Yum’s the word! Inside one of the UK’s best gastropubs and discovering it’s mouthwatering top to bottom, from the restaurant to the bedrooms (and the setting is the icing on the cake)
- Chef-owner Steven Smith took over Freemasons at Wiswell – now a three-AA-Rosette gastropub – in 2009
- The pub has many accolades, including fifth place in the 2022 Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs Awards
- The ‘Kitchen Bench’ experience invites up to four guests to watch as food is artfully prepared before them
- Ailbhe MacMahon pulls up a stool and samples a tasting menu of beautifully presented seasonal ingredients
- Her room, Mr Hare, is decked out in hare-themed accessories – including taxidermied hare heads on the wall
I watch the film Boiling Point a few days before taking a kitchen-counter seat at Freemasons at Wiswell, officially Britain’s fifth-best gastropub. If you’ve not seen it, the one-shot Netflix film goes behind the scenes in a trendy London restaurant, as head chef Andy Jones, played by Stephen Graham, gets in over his head in the kitchen’s pressure-cooker environment.
But don’t let the movie put you off the Freemasons ‘Kitchen Bench’ experience.
The fictional kitchen, with its knife-edge tension, and the one in the pub are chalk and cheese.
Freemasons at Wiswell (pictured centre-foreground), officially Britain’s fifth-best gastropub, lies in the medieval village of Wiswell, in the heart of the Lancashire countryside
Top 50 Gastropubs 2022 – Fifth
Top 50 Gastropubs 2020 – Third
Top 100 Restaurant Awards 2019 – 39th
Great British Pub Awards 2018 – Winner and Chef of the Year
AA Restaurant of the Year for England 2017-2018
The Good Food Guide 2016 – Best Pub
The scene before me in Freemasons – nestled in the medieval village of Wiswell, in the heart of the Lancashire countryside – is entirely drama-free.
Here, chefs work quietly, occasionally bantering with one another, under the cheery yet careful guidance of chef-owner Steven Smith.
Rather than dining in the main pub, the ‘Kitchen Bench’ experience sees up to four guests ushered into the kitchen via a side door before dining along a counter that faces the chefs’ workstations.
Smith personally presents and explains each dish as his team artfully prepare the food before me.
Smith also offers a popular ‘Kitchen Table’ lunch and dinner service, where up to 12 people can feast around the grand oak dining table that looks into the kitchen.
It’s a brilliant endeavour that allows diners to get to know the man behind the food, to get a sense of the craft that goes into each plating, all within a casual and cosy environment.
Diners can even watch the match during their meal, Smith reveals, as I look towards the flatscreen TV on the wall.
We take the food seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously, he tells me.
And this is serious food. Food that plays to the tune of three AA Rosettes, in fact.
Ailbhe MacMahon tries out the pub’s ‘Kitchen Bench’ experience, which sees up to four guests ushered into the kitchen via a side door for a gourmet counter-top tasting-menu extravaganza
Chef-owner Steven Smith offers a popular ‘Kitchen Table’ lunch and dinner service, where up to 12 people can feast around the grand oak dining table (pictured) that looks into the kitchen. ‘Kitchen Bench’ diners sit up at the counter right in front of the kitchen
‘The ever-changing “Taste of Freemasons” tasting menu is a beautifully presented showcase of seasonal, quality ingredients,’ says Ailbhe
The ever-changing ‘Taste of Freemasons’ tasting menu we’re enjoying is a beautifully presented showcase of seasonal, quality ingredients.
Fish dishes appear inside pearly shells, and the post-dessert truffles come submerged in a bowl of potpourri.
Standard pub grub this is not.
The meal is peppered with little dishes in between courses – a thimbleful of sublime lobster soup, a ‘snack’ of stone-baked flatbread with wild garlic pesto and bagna cauda dressing (a medley of garlic, anchovies, and olive oil), and my favourite, a glob of creamy smoked salmon layered with caper puree, all wrapped up in a crispy shell.
