroma of homemade chips were a welcoming aroma.

Being cold Annie, The Three Fishes and it’s room brimming full of people made it a perfect environment- not a cardigan in sight!

My abstaining companions eyes lit up as he saw the array of cold non alcoholic beverages on display, in particular, the Sarsaparilla.

Being one of our many driving topics of conversation, it was only customary that when in Lancashire….

I of the non driving variety ordered a Tanqueray and tonic on ice. When on school holidays……….????

My driver would fit in well with the Sarsaparilla society in their heyday.

Sarsaparilla owes it’s creation to the temperance movement in the late 1800’s in Lancashire primarily. It seems that we are true party people who have always enjoyed a jar or seven.

A certain Mrs. Lewis at this time, was not happy with level of carousing and boozing amongst the town.

Now, it is worth a mention here to hold our good Lancashire folk in high esteem here.

This was a time of heavy industry. Most of the towns that stretched the borders of the Pennines were cotton mills.

You see, before we were just known in a Beatles song and for our terrific football team winning the premier league in 1995, we were the Kings of Cotton.

Honest, hardworking men and women would be working long hours and many would leave work in the dark. Customarily, the workers would head to the pub after a long and tiring day.

Mrs. Lewis was very proactive in her campaigns against the drinking and was involved with different council boards to try and stop the amount of alcohol being consumed in Blackburn.

There were many people (notably angry wives) who agreed with her plight and so came the Temperance Bars popping up on high streets of Lancashire.

The idea of the Temperance Bar was a place for people to enjoy a social chinwag but with non alcoholic drinks.

The menu du-jour being a heady mix of herbal drinks such as Dandelion & Burdock, Herb Bitters, Cream Soda, Black Beer Raisin and Sarsaparilla.

(It is also just worth mentioning through pure fascination that another Lancashire favourite VIMTO was created through the temperance movement)

Cheers Mrs. Lewis!

The Sarsaparilla in question here at The Three Fishes was supplied by a local producer Mawson’s.

Dark, sticky and just the right level of fizz, with subtle smoky undertones of liquorice and the sassiness of the Sarsaparilla root.

My friend was on a temperance binge and decided to order another Mawson’s favourite of Dandelion and Burdock.

Now, like any good northern girl worth their salt, I love a good cold D & B. Usually with a bag of extremely vinegary chips, but the notion of being all dressed up and in the warm bosom of the Ribble Valley salivating over the scrumptious TF menu made it even more delicious.

So, the drinks were a hit.

Now, on't tucker.

Silence, concentration and serious thinking time. A few fervent ooh’s and aah’s later and crucial decisions had been made.

Determined to have my three courses, I chose the new addition to the menu, the Goosnargh Duckling Pastry with Homemade Piccalilli.

What is not to enjoy here?

I recognized this instantly as a homage to fellow Lancashire lass and Northcote Chef extraordinaire Lisa Allen.

Only recently, following the great tradition of her mentor Mr. Haworth, Lisa went on to win the starter course of The Great British Menu 2010 of which she executed a stunning dish with bags of Lancashire tongue in cheek humour; Wild Rabbit and Leek Turnover with the said Homemade Piccalilli.

The two greedy pigs at the Three Fishes decided to opt for plan which would lead us onto a win win situation.

He wanted fish, I wanted pastry. He wanted to try the duck, I love anything containing fish.

So, the fish soup arrived with dinky pots of “wicked” mayonnaise, the heavenly butlers Lancashire cheese and large circles of garlic croutons.

What I love so much about food at The Three Fishes and it’s sibling Ribble Valley Inns is the deep rooted northern humour exuding from the menu and in the presentation.

Nigel is a true Lancashire lad who if I had to hazard a guess, used to make bread “fishes” from white sliced Warburton’s and throw them into his soup.

The fish soup was velvet thick and bursting with la Coeur de la mer. A cheeky take on the French Provençal classic Bouillabaisse and Rouille. Except we get a naughty pot of cheese to crumble in too.

