Clitheroe, with its castle and its River Ribble and its history. It’s always been a contrary part of the world, around here. Non-conformity marks it out. It was Catholic when the rest of the country was Protestant, and Protestant when the rest of the country was Catholics. Quakers, Methodists, Congregationalists, Unionists, Socialists and the Co-Op movement all flourished in the towns along the Ribble.
It’s an up and down town, is Clitheroe, a place of dips and hollows, odd squares and back lanes, ancient and modern, revised; and of fine shops. There’s D.Byrne & Son, floor-to-ceiling spirits, wine and beer; Cowman’s, famous for its sausages for yonks; the Exchange Coffee Co, where they still roast of the premises, trailing coffee scents all the way along Wellgate. I can remember the greatest of them all, Hargreaves & Sons, sadly no longer with us. ‘Grocers & Italian Warehousemen’ as they styled themselves. This was a magical place, where you could find sticky apricots as large as Angelina Jolie’s lips, olives and oils and salamis of exquisite odours and penetrating flavours, from Milan, from Hungary, from Lyons. There were hams and cheeses, which they would mature in cellars beneath the shop. Hargreaves was an Aladdin’s Cave of gourmet delights at a time when such establishments were as rare in England as self-effacing politicians are now.
I used to come to Clitheroe as a boy, with my father, who was MP for the area, and patrol the borders of his constituency with him. My tender hand would be crushed by taciturn farmers living in remote farms up on the moors around, and my tender cheek would be tweaked by the giants of industry who ran the factories down in the valleys, in Whalley, Waddington, Great Harwood, Dutton, Longridge and Nelson. Somewhere I have a photograph of me, my brother James, and Father, sweeping the streets of Whalley for a ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ campaign of the time. I look so fresh-faced, so hopeful, so unbruised.
Above all, I remember the warmth and quality and substance of the food, of hot pies and Goosnargh cakes and Eccles cakes, and crumbly white cheese with a tang as clean as an ocean breeze, and proper butter and bacon that smelt of heaven, and everything piled up on a plate, and cups of brown tea. I realise now, looking back, that here was a regional food culture, that remained true to its ingredients and their seasons, that understood their qualities and how best to show them and share them. It wasn’t sung about or trumpeted or even celebrated. It just was, a hidden strength, something people shared.
So here I am again, years on, back in Clitheroe, for the second Food Festival. The sun is shining. Families are thronging Castle Street, Castle Gate, Wellgate, Moor Lane, Lower Gate, Market Place, all sorts, all shapes, all sizes, all ages, babies in buggies, kids attached to ice creams, grown ups weighted with bags, lovers linked, granny and grandpa, families of two, four, six, more, striped shirts, striped skirts, trainers of every hue, jeans and more jeans and yet more jeans, grey hair, red and brunette and white and black and shaved bullet heads.
And the noise, you wouldn’t believe the noise. There’s a bloke singing for charity, and hubbub around the sausage-and-burger stall, and a babble, a river , a cataract of voices, natter and chatter between the stallholders and the rest.
‘What’s this then?”
‘Try a bit.”
‘Ooo, that’s nice.’
‘No. Thank you.’
There’s Baxter’s of Morecombe with their potted shrimps, some of the best I’ve ever had, and, Mawsons Traditional Drinks with their celebrated sarsaparilla, and Retro Shots, very contemporary. There’s Chocolate Magic of Mawdesley, Dewlay Cheese and the Dover Syke Cider Company, a bold new venture I’m told; Thwaites the brewers and the Lancaster Brewery, who’ve put up a very imposing bar. And let’s not forget to mention the Fuzzy Duck Brewery of Poulton le Fylde, so we won’t be going thirsty. Hudsons Ice Cream come from here, in Clitheroe. The Port of Lancaster smokehouse is from a bit further away along the Ribble. There’s R.S. Ireland of Ramsbottom’s Black Puddings, Roaming Rooster of Nelson, Bumbly Bee’s from Barnoldswick, Reedy’s preserves from Blackburn, Williams Butter from Bolton, Ma Beans Puddings from Ramsbottom, Bowland Outdoor Reared Pork from Tatham, Purple Cupcakes of Barnoldswick, Shirley’s Pies of Pilling.
Pilling, now there’s a real Lancashire name. There used to be a cricketer who played for Lancashire in the 1960s called Harry Pilling, 5ft 3in tall, a fine middle-order batsman. Here’s a stall for Fiddlers Lancashire Crisps of Rufford, another for Robinsons Eggs. They’re from Slaidburn. Jasat Halal Pies come Blackburn and the Ginger Baker from Longridge. ~There’s Gazegill Organic Farm of Rimmington, Pots ‘n’ Pies of Ramsbottom. Ramsbottom again. Blimey, Ramsbottom must be a hive of cottage gastr-industry. Susan’s Farmhouse Fudge of Salmesbury vies with The Fudge Factory of Rossendale. Pause at Country Crepes from Bolton-by-Bowland or The Bread Fairy of Whalley. Have a chat with James or Ruth Swift of Trealy Farm Charcuterie all the way from Wales, if you can catch them between serving curious folk. The Hungry Dodo Mauritian Foods is from Preston rather than Port Louis, and Tilly’s Ice Cream from Blackburn. That’s just to name a few a few of the stalls that are drawing in the cheery punters..
There’s something there for everyone, a roll call of the foods we like to eat today. There’s poetry in those names, too, for me, the businesses, the places and the products. They have a warm resonance. They make a kind of composite portrait of a region and its people, with a very particular texture to it, tough, resilient, hardwearing, fine, generously cut.
Somewhere around, in the bowels of the council offices, local hero, uber-chef Nigel Haworth is demonstrating his way with cod, with a beetroot and cheese thingy before. He’ll be followed by Vinny and Victor Yu from Yu & You, the immensely popular Chinese restaurant at Copster Green, working wok magic. And somewhere further down the day, local lad Michael Heathcote will be capering about, with Andrew Nutter and Anson Bolton to follow. And some time this afternoon I’ll be talking ducks with local legend ‘Chicken’ Reg Johnson, purveyor of peerless poultry to restaurants all over the country. And not just talking about ducks, but cooking them as well. That should be interesting, for me, if not anyone else, because I’ve never done a demo with Reg before. In fact, I’ve never cooked a duck in public before.
Still, there’s time for another turn around the market and for a couple of pints in the Swan & Royal Hotel, just to settle the nerves. And the sun’s still shining.
NB The second Clitheroe Food Festival took place last Saturday, 4th August.