Northern Oasis

01 January 2000
Northern Oasis

Although the Normandie Hotel in Birtle, near Bury, Greater Manchester, is situated in the picturesque foothills of the Pennines, it is the most unlikely place to find a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Many guidebooks touch on the lack of character of the property, which comprises several buildings of varying ages and architectural styles. But they move swiftly on to the hotel's 50-seat restaurant, where 31-year-old head chef Pascal Pommier has done nothing but impress.

Pommier's style is an even mix of classic French cuisine and hearty Northern cooking. His cooking has embraced the current trend for lighter sauces, but portion sizes remain unfashionably large - well suited to the area. "My background is French, but we are catering for a certain kind of customer here," says Pommier, who was born in Burgundy.

Northern restaurant-goers still demand sizeable portions, he says, and they expect restaurants, French or otherwise, to embrace local specialities. "No problem," says Pommier - specialities such as black pudding and brawn strike a chord with him because of their French equivalents, boudin noir and fromage de tàte.

Guinea fowl with pears and Bury black pudding, from the current à la carte menu at £15.95, illustrates Pommier's style. He uses as many local suppliers as possible; for example, the guinea fowl comes from Lancashire-based supplier Cornvale Foods (tel: 01524 276386) in Kirkby Lonsdale, and the black pudding comes from a market stall in nearby Bury.

"Black pudding and sliced bread are the only prepared items that I buy in," explains Pommier. "It is too time-consuming to make black pudding myself and difficult because of the food hygiene regulations."

The guinea fowl he buys is either English or French and is corn-fed, which Pommier says makes a notable difference to the flavour of the bird. He serves half a bird per person, using the leg to make forcemeat which is then stuffed into a pocket in the breast.

"I believe in using simple ingredients with not too many flavours. I don't want to confuse customers," says Pommier. "But I like a combination of flavours to be there - there must be an element of surprise, such as the black pudding and pear garnish."

Chopped pears and black pudding are a rare combination, but they are perfect partners for game. The guinea fowl is roasted for just eight minutes in the oven and is served pink with celeriac purée, braised shallots, fondant potatoes and a sauce of mirepoix, tomatoes, garlic, Madeira, brandy, wine, chicken stock and seasoning.

Pommier describes his fillet of pork with Madeira, bread mousse and haricot beans (£16.50) as a simple dish. Given that everything is cooked to order, he has to have a number of dishes on the menu that can be prepared and cooked quickly, without jeopardising standards.

The tenderloin is sprinkled with herbs and seasoning before being wrapped in pancetta, which gives the fillet a smoky flavour. It is then sealed, roasted and rested before being served. It is presented with a Madeira and veal jus, bread mousse (made from milk, shallots, garlic, egg yolks and sliced, white bread) and haricot beans, and served with turned vegetables.

Pommier is particular about sourcing his ingredients and is known for his high standards. However, as "small fry", he says it is difficult to get exactly what he wants from suppliers. "Obviously, we don't buy in at the volumes large hotels do - I might only make a £30 order for fish each day, while the larger hotels may spend £1,000." Consequently, he cannot rely on just a handful of suppliers. "I use three or four vegetable suppliers, two herb suppliers and at least five butchers." He fills any gaps by buying direct from retail outlets and farms.

"Fortunately, there is an Italian delicatessen in Bury, which sells excellent pancetta." Pork comes from a farm in Chester that raises many breeds; however, Pommier buys only female pigs of the Landrace breed - "they're better quality and extremely tender".

Although the kitchen must be up and running seven days a week, in order to serve hotel guests breakfast, the restaurant is closed for lunch and dinner on Sundays and for lunch on Mondays. This gives Pommier an opportunity to develop dishes and perfect their presentation. "Presentation is important to me. You eat with your eyes. It's like seeing a suit in a shop window - if you like it, then you try it on."

"An instant rapport" with the owners, Gillian and Max Moussa, brought Pommier to the Normandie in 1988. After working at a series of Michelin-starred restaurants in France and completing a year's national service, he moved to England in 1986 to work at the Mill House hotel in Kingham, Oxfordshire, as sous chef. Within two years, the position of head chef came up at the Normandie and he headed north.

When Pommier was awarded his Michelin star last January, "there were lots of tears. It's such a high point in your life, you work so long to achieve it - so I feel privileged to have it. It seems much harder to achieve a Michelin star up here, though; the guide is not so widely read as it is in the south. Waterstone's in Manchester carried just 30 copies of the Michelin book when it came out."

However, Pommier believes the pressure of retaining the star is much greater. "It's always in the back of your mind: you have to cook to this standard, you can't do anything less. You cannot relax."

Pommier gives much credit to his brigade of four. "Michelin stars are all about consistency and the restaurant has only been consistent because most of the brigade have been here for at least three years. I also have an excellent sous chef, Paul Bellingham."

Many of Pommier's flavour combinations are inspired by his employers, the Moussas. Max Moussa is Egyptian and Pommier regularly sits down with the family to have an Egyptian meal. "It's seriously good food," says Pommier.

Ingredients and dishes that have crept their way into Pommier's kitchen are dolmas (stuffed vine leaves); bîrek (cheese, spinach or meat fillings in a filo pastry casing); and tabbouleh. "When food from another country is cooked properly, it's wonderful."

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