‘We take the food seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,’ Smith (pictured) tells Ailbhe
Left is Smith’s speciality – his signature truffled cheese hot dog, which is paired with a seasonal soup. Pictured right is the pub’s peanut butter parfait
On the left is Ailbhe’s favourite dish – a glob of creamy smoked salmon layered with caper puree, all wrapped up in a crispy shell – served on a bed of seashells. The image on the right shows a dish of Whitby cod loin with whipped roe, plated in a ‘heavenly’ sauce of bright green herbs
Then there’s Smith’s speciality – his signature truffled cheese hot dog paired with a seasonal soup of spring vegetables and picked ceps (a type of mushroom), topped with a melting puddle of ‘Kick Ass Cheddar’ from local cheesemaker Procter’s. It’s super-indulgent and super-delicious.
Next, it’s a sunbeam-orange dish of Manx lobster with pickled carrot and a sweet and sour blood orange sauce. The sauce isn’t to my liking, but I’m not a massive fan of sweet and sour anyway. A highlight, however, is the pickled carrots, cut into the shape of tiny lobsters and bursting with tangy flavour.
After that, it’s a mouthwatering hunk of Whitby cod loin with whipped roe, plated in a heavenly sauce of bright green herbs. ‘Everything that’s great and green about spring,’ according to Smith.
The pub’s guest rooms, introduced in 2019, are housed inside a cottage beside the inn (pictured on the right), which once upon a time accommodated the pub staff
Ailbhe stays in Mr Hare, pictured. ‘The room could pass for a studio apartment, with a giant marble bathroom, a sumptuous king-sized bed with wonderfully soft sheets, and a staircase that leads up to a snug mezzanine,’ she says
A row of antique guns in a sealed-off glass cabinet in Ailbhe’s room (pictured)
And dessert, a pink Yorkshire rhubarb crumble souffle that’s equal parts sweet and tart, is just as moreish.
As for drinks, the inn is known for its selection of cask ales, and there’s an extensive wine list and wine packages available. I settle for a glass of Chilean Pacifico Sur Merlot Reserva 2019 (£5.20 a glass) followed by a rich Argentinan Incayal Malbec 2018 (£6.25 a glass).
While overseeing the super-smooth kitchen operation, Smith occasionally pauses to fill me in on the pub’s backstory.
The building was once a lodge for the freemasons that arrived in Wiswell, which was a popular stop-off point on the way from Yorkshire to West Lancashire. ‘This has been a pub for hundreds of years,’ he reveals.
Smith took over the boozer in 2009 and turned it into the gastronomic destination it is today. The clientele is a mix between the pub’s many regulars and visitors from afar who’ve made the pilgrimage to sample Smith’s wares.
Each room is named after a different creature – Mr Hare, Mr Fox, Partridge (pictured) and Grouse
Above is the rolltop tub in the Partridge room. ‘Over the next 12 months we’re going to add some more bedrooms,’ Smith tells Ailbhe
Pictured is the Mr Fox guest room. The inn’s clientele is a mix between the pub’s many regulars and visitors from afar who’ve made the pilgrimage to sample Smith’s wares
The pub’s guest rooms, introduced in 2019, are housed inside a cottage beside the inn, which once upon a time accommodated the pub staff. Each room is named after a different creature – Mr Hare, Mr Fox, Partridge and Grouse.
‘Over the next 12 months we’re going to add some more bedrooms,’ Smith says, adding that he’s hoping to buy another cottage nearby.
My grand sleeping quarters for the night are in ‘Mr Hare’. The room could pass for a studio apartment, with a giant marble bathroom, a sumptuous king-sized bed with wonderfully soft sheets, and a staircase that leads up to a snug mezzanine.
Inside the pub, the decor is homely and full of personality, with solid wooden furniture, flagstone floors, and a primrose lick of paint
Ailbhe says that the inn’s breakfast, which is served in the main pub, is a ‘mini tasting menu in itself’
Ailbhe was hosted by Freemasons at Wiswell. ‘Taste of Freemasons’ tasting menus cost £70 per person. For more information, or to book a room, which cost from £250 per night, including breakfast – visit freemasonsatwiswell.com or call 01254 822218.
PROS: Beautiful, imaginative dishes, a supremely warm atmosphere and an idyllic countryside setting.
CONS: Room prices go up at the weekends, with the Mr Hare room rate rising for bed and breakfast from £280 to £330 a night on Fridays and Saturdays, which some may find pricey for a pub stay.
