Tom Bangay draws the long straw and heads to distant Lancashire for what appears to be a clandestine convocation of chefs concluding a six-month Iberian epicurean invasion of the UK…
If you live in the North West and are remotely interested in fine food, then the chances are you’ve ventured into Nigel Howarth’s culinary empire. His Ribble Valley Inns are comforting fixtures dotted across Lancashire, and now pushing south into Cheshire with the Nag’s Head. However, Northcote Manor is and always has been the jewel in the crown, ever since Howarth was offered the head chef gig there in 1984 (meaning he’s been perfecting the Northcote experience as long as I’ve been alive). Each January for the past 15 years, Nigel has curated his foodie festival, ‘Obsession’, during which various top chefs from around the world congregate on the village of Langho to bring superb gastronomy to lucky Lancastrians.
On the 30th of January I am fortunate enough to be heading to Northcote for an evening hosted by Taste Portugal, a season of events bringing the best of Portugal to the UK. To this end, Nigel Howarth has summoned five of Portugal’s hottest properties to the frosty north: Dieter Koschina and Matteo Ferrantino (Vila Joya), Miguel Laffan (L’And Vineyards Restaurante), José Avillez (Belcanto) and Vitor Matos (Casa da Calçada). Between these fellows and Nigel Haworth I count ten Michelin stars. It’s kind of like turning up to a Springsteen gig and finding out that Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Neil Young and Prince are going to do a quick set too. A splash of Louis Roederer lubricates us on arrival and we’re all willingly seated without delay.
At this point I notice, anticipation building, that there are two large flat-screens mounted slightly incongruously in the dining room. They are displaying a four-way split screen. Will we be watching 24? No, this is in fact reality TV: the screens are showing a live feed of the kitchen, where an operation of military-grade complexity is underway, with six chefs directing the production of six courses, choreographed precisely, with the paired wines being dispatched ahead. Nigel and Dieter have cooked up the amuses bouches: duck liver, toffied eel, scallops and dashi, followed by beef tartar with truffled focaccia and Périgord truffle. I’d give the nod to the Lancastrian this time – the tartar and truffles are rich and decadent, but the scallops have the edge in freshness.
The first course proper is Matteo’s hamachi, oyster, cauliflower, ginger and imperial caviar, and it’s a delight. The sheer quality of the ingredients shines through, even with the nude oyster looking a little obscene nestling in the middle of the plate. Cauliflower shavings this light and clean could convince even my father to eat more vegetables. Miguel follows next with cured Scottish salmon with bergamot tartar, passion fruit and fennel. This is a signature starter at L’And, and for good reason – the salmon is dark in hue and full of flavour, rolled in seaweed and then set in almond milk. It’s also fairly generously proportioned for a tasting menu. The fennel lightens everything up (although it’s been blackened with squid ink) and the dish is well served by the delicious Julia Kemper branco that accompanies it – diners were still requesting refills of this wine several courses later.
Next up is Dieter’s blue lobster with salted lemon. This is how to do something relatively simple extremely well. The lobster is dark and muscular, and the salted lemon is a well-engineered confusion of sweet and savoury that has me avoiding wine (temporarily) so I can hold the taste for a little longer. The only meat course of the night comes next – José’s oxtail with peas, foie gras and more Périgord truffles – and it’s a heady brew of some fairly opulent flavours, although my personal dislike of all things goose-torturing does colour my view of it.
At such events, Vitor Matos is apparently frequently nominated by his contemporaries to make the dessert course, for his, shall we say, carefree idiosyncrasies when it comes to finishing the meal. The detailed list of ingredients supports this view: chocolate, aubergine, pumpkin, cheese, smoked ham? The man is clearly insane (if the chefs are indeed rock stars then Vitor is definitely Tom Waits, banging exhaust pipes together and singing about crows) and when the plate arrives it looks like absolute mayhem – a purple chocolate aubergine sausage here, something inexplicable and yellow smeared there. However, once it hits the taste buds it’s clear that this is the standout dish, a dizzying collision of elements that immediately complement and enhance each other. I mean, mountain cheese ice cream? Crème caramel with smoked ham? The man is clearly an unhinged genius who flies in the face of convention. Definitely Tom Waits.
Matteo beautifully sings us a song. I’m quite serious. Lancashire’s glitterati are draining the last of the 20 year tawny port from Quinta do Bom Retiro, and my associates and I retire sneakily to the adjacent chamber for a post-prandial – Northcote can swing with the big boys in this department and my Old Fashioned, when it arrives, is tremendous. It quickly compels me to get another, just to check. The chefs have taken the plaudits and the applause and are winding down with a boozy sing-song in the foyer, much to the delight of the restaurant’s patrons, who, like everyone, rarely get the chance to rub shoulders with ten Michelin stars. If Taste Portugal wanted to show the North West what the best chefs in Portugal are capable of then I’d say it’s mission accomplished, and then some. To the food-loving retirees of Lancashire, Northcote is pretty much a place of worship, and now its patrons have a must-visit list of Portugal’s finest restaurants ready to go, inspiration for a summer of restaurant pilgrimages. I think I might join them.
Taste Portugal at Northcote Manor featured as part of the restaurant’s 15th Obsession Festival. Inaugurated by chef patron Nigel Haworth, Obsession Festival is an annual culinary extravaganza gathering some of the world’s top chefs to create their famous dishes for festival goers. 2015 marks the year Taste Portugal London descended on the festival for two exclusive evenings of Iberian delights with a constellation of Michelin starred chefs hailing from Portugal’s most decorated dining destinations – Dieter Koschina & Matteo Ferrantino from Vila Joya, Miguel Laffan from L’AND, Vitor Matos from Casa da Calcada and José Avillez of Belcanto.
For more information on the Northcote and the Obsession Festival, visit www.northcote.com.