FOOD & DRINK: LANCASHIRE HOT SHOT NEW BRITISH CLASSICS 3: LANCASHIRE HOTPOT

His search for the new British food takes Michael Bateman to Lancashire , where he samples Paul Heathcote's inspired variation on his county's most famous dish

PAUL Heathcote surely didn't get where he is today by serving black pudding. This is not a Lancashire delicacy rated highly by the Michelin Guide men. But they consider his restaurant, Heathcote's in Longridge, the best in the north of England, awarding it the accolade of two stars (thus rating it one of their 10 best restaurants in the British Isles).

Paul Heathcote, at the modest age of 35, has been bold enough to stake out his county origins on his dashing menu. He proudly features black pudding, pigs' trotters, shepherd's pie, rice pudding, and bread-and-butter pudding: all salient landmarks of a Lancashire childhood.

"Actually, I didn't eat pigs' trotters and black pudding as a child," he says, "and I didn't like rice pudding." So why on earth would he put them on his menu? "Stubbornness," he suggests. "Bloody-mindedness."

Paul Heathcote comes from a long line of stubborn, cussed Heathcotes, he explains. Great-grandfather made his name in Preston as a boxing champion. Grandfather ran his first marathon at the age of 63. Father was a champion bodybuilder, squash player and marathon runner who runs a health studio.

Paul, no mean athlete, surprised this macho family by opting to be a cook, of all things. He trained in catering for three years at Bolton Technical College, where he enjoyed cooking, but hadn't any great ambitions. Then his father lent a hand. taking him to lunch at Sharrow Bay, the luxurious country-house restaurant in the Lake District. "It was like knowing football from kicking a ball around in the park, and then seeing Liverpool play," Paul says. He badgered the patron-chef, Francis Coulson, for two years until he agreed to take him on.

Once his ambition had been fired, Paul chose his mentors carefully. He moved to the Connaught Hotel in London, where he became part of Michel Bourdin's brigade of 50 classic French cooks. Then he moved to Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons to work under the mercurial Raymond Blanc, an extreme contrast in style.

"I learnt the disciplines of the French kitchen from the Connaught. From Raymond Blanc I learnt a passion for fresh produce. It wasn't uncommon to be out in the vegetable garden digging up baby leeks and carrots at 8pm."

His aim was always to return to his native Lancashire, and his first job was head chef at Broughton Park near Preston, running a hotel kitchen at the age of 26. "I knew I wanted to buy my own place, so my idea was to learn the business and make links with local food suppliers."

He chose Longridge as the site for his restaurant for no other reason than that the two quarrymen's cottages in the centre of the village were going cheap. However, by the time he had converted them, he had spent pounds 250,000. "Nine days after we opened there was a gas leak and the kitchen went up in flames. I just put my head in my hands; I could have cried." Somehow, and he has no idea how, they managed to reopen 48 hours later.

In six years he has built up lines of food supply where none existed. He had worked with poulets de Bresse, quality French chickens, and so he persuaded Reg Johnson - a poultry farmer at Goosnargh, a few miles away - to produce corn-fed chickens. He encouraged a vegetable supplier, Eddie Holmes, to build up a business for "Queer Gear", as they call unusual veg in Preston market. He also buys plum tomatoes and kale grown by patients at Whitting-ham, the nearby mental institution.

Fish was initially a problem. "Fleetwood was on its knees," Paul says. "You could only get scallops swollen with water, and fish in an advanced state of rigor mortis." He met a haulier called Chris Neaves who shared his interest in quality, and now Neaves has become a leading fish supplier in the north-west.

Paul is a magnificent cook and inspires a loyal and intelligent team. As more and more praise is heaped upon him, his cooking goes from strength to strength. Last year he opened a second establishment, a super-modern brasserie in the heart of Preston. As a cook, Paul doesn't lack refinement, but he has a hearty style reminiscent of some great French chefs who retain links with their local origins. Pierre Koffmann and Bruno Loubet spring to mind, from Gascony and south-west France respectively.

Perhaps there is more than a little leger-demain here. Is Paul Heathcote really drawing on local traditions, or is he creating an illusion? Or allusions. There are some nice little local references among the hors d'oeuvres, or amuse-gueules, served with drinks while you wait for the meal. Shepherd's pie, for example, a staple Tuesday or Wednesday family dish that uses up leftover mince and leftover mash. But here Paul serves one in miniature, in a tiny pastry shell, mince in gravy topped with fluffy mash, browned on top. Another little conceit is a coin-sized piece of toast piled with tiny Morecambe Bay shrimps, the prized local speciality.

Paul also features black pudding and pigs' trotters as main courses. Indeed, they are his "signature dishes". But the way that he has conceived and assembled them illustrates the thinking of the best modern British chefs. Take his black pudding of sweetbreads. It came about by chance. He was one of a group of Northern chefs invited to to cook in France, for the Krug family in the Champagne district. The organiser had produced a menu suggesting they should do foie gras, caviare truffles and so on.

