They're the kings of regional cuisine, the restaurateurs who were cooking local food 20 years before it became fashionable. To them it's not a foodie statement, it's a way of life - as Janie Stamford discovered when she met 2009 Catey Special Award winners Nigel Haworth.
Lancashire lads Nigel Haworth and his business partner of 25 years, Craig Bancroft, are famously committed to regional British food. Haworth won the main-course category for BBC's Great British Menu back in May with his "taste of home" Lancashire hotpot, and the ever-changing menu at their Michelin-starred Victorian country house hotel, Northcote, near Blackburn, is a paean to local "food heroes" and seasonal produce, from simple vegetables to Lancashire cheese ice-cream. The depth of their passion becomes even more apparent in conversation.
You've been champions of local food for 25 years. Why do you think it is important?
Nigel Haworth I was given some advice by Bob Gledhill, Caterer's former northern editor, who died last year, which has stuck with me to this day. He told me: "Nigel, stick to your roots, and keep focused on cooking regionally." It was the obvious thing to do. I always felt I have a good gauge of where the quality line has to be. As long as I could buy the quality locally, it seemed logical to try to cook locally.
I can't connect properly with a farmer in Provence but I can with the Simpsons Dairy Farm lads who supply us with milk from just a few miles away. I think that's what they do in every other European country. The community starts first and then it grows out. Keep the community together, keep the dialogue with the suppliers and the producers and know what's good on your doorstep before you start looking for what's in Greece, Italy and France.
From very small things such as picking your neighbour's apples - with their permission! - to growing a field of 100,000 cauliflowers, it's still a meaningful connection.
What does regionality mean to you?
NH I think some British chefs think regionality is traditional, old-fashioned and boring, but it isn't. Regionality can be very modern.
All regionality means is cooking within your boundaries, and those boundaries can be as big as you want them to be. Don't put any silly limitations on it, either. If you have to sneak over a boundary to get something, then just get it. It's not a game. It's about cooking things from your own area. What people want when they come into the provinces is to eat the food of that area.
I also think the very interesting thing about local food is that you meet some great characters that colour your life. I talk a lot about regionality creating colour within the community. With a small eco-climate, which you serve in an area, it creates an identity for that area. That then goes wider. It attracts tourism, interest and publicity.
Craig Bancroft Nigel has developed his own style. I call it Cuisine Haworth - regionality with his own twist. Nigel can serve a piece of partridge with some seasonal redcurrants but he isn't shy about putting a piece of foie gras with it. As he says, it's not restrictive. There's a chilled soup on the menu which is in essence a gazpacho, but Nigel's used ingredients all grown out of Tarleton, a village just the other side of Preston.
Apart from the produce, are there any other ways in which you stay local?
CB We try to keep most of our staff British and local, but we do have some foreign students and staff.
NH I think it's important that we present an English feel. We have three German staff, but you would probably struggle to know they're German. They have really taken on the culture and are interested in the development of themselves and the business.
CB There was a time when we used Wedgwood crockery, but it wasn't a rule. We will use something else if it suits our purpose. For example, Riedel wine glasses, which come from Austria, are my favourite and we will probably use them when we refurbish the restaurant. We probably won't use Dartington or some of the Waterford range, for example, as they're too heavy for my tastes. We don't do things just because they are British.
Is there a growing trend towards regionality?
NH There's a lot of talk of it, but in Britain we haven't got a lot of genuine regionality. I think one of the greatest problems is some people find it more difficult to make a cottage pie than a tournedos of beef. They cut corners and fail to understand a simple hotpot should be executed with as much detail as high-end cooking.
I think that's why we've had a bad reputation. It's not because of our fine dining, it's because the middle level of food in our pubs has historically been very poor. We are now certainly much stronger in the middle but there are still huge amounts to do.
Who is doing regionality well?
NH In France and Italy, they cherish those people who make very intimate types of products. The most important thing to them is the food, whereas in Britain material things tend to be more important than produce and people. I struggle to understand that, though, because we are a nation of culture: we've got the Royal family, we've got all the heritage in the world, but our food heritage lets us down.
Why is Britain playing catch-up with the rest of Europe?
NH I think we've always imported because we are an island. There's nothing wrong with imported products, but I think it's a bit of a disease that we don't really look at what's on our own doorstep. The French and the Italians have done it so well.
When I go to Tuscany, I love how they savour a simple salami. When I go to Spain, I love the hams. I'd love to see that sort of quality savoured over here. Hopefully in the future we'll develop that. I think we should bring over the skills that some of our European counterparts have.
