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Hipping Hall, Lancashire

01 December 2005

Hipping Hall might have a silly name but it also has a very bright future. The former B&B was bought with the help of his parents by
28-year-old Andrew Wildsmith after he decided he wanted to switch direction and run a small luxury hotel. His previous life was spent completing a PhD in organic chemistry, so I think he made the right decision.

To help turn this dream into a regret-free reality, Wildsmith recruited Jason "Bruno" Birkbeck as head chef. Birkbeck, 27, also has youth on his side and is a graduate of Nigel Haworth's Northcote Manor kitchen, which in recent years has turned out so many fantastic young chefs it should be given some kind of Department of Education and Skills tax break.

After two-and-a-half years there, picking up the 2001 Young Chef Young Waiter gong along the way, he left for the Samling in Ambleside to work alongside Chris Meredith. Although the pair left a year ago, they'd done enough to earn the restaurant a Michelin star in this year's guide.

Birkbeck brings with him a direct, solid take on fine dining, perfect for the rugged Yorks-Lancs borders. He admits this style is heavily influenced by the kitchens he's cooked in, so, for example, the main of pot-roasted pig's head - featuring cheeks, tongue, and even some eyeball socket - was a dish Meredith cooked at the Samling, and which he in turn had brought up from his days in London.

The head is shaved and singed, then soaked for 24 hours in water, split in half, keeping the tongue whole, and then braised for around 14 hours with lots of mirepoix, tomatoes and chicken stock. The elements from the head are portioned, vac-packed and set aside for service, while the liquor is passed and reduced with apple and sage to form a sticky glaze which then coats the meat portions.

"We weren't sure how people would react, but when we put it on at Sunday lunch we sold out," says Birkbeck. "Now it's there most Sundays." Sunday lunch is £22.50 for three courses and might feature a soup or wood pigeon salad to start, followed by roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or the pig's head as a main, with sticky toffee pudding or apple crumble, say, to end - "fill your boots food" nods Birkbeck.

The evening à la carte at £42.50 for three courses is more crafted, with amuses, pre-desserts, canapés and petits fours thrown in, but the dishes are no less hearty. Starters might include braised oxtail with glazed veal sweetbreads, celeriac purée and escabèche vegetables, or a confit belly of local farm Kitridding Gloucester Old Spot, married by Birkbeck to roasted langoustine, choucroute and crispy pigs' ears. "I definitely like the more wintry dishes," says Birkbeck.

These dishes rework the best bits of punchy French regional cooking, as in a main of oven-roasted fillet of cod with haricots blancs, ventrèche bacon and salt cod casserole. Confit onions are heated in a pan with cabbage, haricots blancs and the pork belly with a ladle of fish stock and then a tablespoon of the confit oil. This is reduced and then the salt cod is diced and blended through the casserole, before it's all served on Ratte potatoes.

Although there's plenty of game on the menu, Birkbeck doesn't want to overplay traditional British food, which would seem a natural fit. "Obviously Northcote Manor was famous for Nigel's Lancashire hotpot, but I haven't gone down that line. It's too closely associated with him," he says.

However, some of his inspiration comes from his Lake District upbringing. "We use the lamb neck, which hardly anyone else uses. My mum used to make it into a stew and served it with dumplings - which my dad adored," he recalls.

The hotel opened too late to get into next year's guides. But no matter. The team is enthusiastic (Wildsmith has been known to don his apron and help with plucking the partridges), close-knit (Emma, the pastry chef, is also Birkbeck's girlfriend) and best of all young -
so there's a long future ahead for the operation. "We've got a good pace going," says Birkbeck. "But there's no rush."

There's nothing silly about that.

Chef's cheat

I use gin to deglaze the pan when I'm making the jus for my venison dish. To add more flavour, soak juniper berries inthe alcohol beforehand.

What's on the menu

£42.50 for three courses (evening)

  • Seared red mullet, pressing of anchoivies, mackerel and tomato, white balsamic and Parmesan foam
  • Roast breast of squab pigeon served with foie gras, cabbage and Bayonne ham terrine , beetroot jus
  • Raost crown partridge, confit legs, autumn truffle, pommes purée, buttered spinach, trompette mushrooms, albufera sauce
  • Pan-fried fillet of halibut, hand-rolled macaroni, mushrooms, spinach, autumn truffle
  • Prune bonbon, caramalised pear, prune and Armagnac ice-cream, almond cannelloni
  • Goosnargh yogurt mousse, red-wine-spiced poached fig, ginger caramel

Hipping Hall, Cowan Bridge, Kirkby Lonsdale, Lancashire LA6 2JJ
Tel: 01524 271187
www.hippinghall.com

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