The sweet Goosnargh duck oozed with every reason of why chefs from Macclesfield to Mayfair want to use them on their menu.

A cross between Aylsebury and a Peking, gives the bird its unique balance in meat and without sounding too Benny Hill, a good breast.

Like chewing through melted toffee, the meat was wrapped delicately with a crisp and honey coloured layer of pastry which provided the perfect balance of a buttery crumb which silently smashed into crumbs allowing a mop up with fingers at the end.

Like a hidden foil egg in my grandma’s allotment at Easter, I dug out the shard of scratching that accompanied my mound of salad leaves and chewed it with great gusto. The utopian balance of charred crunchiness played against the gooey and spongy texture was a triumphant end to my starter.

The soup was being given the full kiddy treatment. After said adult and I had taken a sensible dash of the soup sans accoutrements, it was time to chuck in.

The wicked mayonnaise was smeared onto the discs of mini garlicky breads and submerged into the sea of reds and rust. I was a little bit Mrs. Lewis about adding the delectable Butlers into the fish soup, however, I am a keen advocate of cheese on other soups and obviously beans so I threw down the gauntlet.

A sneaky little addition which added a new dimension to our French fancy.

A thumbs up and empty dishes all round.

Listening to the buzzing whirr of fast paced conversation between the tables made me happy again to be back in Blackburn.

Our main courses were made upon decisions not too dissimilar to planning a family holiday.

What was the weight allowance? How long would it last? Would I enjoy it? Have I ever had it before? Who do you know who has had it? Is it warm? Is it cold? All vital investigations to be made.

Again, a tie break decision at the crucible and it was all about being able to have a bite of whatever they are having time.

Gingerly, I went for the classic Three Fishes Fish Pie and Sarsaparilla went for the much celebrated Three Fishes Burger which masquerades as 100% chargrilled ribble valley steak on an English Muffin.

The service time was good enough to have a good nosey and gossip amongst the other diners, but also to realise that I was ready for my next course.

A stolen glass of crisp Prosecco later and the main courses were on their way.

Great hunks of salmon, cod and king prawns bathing in a blanket of creamy parsley sauce and housed in a roof of golden crispy mash potatoes. All the credentials of a fantastic fish pie.

I slipped up on missing that it does not come with any buddies in tow. Petis Pois or perhaps some buttered spinach would have also not gone a miss, but nobody likes a greedy piglet now.

Having eaten the steak burger countless times, I am an ardent “pusher” to any new visitors. Sat like a Buddha on it’s fat chopping board platform, the minced steak burger hangs out of the muffin almost goading you to take it on. More like a steak mountain, I am always amazed that people do not feel the need to squash or de-bread their first bite.

A potent blend of summer barbecues and a slap up steak dinner, this dish deserves it’s place on the menu of all the Ribble Valley Inns.

A truly chivalrous and lion-hearted dish, you could be fooled that this was strictly one for the boys, but I have seen many a fine filly punching their way through the mass of meat and dripping fried chips.

A forgotten hero of the platter I always feel is the deliciously creamy mustard. I like to put the homemade ketchup onto the burger for added lubrication purposes and the mustard is solely for chips only.

My burger eating friend is not a follower of the cucumber. Even in it’s delicate swirls of ribbon, he was not being fooled. Being Polish and raised on the stuff and with the insider info that it is actually pickled makes the cucumber a nice little bonus for my fish pie.

A wave of euphoric silence and half groaned yoga positions gave only one suggestion.

We were both beaten.

What? No puddings!

By Eck indeed.

Had we have stayed, it was all about the bramley apple pie, needless to say for the greed factor and for the fact that unlike your average gastro pub, this is served with condensed milk AND a piece of cheese in the pie.

Now that is why it certainly is not grim up north.

In a time of cutting back on dining out and treating yourself once a month, The Three Fishes is a highly recommended choice for your pennies.

Just make sure you are not the one driving.

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