How easy is it to cook locally and according to the seasons?
NH The seasons are lovely to work with. You just have to work with what is available. I think there are some very good chefs who struggle, though. To cook with the seasons means they have to change, and when you're trying to get absolute precision, change doesn't help.
Basically you can get girolle mushrooms all year round now, so if you want to use Kenyan girolles in December you can do. But we choose to use Scottish and Lake District girolles. It's what makes you excited about cooking.
How did you begin sourcing quality local produce in the early days?
CB We were very small when we started - we turned over only £100,000 in our first year - and we used to buy from the greengrocer at Blackburn market. Nigel used to come back with everything in brown bags, just like you would if you went with your granny.
NH Later on we began going to Preston market. That's where we met the growers through Graham Eastham from fresh produce supplier Sharrocks. He introduced us to people we still use now, such as Flavourfresh at Banks, and Peter Ashcroft at Worthington Farm.
It wasn't particularly easy at first, so we started with the foundations: could we buy good cream? We found Simpsons Dairy Farm at Dinkley just down the road.
Have you kept the suppliers you found back then?
NH Yes, but they come and go. I remember we found this great onion supplier called W Bowl & Son. They went out of business and I worried about where I would get my onions from, but it happens. Things change and move. I think that's what we do differently. We don't deal with a package, we deal with real life and real people who have good and bad years, and sometimes if their business isn't doing what it should they go out of business.
We get all our langoustines off the Cumbrian coastline at Fleetwood through Wellgate Fisheries. We have a trawler that goes out and gets us top-end langoustines every week. I've got to support Wellgate to ensure they succeed. If I didn't, that trawler would go.
We also grow a lot of things here, which we started 25 years ago at the very beginning. We converted completely to organic five years ago, and our gardener, Andrew Mellin, is becoming a very key part of our development.
Are you ever tempted by produce from overseas?
NH I was looking at an e‑shot the other day offering white peaches and nectarines from France, which I do love. But I've got British damsons and greengages. I've got Victoria plums in my garden. We've had a bumper crop this year and I've been making plum jam, so I don't need fancy French peaches. I often wonder if I'm denying myself, but the Victoria plums are as special as special can be.
CB But Nigel hasn't cut his nose off to spite his face. If he wants to use truffles, he will. But the truffles will be with a locally grown cauliflower in a beautiful mousseline served with fresh oysters from local oyster beds.
You've talked in the past about instances where the business has nearly gone under. When times are tough, how do you get through them?
CB It's a combination of things: Nigel's exposure on television; good sustained business for 25 years; a strong presence in the local market - people know that we are here and we're consistent. In a recession, if someone is going to spend £150 for their wife's birthday they don't want to waste it, so they come to Northcote.
NH I think it's because we consistently deliver what we say we're going to deliver and we're still very hands on. If we're not driving the kitchen, we'll be planning the next bit of it, or the next part of the restaurant. We're very "touchable" for the staff. In fact, they probably wish we weren't here so much. It's not easy having two guys like us around because we're quite fussy!
Were you ever tempted to abandon your "local" principles in favour of cost cutting, to ride the storm?
CB No. Never compromising has been the underpinning of our success. We haven't cut the staff. We haven't got ourselves into a situation where five waiters are serving 60 customers and it's all a mess. We don't want our service to suffer, so we keep our staffing levels high so we can deliver what we promise.
NH I think we both have self-belief. Although I'm often seen as the ambassador of this self-belief, Craig has been 100% behind the team and me. You've got to be so focused in a partnership to prevent cracks appearing. It seems obvious to say, but it can be more complex with two people at the head. We look at it as two people with the same beliefs, which makes it easier.
How has your partnership developed over the years?
CB When we first started out, I don't think Nigel had ever met a waiter - which is what I was then - who was as interested in and as passionate about food as he was. I admired Nigel as a cook because I thought he was brilliant, and Nigel respected me professionally because he knew that I also knew a lot about food.
We weren't mates first who went into business together. Our mutual professional respect became a great friendship and a good business partnership.
Where do you see the business going from here?
NH We always said we should do the food in the four counties around Lancashire. Under the umbrella of Ribble Valley Inns, we've opened the Three Fishes at Mitton, the Highwayman at Burrow, the Clog and Billycock at Pleasington (all in Lancashire) and the Bull at Broughton in North Yorkshire. We're partly in Cumbria, so we've got Cheshire and Derbyshire still to do. We think Derbyshire will be the trickier one, because it's a bit bleak down there: not many houses and a lot of moorland. It's a beautiful part of the world, but trying to pick the right pub in Derbyshire will probably be the biggest challenge we'll have in the next five years. Hopefully the interest that will create will spur people to look at regionality as a serious subject.
