It’s been well over a month since this Ribble Valley yomp, a tardiness I’m attributing to a lockdown inertia that meant I nearly didn’t bother at all given that folk have got slightly more pressing concerns than tuning in for my hot take on the soup. But firstly, that’d be churlish for a platform that claims to uphold all that’s good about food and hospitality in the north, and secondly, I’ve just renewed the hosting for this website and will get my money’s worth.
So here we are.
Listy types should have a gander at the Top 50 UK Gastropubs, where you’ll find The Freemasons at Wiswell bedded in at an impressive Number 3 thanks to chef Steven Smith’s “wild, sharp world flavours”. Other northern reps The Star at Harome, the Parker’s Arms and White Swan also make the Top 10. G’waan The North, etc, etc.
I’m not sure what the definition of a so-called “Gastropub” is nowadays, or what it ever was, but I reckon we can all agree that it should include the option of calling in for pints and bowls of well-vinegared chips, which is precisely what a group are doing as we arrive to check into one of the four plush rooms in the converted cottage next door to the boozer.
For someone with, if not a fear of then an ongoing mistrust of foxes, our pad, name of “Mr Fox”, was perhaps, in hindsight, a questionable choice of digs. Wall-mounted vulpine-noggin aside, however, it’s a classy space; plush and comfortable, replete with obligatory massive bath and bed.
I’ve mentioned before how the multi-course marathon tasting menu is likely to trigger, in me at least, either gout or apathy, sometimes both, so it’s nice to see compact menu offerings such as this one at the Freemasons – £60 for four proper courses with extra bits at either end – which allow for a decent go at the scran without it all becoming a big yawny slog.
Snacks of fishy cornettos and scallop nuggets are followed by a glistening boulder of lamb fat brioche (yes, savour those words) that’s as wispily appealing in the gob as on the page. It’s enriched enough already to render the accompanying butter redundant, but manners cost nothing and I’m not one for waste, so I get it smothered on.
The Freemasons is renowned for its truffled cheese “hotdog”, a punchy (and meatless) concoction so velvety it seems to bypass normal forms of digestion and dissolve directly into the bloodstream on oral impact. Here, it arrives alongside a bold and brooding mushroom soup, a sharp cheddar “fondue” sauce cutting through the hummy autumness of the funghi. Every “gastropub” needs a soup, but few will be as conversation-haltingly appealing as this one.
Of tandoori cod in a prawn curry sauce I snaffle the lot, dredging the bowl with the crumbled brioche remnants. But, despite some laser-sharp fish cookery, it’s a touch on the light and polite side for a lad from Bradford who’s been mainlining the incomparable local spicy stuff since his early years, and who needs a touch more char and chilli for his battered palate.
There’s no shortage of wallop in the beefy double act up next, though. A hunk of fillet, pink and pert; long-braised cheek relenting and resinous. For earthy heft and refined stodge a slab of layered and crispy spud sees us right, while smoky nubs of bacon do their toothy, salty thing. A slick of euphemistically-titled “Mr Smith’s sauce” unites the lot.
That I’m stuffing such deftly cooked scran down my neck in a warmly informal upstairs room of a pub, surrounded by equine portraits and mismatched furniture, perhaps answers my own “what is a gastropub?” question posed further up. Or another way to look at it is that the souffle that comes for dessert at the Freemasons, fluffy and subtly blackberry’d, is as good as the ever-present version you get at The Box Tree over the border in Ilkley, only here it’s served on a length of slate and comes with a Pontefract Cake Custard, whose liquorice twang sits at the perfect frequency between sweet, savoury and somewhere else.
While you’re here, a quick word on breakfast, for breakfast at The Freemasons is a serious business. There will be no “help yourself to the continental buffet” here, but a small series of courses including homemade crumpets and croissants, granola and porridge, before the ‘main course’ which, because why not, comes in my case with a ladleful of creamed haggis. There follows a long lie down before checkout.
On my own ever-increasing list of restaurants to visit, The Freemasons at Wiswell has been close to the top for some time, in part because I’m a sucker for places where dining room and bedroom are within staggering distance of each other, but mainly because of words like Lamb Fat Brioche and Truffled Cheese Hotdog. Future plottings will include a return visit, and as we brace to come out of another lockdown anyone looking for a getaway where the cooking’s sharp and modern but the backdrop’s all bucolic boozer would do well to have a look at upcoming availability.