Monday, 13 April 2009
The White Bull, Ribchester, Lancashire
Nestled in the middle of the area where there the map says “here be dragons” is a charming village called Ribchester. We decided to break up our journey to indulge in a birthday meal at L’enclume in the Lake District with a stop-off en route. We managed to put the Alan Partridge inside us both to one side and instead took inspiration from Diana Henry’s increasingly invaluable guide to the gastropubs of the UK. We were keen to viist the Three Fishes Inn, until we saw their website and instead went for the rustic hospitality of the White Bull which has rooms.
The M6 is certainly an arterial road. It pulses and stops like a heartbeat resulting in a deeply frustrating journey that involved grid lock every 20 miles for absolutely no reason. Relief coursed through our capillaries as we abandoned the motorway and trickled our way round the Ribble Valley to the charming Roman village of Ribchester. The White Bull is an 18th century stone pub with a fine, pillared entrance and statuesque outlook across a small square at the front and the river at the rear. We gave each other a look of approval and were greeted by the head chef/co-owner, Chris Bell, who welcomed us like long lost friends.
Our room overlooking the river was spacious, well appointed and furnished with an excellent bed. We spruced ourselves up before heading down for some well earned refreshments. It never ceases to amaze us how early people have their dinner in the North. A couple arrived at 5.40 and were furious that the restaurant didn’t open till 6! We settled in for a few drinks before giving in to our stomachs at a more civilised time.
Sadly the restaurant was only a quarter full. This made the atmosphere slightly stilted to begin with before we warmed up and decided to talk to each other rather than pass notes back and forth like naughty school children. The menu was one of the more exciting we’ve seen recently. As ever we could both predict what the other wanted! Cowie had potted crab followed by salmon with Mediterranean vegetables – so Cowie! Whereas I blasted through my RYA (Recommended Yearly Amount) of fat by ordering confit of duck followed by roasted turbot with foie gras and morels.
Cowie’s crab wasn’t really potted at all. It was flaked and then mixed through with crème fraiche and coriander which worked brilliantly. Light and zingy. Almost as if it had been designed for girls. My confit of duck was soft and melting. But it lacked the crispy skin and salty bite I was yearning for. It put a smile on my face and an inch on my waist.
Cowie’s salmon was perfectly cooked. It had that pearly sheen you lust after. Bolstered by some expertly roasted vegetables it had Cowie purring away like the cat who got all the clotted cream. My turbot and foie gras was less successful. Whilst it’s pretty hard not to enjoy a dish with such great ingredients it wasn’t without flaws. It seems churlish to complain that there was too much foie gras. But it managed to completely overwhelm the small piece of turbot. Deveining the liver, some seasoning and not singeing it would have helped too. It was my fault for ordering something so tricky when I should have had a nice steak or a pan roasted fillet of halibut. But turbot, foie gras and morels is hard not to order.
My pannacotta was excellent. As was Cowie’s poached pear. Overall, our meal was like listening to a talented choir singing with a soloist who doesn’t quite hit all the high notes. We had a very memorable evening and loved the fact we could just roll upstairs, past the boozy locals, to bed.
Whilst dinner and accommodation were good, our breakfast was disappointing. The excellent black pudding and fried eggs in my fry up were let down by poor, sweaty sausages and a cold tomato. But this wasn’t a patch on Cowie’s comedy breakfast. I’ve never seen Cowie look so let down. It took several hours of jesting and joking to take the scowl of her face that her soggy bowl of cornflakes induced.
But don’t let our breakfast woes and the off-key soloist put you off. Dianne Henry was right to feature The White Bull in her guide. It’s a great credit to Ribchester and Lancashire. The staff are seriously passionate about their food and made us feel extremely welcome. Chris and Kath are onto a winner here. If you are heading North on the M6 can I recommend you pop in to pay the White Bull a visit. It set us up brilliantly for our onward gastro-trip to L’enclume in Cartmel. It's yet another massive tick for what is fast becoming our Around Britain with a Paunch traveling bible - Diana Henry's Gastro Pub Cookbook.