VICTORY on last year’s Great British Menu raised Midland French chef Adam Reid’s profile through the roof. His inspired Golden Empire Apple, selected as dessert course for the Westminster banquet climax of the BBC2 cook-off competition, is a permanent fixture on his new look menu (our review) with his name on the restaurant following the departure of mentor Simon Rogan.
This year’s North West GBM has been harder for Taste of Manchester to declare an allegiance, Ellis Barrie of Anglesey’s Marram Grass eventually pipping fellow Liverpudlian Paul Askew of The Art School in the city. We were as impressed by the third contender in the firing line, who missed the North West cut – Tom Parker of The White Swan, Fence. So much so that we had to pay a visit to the Lancashire village pub that punches above its weight gastronomically. As it happens, it was on the day they launched the first of their series of ‘Great British Menu’ meals, featuring all four dishes he put forward for the contest.
Each course (starter, fish, main and dessert) were named according to the brief ‘A Taste of British Summer Time – celebrating 140 years of Wimbledon’. Hence, from Tom’s side of the net, accompanied by equally tennis and summer-themed presentations paid for by The White Swan, ‘More Balls Please’ (fruity salad), ‘Game Set and Catch’ (oysters and langoustines with a champagne sauce), ’You Cannot BEEF Serious’ (leftfield take on summer barbecues) and ‘Whim-Bil-Done’, the latter a sweet and savoury treatment of bilberry (whimberry to the locals); the dish will be adapted for the celebration dinners because, unlike in November when GBM 2017 was filmed, the hedgerow berry is not in season.
It’s certainly high season all the time now for The White Swan. That the the greystone, Timothy Taylor hostelry has made the quantum leap into being named one of the UK’s Top 50 Gastropubs is down to the enlightened hiring of Tom, Fence-born and trained at Nigel Haworth’s Michelin-starred Northcote down the road. Youngest GBM contestant this year at just 26 and a former ‘Young Chef of the Year, he was lured back from a stint in Mexico by the Barrowford-based Turner family who took on the pub a couple of years ago.
We caught up with Tom after an astonishingly good lunch, a world away from the false bonhomie and tricksiness imposed by telly directors. And, no, he has no intention of repeating the Great British Menu, despite their enthusiasm to have him back. “I’m too laid back for all that,” he tells us. “It’s not really me. I didn’t enjoy the experience, the unnatural pressure. So much that was scripted.”
It’s all quite different in his the 40-cover maximum pub, choosing off an a la carte with just three choices per course (two for £22, three for £28) but all responding to the season and the daily market (there’s also a £55 tasting menu also reflecting what’s available).
What struck us was the artful simplicity underpinned by prodigious technique, no muddling of flavours. exemplified by my companion’s white beetroot, truffle, figs, goat cheese and nasturtium.
I chose for my starter a dish that in crasser hands and with a proprietary sauce could be a car crash – prawns with red curry. Two gloriously huge crustaceans in a Thai spiced puddle given fruity body by San Marzano tomatoes, with a scattering of baby leeks – a triumph.
The Dexter beef main was equally perfect. Two square slices of fillet, dark seared on the outside, a uniform deep pink inside, with truffle and asparagus. OK, a £10 supplement and £3 for a side of thrice-cooked chips and the bill was mounting, but all worth it.
My turbot came as a generous tranche, given an almost earthy treatment involving a scattering of morel mushrooms, thin coins of kohlrabi and a frothy hazelnut noisette sauce.
Puddings combining raspberries, jelly, peanut butter ice cream plus black bee honey and, especially, gariguette strawberries, sheep’s milk and frozen herbs shared a similar vividness of texture and taste.
Our neighbours’ cheese board – 16 to choose from, all sourced from the the North’s best cheese shop, Courtyard Dairy at Settle – looked astonishingly enticing, too. The surroundings may be unpretentious but the ambition is stellar. We don’t think young Tom Parker needs the Great British Menu. On this evidence lovers of fine food will beat a path to him, come what may.
The White Swan, 300 Wheatley Lane Road, Fence, Burnley BB12 9QA. 01282 611773. There is still availability for some of the Great British Menu meals from Wednesday, June 7 onwards. They costs £75 per head. Check the website. Booking is essential but cannot be accepted via the online booking portal. Ring 01282 611 773 or use the 'contact us' section on their booking page to e-mail any enquiry.