Avanti West Coast
Avanti West Coast runs trains directly from London and Manchester to Preston, the nearest large train station, which is a short taxi ride away from the pub. Visit www.avantiwestcoast.co.uk.
The decor sticks steadfastly to the hare theme – there’s a framed print of a hare on the wall, hare-emblazoned cushions, hare-shaped book stoppers and a sculpted model of a hare perched atop the stairs.
There are even taxidermied heads of hares mounted to the wall.
Another unexpected design touch is a uniform row of antique hunting guns lined up like soldiers in a sealed-off glass cabinet by the door.
The cherry on top, however, is the freestanding roll-top tub perched on the mezzanine. It’s positioned opposite a flatscreen TV, and I spend a very pleasant half-hour stewing in the bath while watching an old episode of Tales of the Unexpected.
When morning calls, it’s back to the pub for breakfast. Inside, the decor is homely and full of personality, with solid wooden furniture, flagstone floors, a primrose lick of paint and fun framed prints dotting the walls. Next to my table, there’s an illustration of a Victorian couple riding sidesaddle as a horse canters through the countryside.
Breakfast is a mini tasting menu in itself. Freshly squeezed orange juice and a berry smoothie are followed by granola with rhubarb compote and an uber-elevated bowl of porridge with caramelised hazelnuts and a dusting of cinnamon.
A basket of bread and handmade pastries sits on the table next to the inn’s signature butter, which comes with thick flakes of salt.
The headline act, however, is a dish of smoked haddock, with poached eggs and bay leaf sauce, chosen from the breakfast menu the evening before. It’s nothing short of stunning, but I’ve come to expect that from the place now.
Steven Smith’s inn offers a warm welcome and a charming country pub setting, turbocharged by food that will knock your socks off. It’s no wonder the accolades keep rolling in and the foodies keep coming back.
‘Steven Smith’s inn offers a warm welcome and a charming country pub setting, turbocharged by food that will knock your socks off,’ says Ailbhe
WHAT TO DO NEAR WISWELL, FROM THE TOLKIEN TRAIL TO MYSTERIOUS GRAVEYARDS
Climb Pendle Hill
The highest point in the Ribble Valley, the 557m- (1,827ft-) high Pendle Hill offers stunning views of the Forest of Bowland and Yorkshire. Several routes will take you to the top, but one of the most popular is the 8km (5-mile) climb from the village of Barley (www.lancswalks.co.uk).
Climb Pendle Hill, pictured above, to take in stunning views of the Forest of Bowland and Yorkshire
Take a road trip inspired by the Pendle Witches
This unconventional road trip takes you through the towns and villages that have ties to the ‘Pendle Witches’ – ten alleged witches from the Pendle area who were sent to execution in 1612. At one of the last stops, Newchurch, pay a visit to the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church – there lies a tombstone that’s known locally as the ‘witches’ grave’. For more information visit www.visitlancashire.com.
Tackle the Tolkien Trail
This 9km (5.5-mile) circular walk from Hurst Green meanders through landscapes that, it’s said, inspired Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien. Along the way you’ll pass by Stonyhurst College. Tolkien, who stayed there during the Second World War, is said to have worked on The Lord of the Rings in a classroom in the college’s upper gallery. What’s more, according to the local tourist board, several names that occur in the Lord of the Rings are similar to ones found locally, such as nearby ‘Shire Lane’ (www.visitlancashire.com).
Author J.R.R Tolkien is said to have worked on The Lord of the Rings in a classroom in the upper gallery of Stonyhurst College, pictured, which features on the scenic Tolkien Trail
Travel back to the 1940s
Sit back and enjoy a screening of Brief Encounter at Carnforth Station Heritage Centre. Much of the 1945 romantic drama, which stars Dame Celia Elizabeth Johnson and Trevor Howard and tells the story of an extramarital affair, was shot at Carnforth railway station.
Back when the film was made, the station was then a junction on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. Once the credits start to roll, head to the adjoining gallery, where you’ll learn about the filming, cast members and the locations that feature. Admission is free but £2 donations are welcome (carnforthstation.co.uk).
Enjoy a screening of the 1945 drama Brief Encounter at Carnforth Station Heritage Centre. When the film was made, the station was a junction on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway
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