The Duke of Portland, Lach Dennis, Cheshire
21:56 28 December 2009
Doomsayers have been writing the obituary of the traditional English pub for at least 30 years, but never has the rate of closure been as high as it is now. According to figures released by the British Beer and Pub Association in September, 936 pubs ceased trading in the first six months of 2008: that's nine times more than in 2006 and 18 times more than 2005.
The excuses are legion: high rents, fuel bills, aggressive discounting of alcoholic drinks by supermarkets and the smoking ban. Once upon a time it used to be the breathalyser. And few people, it seems, want to be a landlord or landlady.
But aren't the gloom merchants missing a trick? The other side of the coin suggests that pubs have become the true inheritors of raditional British cooking and the best of them are thriving under the direction of some of the country's top chefs.
The key word is 'local', that old catchall nickname that used to mean the pub just down the street.Times have moved on and the truth is that no institution can demand a right to exist if it doesn't deliver enough to lure people out of their homes.
But local now also means something else. It's where the very best of traditional British pubs source their ingredients for the very best of traditional British cooking. And not for nothing was the Duke of Portland rewarded for Best Use of Local Produce by judges at the Cheshire Food and Drink Festival. That those same judges went on to name it as Cheshire Pub of the Year came as no real surprise. The Times got into the act too, rating the Duke of Portland among the UK's Top Ten Pubs.
As guests at Cheshire Life's December Luncheon quickly discovered, this village inn in Lach Dennis, near Northwich, ticks all the boxes what the bland pub brands, traded in their hundreds by faceless venture capital companies, signally fail to manage.
For starters the Duke's management has an enviable pedigree, for it was taken over four years ago by David and Matthew Mooney under whose savvy guidance the revered Belle poque Brasserie in Knutsford will soon clock up its 35th anniversary. It terms of restaurant longevity, that's an eon.
Secondly it looks the part. It's a big pub, but its division into two well furnished dining areas on slightly different levels plus an attractive bar area and comfortable lounge lends a pleasant intimacy.
Thirdly and most important is the passionate commitment of David, executive chef of both the Duke and the Belle poque, and Matthew, who runs the front of the houses, to local producers of the finest quality ingredients. And local means local...elements of the luncheon menu were sourced, literally, from just down the road amid Cheshire's lush and bounteous countryside.
We were greeted with glasses of Warm Winter Pimms and a cornucopia of delicious canaps including miniature beignets of smoked haddock and corned beef hash, pickle-topped croutons and delightful squares of Bellini and Kir Royale jellies; delicious precursors of what was to come from chef Steve Roberts and his brigade.
Our starter proper brought generously proportioned bacon-wrapped roundels of subtly-spiced black pudding - from far-off Helmshore - partnered with crispy hash browns stuffed with Mike Heler's Cheshire Cheese from Laurel Farm, Nantwich and a complimentary mildmustard cream. Comfort food par excellence!
Partnering black pudding with Bordeaux blanc was always going to be a risky business and in truth the pepperiness of the dish did the gentle honeyed grassy notes of Chateaux Lamothe de Haux 2007 - supplied, as were all the wines by Rodney Densem - no great favours, but in its own right, the wine exhibited supple elegance.
The main course sported a list of credits that exemplify what the ethos at the Duke of Portland is all about. Carved Sirloin of Ken Webb's Cheadle Farm Beef, from two miles away, came with Pommes Dauphinoise made from potatoes grown by Pete Moseley a mile down the road and roasted Cherry Tree Farm Carrots from Lower Whitley. It was a traditional English feast; the superb flavour of the beef was enhanced by four-day oxtail gravy, the potatoes were excellent and the carrots sweet and delicious.
And the wine, merlot-rich AC Premier Cotes de Bordeaux Chateau Lamothe de Haux 2005 provided the perfect gallic riposte to le rosbif.
Pudding continued the cavalcade of Cheshire delicacies with Kelsall Apple Tartette comprising the flavourful Eddisbury Fruit Farm- grown Ingrid Marie variety - a derivative of Cox's Orange Pippin - baked in vanilla sugar and served with Calvados Custard. A chilled glass of mellow, sweet Entre-deux-Mers sipped down wonderfully in tandem before the arrival of coffee and home made chocolate truffles.
The Duke of Portland, Penny's Lane, Lach Dennis, Cheshire, CW9 7SY.
Tel: 01606 46264; www.dukeofportland.com
Open: Bar Mon-Sat noon-11pm; Food noon-2.30pm;5.30pm-10pm. Sun Bar noon-10.30pm; Food noon-8pm.
Lunch menu dishes 3.95 - 12.95. A la carte starters 3.95 -7.50; mains 8.95 - 18.95. Market menu Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm and 5.30pm-7pm 9.95 for two courses.