"I said, 'That's a load of crap,'" recounts Paul. "'We should do black pudding.' Everyone laughed. But at the end, they asked me, 'What are you really going to cook, Paul?' 'Black pudding,' I said. I hadn't a clue how to make it. I rang up two or three butchers; I went to the slaughterhouse and bought a bag of blood. You cook it to 80 degrees to coagulate it and add chopped pork fat, onions, oatmeal, herbs, seasoning. I thought it was bloody horrible. I'd got myself into a corner. It was a nothing."

He couldn't back off. "So I thought, what is it that I've never liked about black pudding? I decided it was the fat. So I'd make it without the lumps of white fat."

He plumped up some sultanas, soaking them in white wine vinegar. Then he dried them out, putting them into the pudding mixture to give a sweet- sour taste. It was still a bit dull. He decided to provide texture with chopped sweetbreads (he has also used chopped cooked ham). He cooked the mixture in a bain-marie in the oven, rather than boiling it. Then he sliced it, brushed it with olive oil, and grilled it.

There's still more fiddling to come, for this is restaurant food. It was an interesting exercise for Paul (like a composer orchestrating a score) to create an appropriate setting. He chose a bed of crushed potatoes (boiled in their skins, crushed and forked with butter), tender haricot beans, cooked diced carrot, served with a sticky, rich veal stock sauce. This was the dish he took to Champagne, and a great stir it caused, too.

Paul is the most lateral of lateral thinkers. Having cracked the black pudding puzzle to his satisfaction, he was discussing it with his pal Terence Laybourne, chef-patron of 21 Queen Street, Newcastle. "Terence was asking if I'd ever heard of anything so barmy, black pudding sandwiches? I went home and thought about it. Why not do a black pudding bread?"

So when Paul rings the changes on his dinner breads, there will be a choice of milk roll; date and walnut loaf; sage, onion and cheese loaf; and a black pudding roll. It's a joke, really, a blob of his "black pudding" smeared into the bread dough. But it's very tasty.

His pigs' trotters are a tale in themselves. Everyone in Lancashire eats trotters; the head chef, Andrew Barnes, remembers his mother eating them roasted with a plate of chips. Paul roasts his too, then simmers them in stock for three hours, stuffs them and poaches them.

His bread and butter pudding ("I really used to hate it") is no less a trick of the chef's art, made with egg custard. His treacle tart is nothing like you got at school, but is made with buttery crumbs of egg- rich brioche.

This great illusionist's finest trick, in my book (the recipe we give here), is hotpot potatoes. Lancashire hotpot is a truly great national dish, but essentially a cheap one - a casserole of sliced potatoes and vegetables cooked with a cheap cut of lamb. The soggy potatoes soak up the lamb fat and brown nicely on top.

Paul reconstructed it. Instead of scrag end of lamb, he serves a slice of juicy rack of lamb. Instead of being baked in lamb fat, the potato slices are baked in butter. There's no added water; the potatoes steam in their own juices.

Professional chefs will recognise the cooking technique as that for the French classic pommes Anna. So it is, the Heathcote touch being the addition of a little grated carrot and onion and herbs for local flavour. The potatoes are baked like a cake, three inches deep in a lidded mould (you could use a cake tin), then baked for 45 minutes in a hot oven. The top caramelises to a crispy brown. It's not as rich as it sounds, as the butter runs off when you remove the "cake".

It is beautiful and succulent and, as a hotpot, it quite beggars belief. After I had wiped the last tasty morsel from my lips, I sensed the waiter watching me. In a guilty moment, I asked if he ever got to eat it. "Oh, yes," he said with pride. "Every Sunday. For staff lunch."

ROAST RACK OF SPRING LAMB WITH HOTPOT POTATOES

Serves 4

1kg/2lbs potatoes, sliced

2 carrots, sliced

250g/8oz butter, clarified (to make: see Kitchenalia, right)

1 onion, sliced

4 racks of lamb, 200-300g/7-10oz each

9 shallots, 1 finely diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 litre/134 pints lamb stock

50g/2oz Puy lentils

50g/2oz smoked streaky bacon, diced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

salt and freshly ground black pepper

a selection of baby vegetables, to garnish

To make the hotpot potatoes: place the sliced potatoes and carrots in a bowl and pour over the clarified butter. Arrange three layers of potatoes in the bottom of a mould, then add a layer of carrots, then of onion, followed by another layer of potatoes. Season each layer. Cook in a pre- heated oven at 200C/400F/Gas 6 until crisp (1-114 hours). Remove and set aside.

To prepare the lamb: place the racks of lamb in the oven and roast at 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 20 minutes. Remove and set aside. Place the eight whole shallots in an ovenproof dish, drizzle with the olive oil and roast until brown and tender.

Place half the lamb stock in a pan, add the lentils, bacon and diced shallot, bring to the boil and simmer until tender. Add water if necessary to prevent drying out. Set aside.

Pour the remaining lamb stock into another pan, add the rosemary and thyme, bring to the boil and reduce to a coating consistency (about 150ml/14 pint).

To serve: place a wedge of the hotpot potatoes at the top of each plate, cut the racks of lamb in half and place two cutlets on either side. Garnish with the braised lentils, baby vegetables and roasted shallots, and pour over the herb-scented lamb stock. !

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