February 10 2011
The first time I ate one of Reg Johnson’s birds was in Paul Heathcote’s Longridge Restaurant, in the Ribble Valley, Lancashire, a dozen or more years ago. It was a magret of duck carefully cooked on the bone before being filleted, and I described it as being so relaxed it nearly left the room for a cigarette.
Johnson’s poultry farm in the nearby village of Goosnargh has grown a bit since then, but his mother still presides over the farmhouse kitchen and bakes very good ginger biscuits. He still supplies the Longridge Restaurant, which – having gained and lost a couple of Michelin stars over the years – is back on form with chef Chris Bell at the helm.
My visit to a snowy Longridge in December revealed a dining room still comfortable but transformed in soft greys, whites and silvers. Risotto of Morecambe Bay shrimps – spiced, as in their potted incarnation, with mace – was masterful, and the duck was every bit as good as its long-departed ancestor. Service was friendly and knowledgeable, and the wines reasonably priced; cheeses, including the tangy local Blacksticks Blue, were splendid.
Johnson also supplies The Midland hotel, Manchester’s classic old railway lodgings, sensitively refurbished in 2006. The French, its top restaurant, is housed in a delightfully over-the-top dining room with soaring ceilings, chandeliers and more than enough gilded bling to satisfy the most rococo of rappers. (The Beatles were, apparently, once denied entrance because of a contretemps over neckwear.)
Chef Paul Beckley’s menu, however, has eschewed any attempt to echo its surroundings and is free of culinary frou-frou and twiddles. A starter of beautifully cooked quail and Jerusalem artichoke was followed by a piece of surprisingly flavoursome beef fillet, a crisp, deep-fried parcel of bone marrow and a single, fat tube of pasta (a cannellono?) enclosing some patiently braised shredded veal shank.
Theatre was provided by pudding: crêpes Suzette, flambéed at the table, one taste of which, according to its (disputed) creator Henri Charpentier, “would reform a cannibal into a civilised gentleman”. I am unsure about that, and in any case cannibals are frowned upon at The Midland, but it is a fine pudding. The wine list needs a bit of work – actually, it just needs more wines – but, for a special night of belle époque grandeur, The French is hard to beat.
The rise of restaurant culture in Manchester and Lancashire has much to do with Paul Heathcote and his fellow chefs – Northcote’s Nigel Haworth, in particular – but it is also a triumph for their suppliers, who share their passion for great local ingredients. Birds of a feather, indeed.