GFG archives

Through the archives: Steven Smith at the Freemasons Arms at Wiswell
Published 16 August 2022

Credit: Freemasons Arms at Wiswell

It may be tucked away in a tiny Ribble Valley village, but such is the flair of Blackburn-born Steven Smith's cooking, and the relaxed informality of his no-nonsense pub setting, that people track it down, hungry to eat first-rate food at one of the best pubs in the North.

The Good Food Guide 2012

Local spies reckon that the Ribble Valley is quietly morphing into a foodie destination – witness the return of chef Steven Smith, who was brought up in these parts before hitting the big time. Now he’s at the helm of the Freemasons, a gussied-up country inn with lofty gastronomic aspirations and an underwritten mood of classy informality. ‘Waking up the taste buds’ is his business, and he proves the point with a tricksy starter of tandoori monkfish, pork nuggets and scratchings with sweet potato and cumin, or a cocktail of Muncaster crab, apple, radish and shaved fennel. Mains provide real interest too; crispy breast of lamb with wild garlic, bacon risotto and morel sauce, or butter-poached haddock with leeks, mussels and local cider, plus chips served in a dinky metal basket (‘a nice touch’). Clever desserts also earn top marks for flavour and presentation; lemon meringue pie with Walnut Whips and salted walnut ice cream, for example. The 250-strong wine list offers a goodly assortment by the glass, with bottles from £14.50.

The Good Food Guide 2013

It's miles from where I live, but I dine there almost every week. All the food is amazing in both flavour and quality, expertly prepared and beautifully presented.' So notes one regular, neatly summing up the reasons to visit this classy country inn-cum-restaurant. Originally three cottages, one of which was a freemasons’ lodge, it is stylishly decorated and exudes warmth and sincerity. Steven Smith does a good line in brasserie dishes and ideas come thick and fast: a starter of tandoori roast scallops with sweet potato, apple and cumin, mains of liver and onions teamed with Savoy cabbage, balsamic and shallot sauce or ‘absolutely faultless’ butter-poached cod with scampi. It’s freewheeling stuff, using a finely honed network of suppliers to provide the best raw materials. Desserts command attention, especially a lovingly prepared rhubarb and custard soufflé. The thoughtful wine list puts France centre stage, but takes pains elsewhere; prices from £14.95.

The Good Food Guide 2014

Currently the hottest ticket in this part of Lancashire, the Freemasons cuts quite a dash with its high-impact food, ‘tasteful but informal surroundings’ and urbane outlook. Chef Steven Smith has great talent for turning classic British flavour combinations and local ingredients into smart contemporary dishes full of vibrancy and bold strokes. Witness a conventional combination of char-grilled leek and smoked haddock, transformed into ‘the silkiest, smoky velouté’ topped with a soft pheasant’s egg, or roast lamb’s sweetbread teamed with won tons, goats’ curd and hazelnuts. Mains showcase the quality of locally sourced produce, say Nidderdale lamb with cockles and capers and a mini shepherd’s pie, or Anna’s happy trotters – a startling combination of roast pork loin, black pudding purée, gammon, egg and pineapple and pork pie sauce. Desserts also dazzle, with Reg’s duck egg (custard tart and rhubarb Arctic roll) and soufflés (perhaps pistachio and macaroon with hot chocolate sauce) getting special mention. The wine list has thoughtfully chosen examples from around the globe with sound advice on hand should you need it. Prices start at £16.95.

The Good Food Guide 2015

Steven Smith’s pub in a pretty Ribble Valley village is one of Lancashire’s glories. It oozes character, the décor pitched agreeably somewhere between country interiors and rural inn, with equestrian pictures and stags’ heads. There’s a warmth to the greeting, and vigorous boundary-smashing in the kitchen. Dishes incorporate elements of the northern demotic, often in cheerily jumbled fashion, so expect Southport shrimps atop a warm pikelet with your just-cooked Wester Ross salmon, ponzu, elderflower and samphire. Other culinary traditions are jostled into service for heritage tomatoes with English mozzarella, aged balsamic, watermelon, summer fruits and black olives, or poached chicken breast studded with black garlic, leek and miso with summer greens, hen-of-the-woods and foie gras sauce. It all works because the precision and care shown in every dish, through to a perfect apricot soufflé, shines forth. A carefully constructed list covers the wine globe exhaustively from £15.50.

The Good Food Guide 2016

Steve Smith’s gem of a village pub exudes charm; it’s hard not to be seduced from the very first steps through the door. Flagstone floors, beams, scrubbed tables and oak settles convey the feel of a present-day country pub, but venture upstairs and there’s the comfort of a Victorian shooting lodge: polished tables, rich colours, plenty of taxidermy and wall-to-wall country prints. While there’s no doubt that the Freemasons plays the part of a busy local perfectly, these days it is better known for its food. Steve Smith’s aim is to blend traditional and contemporary, hitching tried and tested techniques to a wide-ranging, innovative approach, and basing menus on what is seasonally available. In winter there might be Carroll’s heritage potatoes cooked in bacon dashi and served with a crisp hen’s egg, hen of the woods and Ibérico ham, followed, perhaps, by ‘very tender’ maple-glazed pork belly and pork sausage with January King cabbage kim-chee, Yorkshire rhubarb, Lancashire cheese potatoes and a sauce of mead. Elsewhere, a ‘sensational’ deconstructed lemon meringue pie has been much praised, as have the bread rolls, ‘particularly the brioche bun cooked with lamb fat and rosemary’, and ‘wonderful, attentive staff’. The wine list (from £15.50) inspires confidence, with a good choice from all over the world.