Do you find suppliers local to each site?
CB Yes, but as we're expanding the pub group and moving into different counties, we have no buying power. If we're in Yorkshire, it's got to be Yorkshire beef. So we need a new supplier, a new farmer - we're starting from scratch. We've not been able to build a network where we can use buying power to command a discount, which is a negative in terms of business. But it's the decision we took and one that we feel we can manage. If it came to a price war, we'd probably lose. A high-quality product will always cost more.
NH We used lobsters for the whole of August and the first two weeks of September from the Yorkshire coast at the Bull. We'd discovered Inshore Fisheries at Whitby, and we've sold hundreds and hundreds of lobsters in that period. Because they're in season we've been able to put on lobster and scallop potatoes and a simple garlic mayonnaise, simply grilled, for £10.50. People really don't realise that is a real bargain. In winter I'm paying £16-£20 per kilo, double the price. Looking at the season to help you understand your own area is really important. I can still make money on it, and they're plentiful so you're not harming the stocks by fishing at the wrong time.
When you moved into Yorkshire, how easy was it starting again to source local suppliers?
NH We're still at the embryonic stages for Yorkshire. We have a vegetable supplier in the Colne/Burnley area, near the Yorkshire boundary edge. They helped initially as they bought a lot from Yorkshire. They helped us find Richard Spilman at Pasture Lane Asparagus and Chris Makin and his strawberries. That's how it develops.
How do you maintain consistency across your different sites?
NH It's all about quality control and training. I meet the head chefs in the pubs every two weeks for training, and we maintain good contact by e‑mail. When it comes to quality on the plate, I work as closely with them as I can. We have a great operations director, Andy Morris, who spends a lot of time making sure the chefs understand my ethos when I can't be there.
There's more effort needed than your normal run-of-the-mill business, but then that's not what we're setting out to do. I think we're successful because we have a very clear idea of what we're trying to achieve.
Any other plans to promote your passion for regionality?
NH We've talked with the local tourist board about having a shrimp festival on the coast. I would also love to open a seafood restaurant and get a bit of colour into our coastline. There are parts of the Lancashire coast that are beautiful and we don't yet have a great seafood restaurant along there.
A SUPPLIER'S POINT OF VIEW
Reg Johnson, owner, Johnson & Swarbrick, poultry supplier
Dubbed "The godfather of food" and "Mr Poultry", Reg Johnson started supplying Northcote some 20 years ago.
"It all began when Paul Heathcote asked me for English corn-fed chicken," explains Johnson. "He and Nigel were firm friends and started to push for local produce between them. They were the forerunners of any local groups and were the first by a long way to start promoting the use of local produce."
Gradually the trend crept down to London. "Marco Pierre White was the first chef to use us in London," Johnson recalls. "He got our ducks for the Canteen, and it just all gained momentum from there."
On Howarth's dedication to keeping it local, he adds: "He's just always been totally committed to local produce. He he gives the smaller prodders a lot of support and a chance to showcase their produce through his places. If it wasn't for him and more recently other restaurants that are now promoting these products and providing a shop window, these cottage industries would wither away. The supermarkets aren't going to champion them; it's all down to these chefs and their restaurants."
Johnson also believes part of the problem is that the British don't champion their own wares enough. "The French have always been fantastic at marketing their products and they got the great French chefs behind them decades ago - just think about French cheese. We tend to think things from abroad are better but we need to start using our own produce, championing it and realising how worthy it is."
KEY SUPPLIERS TO NORTHCOTE
Peter Ascroft, H&P Ashcroft, Worthington Farm, Tarleton, Preston PR4 6JN
Tel: 01772 814465
Anthony Greaves, 1 Chequers Lane, Up Holland, Skelmersdale, Wigan WN8 0DA
Tel: 01695 632212
Reg Johnson, Johnson & Swarbrick, Swainson House Farm, Goosnargh
Tel: 01772 865251
Giles Shaw, Wellgate Fisheries, 5 Wellgate, Clitheroe, BB7 2DS
Tel: 01200 423511
Graham Kirkham, Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire Cheese, Beesley Farm, Goosnargh PR3 2FL
Tel: 01772 865335; www.mrskirkhams.com
Ian Banks, Eaves Green Game Farm, Goosnargh PR3 2FE
Tel: 01772 865300
Rod Spence, Burholme Farm, Whitewell BB7 3AU
Tel: 01200 448244