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The Three Fishes, Mitton

Last week was Mister North’s birthday and an excellent excuse for both of us to eat and drink in style all weekend. After an excellent, but late Saturday night out enjoying Korean food at Baekdu and sampling just a few of the excellent beers on offer at Port Street Beer House in Manchester, we were just ready for a good pub lunch preferably in a location gorgeous enough to do this fabulous weather justice. We didn’t take long to decide on The Three Fishes.

Tucked away in Mitton the Ribble Valley not far from Clitheroe and Whalley, this pub prides itself on serving good Lancashire food and drink in a beautiful location and sounded just right for an afternoon out. We decided to err on the side of caution and book a table even though it was a Monday lunchtime and were glad we had when we got stuck behind every driver in the valley out going at 30 miles a hour to drink in the sunny scenery. It also made for the most genuine welcome when we arrived at the pub 10 minutes than planned. Our waitress greeted us like service had been waiting for us and showed us to our table with enthusiasm. Combined with the pint of local Thwaites Wainwright we chose, it was a good start.

The menu is extensive and tempting and we both struggled to narrow our choices down, staring at other tables to see what they were ordering. The platters looked sensational and Mister North was very tempted by the seafood platter until we discovered they were out of the oh-so alluring sounding treacle cured salmon. This almost pleased me as it removed my dilemma and allowed me to go for the Morecambe Bay shrimp as a starter without too much dithering. The fact Mister North chose my other temptation with the baked whitebait, smoked pig’s jowl and a soft hen’s egg was fortituous too.

We didn’t have to wait long before our cheery waitress arrived with the starters, but they were good enough that I’d have waited a while for them. I was served what felt like a pint of shrimp, all glossy and glorious after being kissed by a wave of mace scented butter in their dish. I loved that the waitress brought me a spoon so even after devouring the English muffin, I wouldn’t miss a drop of that beautiful shrimpy butter. I barely noticed Mister North’s reactions as I supped my shrimp, but the morsel I sampled made me briefly envious. Soft sparkling fresh whitebait, unencumbered by batter, married beautifully with the smoky salty chewy pig’s jowl and reminded me again that pork and seafood together can barely be bettered and this was a particularly good example of it.

Excited for the mains after the great starters, I was glad there was a little bit of a pause while I recovered from my buttering up, but I was still thrilled to see my Pie Top with caramelised onions, braised ox cheek and kidneys arrive, especially when I realised it was accompanied by the same dripping cooked chips that made Mister North’s fancy scampi and squid in a basket sound so alluring, preventing us from reverting to childhood squabbling in public…

In fact there was silence at the table as we got stuck in. My ox cheek was properly unctuous, melting in the mouth after the merest prod of the fork. The disc of gleaming puff pastry soaked up some serious good gravy and the onions really added a sweet base note that made the dish. The kidneys though, weren’t as good as the ones I cooked recently, and were a tad powdery for my still offal sensitive tendencies. I’m not sure if it was the texture of the kidneys lingering, but I also found the chips a little bit claggy as if the dripping hadn’t quite been hot enough, but considering how light and lovely the batter on Mister North’s squid and scampi was, I think the issue might have been with me.

He dispatched his fritto misto and chips in record time, commenting several times on how fresh the seafood was and how light it seemed considering that it was all deep fried. I found my dish much heavier and struggled to finish the chips, but refused to waste even a drop of that gravy! We both wanted to sample the famed length of Lancashire Cheese, but were simply too full to even remotely do it justice. I’d have been tempted to go for a long walk so I could come back for it afterwards, but instead we decided to finish up rather than linger and be tempted to drink more at lunchtime. If we’d had more time, I’d have enjoyed sampling the rather good gin list, including the Chase Gin I’m keen to try, especially since it was sunny enough to sit out with a G&T.