The Good Food Guide 2017

Steven Smith’s captivating village inn is now firmly established as a serious but relaxed dining destination and the promotion of Matt Smith from sous to head chef sees no slippage in quality. Matt is clearly comfortable with the sophisticated but gutsy slant of the cooking – these dishes may surprise with their gleeful fusion of local and international flavours (‘always a twist on a classic’), but they’ll also leave you feeling heartily well fed – note a velvety cauliflower soup, for instance, studded with florets and topped with an intense and airy Lancashire cheese fondue, or butter-poached lobster tail with crispy claw won ton, gariguette strawberry, coastal herbs and a punchy black pepper sauce. This cooking never takes the humdrum route when there is something more interesting to offer: a classic baked vanilla rice pudding comes topped with saké baked apple on a vivid green apple jelly and a layer of fine pastry, with a cooling scoop of buttermilk ice cream for good measure. All this is done against a pristine but resolutely pubby backdrop, complete with rug-strewn flagstones and wood-burner (there is a more formal dining area upstairs). ‘The staff are friendly, professional and pitch themselves perfectly. The bar is an added experience and the wine list is superb,’ notes one reporter. The weighty list includes an interesting selection of fine and rare wines and plenty of attractive options by the glass. The waiting staff can be relied upon for sound recommendations – and bottles start from just £16.50.

The Good Food Guide 2018

A frequent challenge these days is how to transform an old village inn into somewhere competing in the top echelons of British dining, while still retaining the welcoming ethos of the local hostelry. The Freemasons, once a trio of workers' cottages, manages this trick with unflappable aplomb. The flagstone floors are strewn with old rugs; the period pictures and venerable furniture look as old as time, though there is talk this year of a chef's table and even a roof garden to come. Set in the lush Ribble Valley, the inn has become a nerve centre of vanguard northern cooking under Steven Smith, with fine prime materials and heritage techniques refracted through a prism of thoroughgoing innovation. The fillings of brioche pies change with the seasons, oxtail one moment, rabbit and langoustines the next, while roast hake in its fondue of Procter's Kick Ass Cheddar is a sure-fire way of starting as you mean to go on. A winter visitor enjoyed the pairing of scallops and black pudding that preceded halibut amid a welter of Lancashire shrimps, but the kitchen is confident with East-West confabulations too, offering a whole roast squab with yakitori-dressed liver and hen-of-the-woods in XO sauce. A little sweet-savoury hoisin enhances the blood-orange and rhubarb sauce that anoints a dessert of honey-roasted winter roots, while Amalfi lemon meringue pie gets not just the deconstruction treatment, but a head-turning dry-ice display, too. Alongside these pyrotechnics, an equally dazzling wine list, categorised by style, offers broad-minded range of choice, from £4.95 a standard glass.

The Good Food Guide 2019

It may be tucked away in a tiny Ribble Valley village, but such is the flair of Blackburn-born Steven Smith's cooking, and the relaxed informality of his no-nonsense pub setting, that people track it down, hungry to eat first-rate food without the dated encumbrance of awed silence and fawning service. For one content diner, it was simply 'impeccable food, attentive service and convivial atmosphere' and, with extension work underway as the Guide went to press, to turn the place into a restaurant with (four) rooms and a chef's table, the reasons to visit are manifold. Riches from the North West are referenced throughout the menu, but with layers of flavour that send them off in delicious culinary directions – a roasted rump of Herdwick lamb is spiced up with Middle Eastern flavours of aubergine, mint and yoghurt, while slow-cooked Goosnargh duck, its leg crispy, nods to Asia with tempura spring onion and hoisin sauce. The kitchen never loses sight of the fact that this is a pub, albeit a very fine one, so fish pie is packed with Morecambe Bay-caught seafood under a crust of nutty Lancashire cheese, and there's steak (OK, a piece of the tenderest, 60-day aged Hereford beef) with duck-fat chips, onion rings and peppercorn sauce. Finish with a sprightly dessert that infuses lemon meringue pie with the scent of pine from Wiswell Moor. A thoughtfully curated wine list includes plenty from small producers, and leads you gently to explore beyond the £20.50 opening price.

The Good Food Guide 2020

It takes some doing to hide in a hamlet as tiny as Wiswell, but the Freemasons looks as though it has sidled bashfully in between the cottages. That said, nothing else about Steven Smith's village inn is about the hiding of lights under bushels. Indeed, 2019 has seen new guest bedrooms and a chef's table installed. The core of the venue is an old country pub, replete with the mounted heads of stuffed creatures, hunting prints and an ambience of panelled cosiness. Amiable staff deliver plates of exciting food that are all about the distilled essence of flavour. Even during the spring renovation period, while a simpler menu was being offered, there was a superlative velouté of Jersey Royals with sour cream, caviar and chives, as warmly embracing a welcome as you'll find anywhere, and the Wellgate Smokehouse's excellent salmon, garnished with capers, cucumber, herb oil and a homemade crumpet. Main-course meats might include a tender Barnsley chop slathered with wild garlic pesto and served with truffled Parmesan fries, with a side perhaps of leek fondue and chopped hazelnuts. The sticky toffee pudding is as good as it gets, made with medjool dates and crowned with clotted cream, or there might be a trifled-up version of Eton mess, with a vanilla custard layer and a topping of coconut ice cream. Wines are taken very seriously, from the serving of honey-rich Billecart-Salmon as house Champagne to the pedigree dessert wines. Standard glasses start at £5.50.