I was leafing through Rhubarb & Black Pudding the other day. What a cracking book, I thought. Published in 1998. Handsome. Proper. Heft. Style. Magnificent food photos by Tim Morris. Moody portraits by Peter Williams. Recipes of Paul Heathcote’s ground breaking dishes. And words, lots and lots of my words.
I’d first come across Heathcote’s in the unlikely, and frankly, unprepossessing small Lancashire town of Longridge a some years earlier. I’d stopped off as I headed north for Cumbria because I’d heard good things about it and I needed lunch. In the course of munching my way through the set lunch – poached salmon stuffed with courgette mousse; smoked chicken and broccoli soup; slow roasted shoulder of lamb with aubergine mousse; and chocolate parfait with honey and oatmeal ice cream for the princely sum of £12.75; a bargain evening 1991 – I felt a dawning sense of revelation. These dishes weren’t French (although there was something French about them),or Italian, Spanish, Indian, Chinese or any culinary culture I could think of. Their finesse might be French, their foundation on superb local ingredients might be Italian, but their textures, flavours and structure, the sensibility behind the food, were unmistakably native. So, I concluded, they must be British. Or more specifically still, English. Or most specifically of all, Paul Heathcote’s.
I stopped by at Heathcote’s whenever I went north, which was as often as I could find an excuse. After one of these ventures, I wandered up onto the hill behind the restaurant. From there I realised that, by turning in a full circle, I could see all the sources of all the principle ingredients that went into the remarkable dishes I’d enjoyed so much in the dining room below – fish from Fleetwood; chickens and ducks from Goosnargh; likewise the Lancashire cheese; venison from the woods beyond the Longridge Golf Club course; mushrooms from Pendle vale and lamb from Pendle hill. So, I reasoned, there must be a connection between ingredient and place and between place and chef, and so between place and chef and food. It was blindingly obvious that a chef’s sensibilities must be shaped by the places where they cooks, that there is a direct connection between place and the nature, quality and characteristics of ingredients. God knows, I’d heard French chefs coming out with the adage ‘il fault renouveler la cuisine du terroir’ often enough. Well, Paul Heathcote was unmistakably renewing the cooking of the north of England in a wholly original way.
Subsequently and consequently Paul and I came up with Rhubarb & Black Pudding in which sections on the history of the Ribble Valley; Chipping Fair; a day in the kitchen; a Christmas evening in the dining room; and profiles of veg man ‘Fast’ Eddie Holmes; poultry king ‘Chicken’ Reg Johnson; cheese maker Mrs Kirkham, mushroom forager John ‘Hank’ Hancock; butcher John Penny; fishmonger Chris Neves, Jurgen Haussels, wine merchant, Paul’s principle suppliers, as well as of Andy Barnes, Paul’s Mr Fixit in the kitchen and Paul himself, framed the recipes.
These provided the social, cultural, historical and personal context that shaped such dishes as black pudding on crushed potatoes and baked beans with bay leaf sauce; pig’s trotter filled with ham hock and sage with tartlet of pea purée and shallot sauce ; roasted lobster with dried citrus fruits on a bed of celery and lobster juice; breast of Goosnargh duck with fondant potatoes, dumplings made from the leg and mead scented sauce; char-grilled cutlet of beef with braised oxtail casserole, horseradish potatoes, mustard cream and ale sauce; bread and butter pudding with apricot compote; apple charlotte with English custard, caramelised fruit and caramel ice cream.
These weren’t recipes designed for the home cook (although I have cooked some of them with ease; and parts of others with effort). They’re a culinary portrait of a remarkable chef at the height of his creative powers showing how to renew the traditions of English cookery with vision, wit and, above all, taste. And the book showed that these dishes, far from existing in some kind of extraordinary vacuum, had their roots in the Ribble Valley and the nature of the area and its people.
Rhubarb & Black Pudding is a marker of how far our culinary culture has evolved in the years since. These days such connections between chef, region, ingredient and dish are hardly remarked on. But back in the early ‘90s it was remarkable, not so much a novelty as the beginning of a revolution.