We settled the bill and despite the fact Mister North was paying for his own birthday treat, he seemed to find it reasonable at under £50 for the two of us with a drink. Service was genuinely friendly and very easy. We neither felt rushed for coming almost as lunch ended or forced to sit on waiting around for things because they were clearing up. The whole dining room was pleasantly busy with a few other birthday lunches, kids and people enjoying themselves over a drink and I liked the atmosphere immensely. In a valley crammed with pubs and places to eat, there’s a reason that the Three Fishes is so popular. They’ve cracked gastropub food while keeping the pub vibe and welcoming everyone. It’s a local gem. I only wish it were more local to me…

Stuffed Squid…

I don’t think Shirley Conran and I would get along. She thinks life is too short to stuff a mushroom and I seem to have a fascination with stuffing just about any food I can get my hands on. Stuffed cabbage leaves are a winter staple in my house, I loved my recent dalliance with a stuffed marrow and last Saturday I feasted on these amazing garlicky stuffed tomatoes as suggested by Nigel Slater. Having exhausted all the vegetables I can think of stuffing, I needed a new challenge…

And what better than nature’s very own windsock in the shape of a whole squid? Inspired by another Nigel Slater recipe from last week’s Observer Food Monthly and some stunning looking squid on my local fishmonger’s counter, I couldn’t resist.

After getting the fishmonger to clean the squid, my eye was caught by the last of the beautiful rainbow hued Bright Lights chard in the garden and I decided to base the stuffing around this. I also dug out the last of the wonderful breadcrumbs from the freezer from a stunning rye loaf from the Tebay farm shop to add a nutty hint of flavour to it all. A pinch of mace, a slug of olive oil and some lemon zest followed suit. But the crowning glory was the rest of the tin of smoked anchovies Mister North gave me for my birthday. These add a stunning depth of rich complexity to the already amazing umami taste of these fabulous little fish.

I combined everything and stuffed the squid as full as I could get it without ripping the beautiful soft flesh. The excess stuffing went round them and tentacles and I dotted them with the very last few Tumbler tomatoes from the garden before covering them in a rich tomato sauce made with the leftover oil from the anchovies and a few home grown chillies for a kick. Add in a splash of vegetable stock and it was ready to go in the oven for around 45 minutes.

It looked majestic when I opened the casserole dish. The tomatoes had intensified in the colour to a deep ruby red flecked with a hint of emerald from the chard and the milky white squid bathed in it like a less malevolent Moby Dick. It was so soft and tender from the long slow cooking that it was quite difficult to lift out of the dish without it falling apart. I served it with some of the Shetland Blue potatoes from the garden and well anointed with the silky soft tomato sauce and it was fantastic.

The squid cut beautifully and was delightfully tender with just enough of a bite to keep it interesting. The stuffing was umami and iron rich and the tomato sauce was sweet and tasted of the summer we didn’t really have. It was great with the potatoes to soak it up, but even with that, I had a lot of sauce leftover. I froze this to eat with pasta some night or to form the base of a quick fish stew.

I can’t think of a single flaw with this dish. Easy to make, perfect for using up odd and sods in the fridge in the sauce or stuffing and stylish enough to serve at a dinner party or as a Friday night treat at the end of a hard week. Try it with baby squid to cut the cooking time, because this dish is so good you’ll be driven to distraction waiting to taste it!

Little Lamb… and huge portions

A rare opportunity to have dinner with my mum in London beckoned this week and it was the perfect opportunity to visit Chinatown. I like to try something new each time I visit so we decided this was the perfect chance to sample ‘hot pot’ at Little Lamb on Shaftesbury Avenue.

For those of you who haven’t tried this delight, hot pot is the Chinese equivalent of fondue where you dip small portions of meat, fish or vegetables in steaming hot stock to cook it at the table, eating as you go. Also known as ‘steamboat’ or ‘shabu shabu’, it is a fantastically sociable eating experience as you congregate around a steaming pot of stock and pass plates of deli-thin meats and tantalising seafood around, soaking up the smells and aromas as you eat. Read more