A border of daffodils shone against a rare blue sky and grass that seemed preternaturally green after the insistent, endless grey of winter. On the hills in the distance, sheep grazed on pasture beyond the car park and weeping willows or perhaps mulberry trees of this bar, restaurant, country pub and speciality coffee bar. I had seen the first signs of spring; I had had a gloriously good lunch; I was somewhere just outside Wigan.
The Mulberry Tree has been taken over by Mark Prescott, previously at the White Hart in Nayland, Suffolk under Roux patronage. He has returned to his native Lancashire, bringing with him a profound, unwavering skill, a vast repertoire of what's good to eat and a knowledge of how to adapt it to a region with its own culinary traditions. A lesser chef might lose his sense of direction away from the wellspring, or follow his masters too slavishly. This one has combined his classic French background with the influence of local produce and practices, and a generosity that is often elsewhere deployed to cover up a lack of skill. It really is the best of both culinary worlds.
We'll never be like France and it's a waste of breath to lament the differences, but when you come across somewhere like the Mulberry Tree it gives you a sense of what might have been and what can be that a sea change is taking place in this country and in our pubs. The bar and restaurant are newly fitted out in a showroom style more familiar over the Channel. But outside is a sign advertising beer for £1 a pint.
The dining room has one menu, the bar another with some overlap, and sandwiches, too, as well as boards chalked with the likes of oysters with shallot dressing, mussels in white wine, twice-baked Lancashire cheese soufflé, Tiger prawn salad with sesame dressing for around £5. Half a lobster, penne with asparagus and pesto, medallions of veal with sage and grain mustard sauce represent additional main courses. Apple and blackberry crumble or mulled red wine jelly and vanilla sauce illustrate the spectrum of puddings. Everyone should find something they'd be happy to get stuck into.
No corners are cut. They're pickling and preserving, baking, saucing and ice cream-making back there. Rolls in various flavours come hot from the oven. So does brioche. Marinated salmon, or gravadlax, the edge grass-clipping green with dill, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce came in a bulbous, fluted brioche. When the bun toppled over, its contents spilled out sumptuous and golden as if from a treasure chest. A slice of "Old-fashioned Lancashire pork terrine" had attributes similar to the best rustic French terrines: a perfectly even speckling of fat, herbs and meat, a top baked to form a slightly savoury skin. With it was a little pot of home-made piccalilli, with none of the eye-watering industrial vinegar effect but all the mustard, tumeric and chilli warmth to give new sense to this odd and overlooked English pickle and provide the counterpoint for the fatty pork. Brioche toast came with it.
It was the only time when there wasn't a surfeit; the toast ran out before the terrine did. Duck, locally reared at Goosnargh, was billed with blood oranges, fleetingly in season, and lemon. What the menu doesn't prepare you for is that this is meat not just with two fruit, but also six vegetables. Perhaps this is expected round here and no one feels the need to mention it. The splendid fowl came with courgettes, green beans and sugar snap peas, carrots, plus sautéed potatoes replete with the citric-sharpened meat juices and, under curly slivers of caramelised peel, buttery Savoy cabbage too. Finely balanced between hearty and refined it was simply wonderful, expert cooking.
One of the blackboard choices was cod with choucroute and a juniper and gin sauce. This had all the shapes and tastes you expect of a classic training: the light cream sauce speckled with snipped chives, the potatoes trimmed into tidy barrels, the perfect seasoning on the crisp-skinned, precision-roasted fish. It was a heartbreakingly magnificent piece of cod; parting each thick, white flake from the rest was like prising open the stiff pages of a glossy new book. Crowning the meltingly wispy choucroute to which had been added the potatoes, carrots, baby onions, leeks and sausages were undulating strips of fine crisp bacon. This is cooking carried out with a brain, a heart, tremendous class and no pretentions. Appearance is integral not superficial there are no squiggles, dots or pointless garnishes. All of it is for eating. Though I defy anyone to clear three plates, I'd urge everyone to have a go.
I was accompanied by two guests who I'd met only that day. One was a Yorkshirewoman who has lived down south for a year, the other a very well-travelled inhabitant of Bolton. Both seemed even more fazed than me by the amount of food we were given. Still, we weren't going to give up when there were also steamed jam pudding with custard to consider, or our choices, rice pudding with vanilla ice cream in a tuile biscuit and a tall crème caramel topped with Armagnac-soaked sultanas and prunes. My spoon was irresistably and unhygienically drawn to the two virtual strangers' puddings.
Their only reservation was the lack of atmosphere. By this they meant that on a very late Friday lunchtime other customers had all left, and though the place wasn't completely lacking northern soul (for which Wigan was once famous), it wasn't coming from the Mick Hucknall backing tape. The young man who served us couldn't have been more pleasant and professional, although we ate into his soporifically sunny afternoon.
Whether you're prepared to spend the £26 a head including wine (and not much more for dinner) that we did, or £1 on a pint, I hope everyone nearby will gather round at the Mulberry Tree and provide a chorus of appreciation to lively up every lunchtime and dinner. I wish I could promise sunshine, too.
¿ The Mulberry Tree, Mosslea Road, Wrightington, near Wigan, Lancashire (01257 451400) Tue-Fri lunch, 12-2pm, dinner, 6-9pm, Fri, Sat lunch, 12-2pm, dinner, 6-10pm, Sun lunch (£15.95) 12-2.30pm, dinner 6-8.30pm. All cards except AmEx accepted. Limited disabled accessReuse content