Why the Wirral is fast becoming a foodie scene
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 September 2018 | UPDATED: 10:34 14 September 2018
The local produce and rising number of eateries deserve closer examination
Lovers of fine food and drink reading this will no doubt be aware that the Wirral and its environs is fast becoming a culinary scene. But it seems the message has struggled to reach the wider world. Carol Wilson, a Guild of Food Writers luminary who lives on the peninsula in Heswall, and Geoff Dale, General Manager of the award-winning Thornton Hall Hotel in Thornton Hough, decided to curate a whirlwind tour to bring some highlights of the local foodie offering to a select group of scribes.
Given the scorching weather, the scheduling of Chilly Stuff for our first tasting was nothing short of genius, as were the ices that owner Tim Piper produces for the likes of Silk Road in Heswall, and for Thornton Hall Hotel. The ginger gelato was memorably good: ‘I only use root ginger, peeled and sliced wafer-thin, and the Sicilian-style gelato without eggs helps keep the flavour to the fore,’ Tim explains.
Tim buys his milk from Appleby Farm in Greasby, a reminder of the quality produce available to Wirral’s food entrepreneurs. Another such source is Wirralstone Farm in Burton, the small-scale pig and poultry operation run by Mark and Moya Carus.
They have the largest herd of true Tamworth pigs in the Northwest, plus Berkshires, British Lops, and even Mangalitsas from Hungary.
Such rare breeds tend to mature slowly, but the meat benefits from that, the pig-friendly environment – no shortage of mud-pools for wallowing – and a varied diet: ‘The Wirral is a very supportive place,’ says Moya. ‘For example Claremont Farm and Vineyard Farm give us fruit and veg that has gone past its best, and the pigs love it.’
Thornton Hall buys the flavoursome meat that lifestyle produces, and head chef Chad Hughes is keen to feature truly local - and tasty - ingredients in his menus.
The same philosophy applies in the hotel’s bar, which features Torintone Gin. Torinton is the old name for Thornton Hough. The gin is developed in partnership with The Wirral Distillery in Poulton Hall: ‘We did a lot of work to get just the flavour we wanted,’ says a smiling Geoff Dale, recalling the task!
‘Gin is enormously popular now, and we wanted a house gin that is distinctive but approachable,’ he said.
The result uses elderflower, lemon and cabob along with the more usual juniper and coriander, and is not just approachable, but sociable.
The Wirral Distillery, housed in an ancient stone shippon, is at the crest of the gin wave, making both traditional offerings like its Ormskirk Gin, and some avant-garde options too – like the intriguing Bakewell Gin with bags of cherry and almond flavour, and even Violetta where Parma violets dominate. That Wirral interconnectivity applies here too, with rhubarb from Claremont Farm being a key ingredient of another tipple.
The self-contained nature of the Wirral food scene is illustrated once again by Chilli Gourmets in Heswall, run by Janey Fern. She currently has 62 varieties of chilli growing, most of which will be made into preserves like her superb Brilliant Beetroot Chilli Relish, the winner last year of a Great Taste award, but only available from a few regional stockists like local fine food chain Whitmore and White, the Cheshire Smokehouse, and The Lambing Shed in Knutsford.
Janey is clearly a chilli fanatic: ‘There are so many different colours, so many variations in flavour,’ she enthuses, ‘and it’s the ones with the best taste, not the most heat, that I love.’ Her personal favourite is Purple Haze, which the writers on our tour try – it has bags of earthy chilli flavour backed by pleasant heat.
The truly artisan (and delicious) Windsor’s Fruit Liqueurs, made by Mary Walton in her Burton cottage, mainly rely on local farmers’ markets and the internet for distribution. Every small batch is a labour of love, each infusion given time to yield the optimal taste.
‘I don’t use any artificial colours, flavourings, or preservatives,’ says Mary, ‘and everything is handmade.’ Her damson gin infuses for seven months; her toffee vodka only needs two – far longer than it would take to finish a bottle in any foodie household.
Great suppliers like these are one reason that Thornton Hall can supply fine food and drink to its guests, and the other is superb service, a combination which was demonstrated earlier this summer when its team including their chef Chad Hughes, pastry chef Ellie Fletcher, and restaurant manager Abdallah Othmani won the Afternoon Tea of the Year award in a competition in London. They were the only finalists from outside the capital.
To conclude our gastronomic tour the hotel served up their six-course tasting menu – which with canapés beforehand, a palate-cleansing sorbet midway through, and chocolates from another Wirral specialist supplier, The Chocolate Garden, actually stretches to nine! With each of the six courses matched with a wine chosen specially by the hotel’s vintner, Tanners, it’s a tour de force.
The Tamworth pig brawn terrine proves great meat inspires great dishes; perfectly cooked duck breast reconfirms that; the chariot de fromage is magnificent, and a strawberry and elderflower meringue is astonishingly good.
But are the assembled writers impressed? As the meal ends the group rises as one, marches to the hotel kitchen, and applauds Messrs Hughes and Othmani and their teams. The Wirral’s culinary scene now has some new ambassadors to spread the word.