They brought out an orange casserole pot filled with smouldering pine branches and placed it on the table with a self-conscious flourish and I was won. A venison loin with the slightest touch of a griddle was nestled in there, smoked with evergreen wood that’s grown at the foot of Pendle for thousands of years. It was the peek into Anglo-Saxon Ribble Valley rustic glamour I’d hoped for. Then, they whisked it away and on the plate when it came back – not my plate, sadly, I’d ordered something else – it had been made more beautiful, and more sensible. Only one of our table had ordered venison with pear and stilton. We sampled our tiny slivers of perfectly rare meat offered by our generous friend and silently agreed we’d been outdone. This was the meal of the evening.
The Freemasons is a pub set in what was once three 17th century homes, and later a Freemasons’ lodge, hence the name. Sat on an unassuming backstreet in a tiny hamlet at the thin end of Pendle’s wedge, you can almost hear the cartwheels, smell the peat smoke. Bustling in because we were excited, we were met by low, white ceilings, dark wood and a sense of calm reservedness that took our pre-drinks birthday timbre down four notches. I had been promised a “dogs and boots” pub by a friend; evidently pedigrees and Dubarries. Good. I wanted to see what posh dining in my area is like.
We’re lucky, I always say, that there are so many good places to eat where we live. The Freemasons is well-known all over the country, and roughly the same distance from us in another direction is The Parker’s Arms, a similarly lauded pub-with-a-menu. The Assheton Arms is also just down the road, recently and famously – around these parts – fawned over in the national press. It’s taken us six years to visit The Freemasons. I thought it was about time we took advantage of the fact we could, at a push, call this this award-winning pub that staycationers have been adding to their DB&Bing bucket lists for years now our local.
We were led up a homely staircase to our table in the front of the building underneath a pair of taxidermied fox heads.
“I hope this isn’t a hunting lodge,” someone said. (It sortof is.)
My concerns about social class were happily interrupted by one of three impeccably polite waiting staff who took our drinks orders. No matter how willing I was to play the part of a wealthy gastronomer this evening, I was not going to be tempted to spend upwards of fourty five quid on a bottle of prosecco. Two of us settled for a glass of fizz each and ordered a gutsy bottle of Italian barbera to come out with our main courses. The remaining two ordered a beer.
For my starter, I ordered the lobster – of course I did – and it was delicious in all its forms; tail poached in butter, supple and poised like it could still swim away, claw in tempura and a Thai-spiced lobster sauce. All fine and delicious. But let me tell you about the star of this dish. I’m almost ashamed. A single de-boned chicken wing, served “crispy”. Fatty like all good things are or should be, its texture set the taught lobster claw and the lightly whisked sauce ringing like a tuning fork. I wish my favourite morsel at the posh pub was something that made me sound smarter. It wasn’t. I fell in love with a chicken wing.
Main course came and once the orange Le Cruset had been taken back to the kitchen and I’d gotten over the distress of being stupid enough not to order the Perfect Venison, I tucked into my suckling pig. The pork belly was exactly as I enjoy it, with melting fat yielding lazily to the hot, crispy texture of its own skin. Served alongside was a sticky medallion of pig cheek and The Freemasons’ own black pudding, baked sweet potato, spiced rhubarb and XO sauce. One of our party admitted he’d rather have had less XO sauce, or had it served separately, and I had to agree. Along with the rhubarb and the sweet potato, which was more of a condiment than a vegetable, there was a lot of sweet, sticky flavours. It feels a bit idiotic to say so but I wish I could have had the guts to ask for gravy.
We ordered chips with our meals because to deny ourselves of them would have been a crime. They were thickly cut, cooked in duck fat, shatteringly crispy on the outside and pillowy inside like all the best baked potatoes. Yes, the chips were excellent. The bread was too, come to think of it. Brioche with rosemary and sea salt, basted in duck fat – or was it goose fat? Either way, I’d like more, please.
We didn’t order pudding, however tempting the cheese board seemed, because we were stuffed. Don’t listen when someone tells you they don’t like fancy dining because they leave hungry. We sacrificed the Michel Cluizel Chocolate for whisky and dessert wines and a groaning taxi home. Maybe next time.
It was an exceptional meal – the Venison-eater told us the next day that it was the best dish he’d ever eaten. I just wish the range of beers on offer was a little more exciting. The Freemasons is rated astronomically for being both a fantastic restaurant and a great pub. The owners maintain it is a boozer first and foremost. It manages to impress in style and deliciousness, but when we visited (on a Saturday night) there were two choices of lager and one pump clip on four cask pulls – Moorhouse’s White Witch, I think. An option to pair great beers with the beautiful food could have been exciting. The wine list was full of lovely things, but I wished I could see a strong Belgian dubbel to match the Venison, or a bolshy NEIPA or a puckingly tart sour to cut through my pork dish. It would have elevated our excellent meal still further, for a gastropub to truly be placing its role of pub as highly as its role of gastronomic destination. Chefs, sommeliers and brewers all over the country are calling for great beer to be treated with the same respect as wine and spirits. The Freemasons, with the level of respect it commands from almost anyone who’s visited, could easily bump-start this trend in the North West.
Visit The Freemasons for up-to-date A La Carte and seasonal menus.
I was not comped for this review.