There was a distinct dip in the fortunes of many country pubs some years ago when the breathalyser kicked in and kicked drinking and driving into touch, but after a generation in the doldrums, there’s a whole new breed of smart rural watering holes these days, with fine food into the bargain.
Forget the image of so-called gastro-pubs which have spread like a rash in and around many a city and town, with deconstructed pub food classics served on roof slates and shovels, and go for the real deal in farming country instead.
With luck, you might find a gem like The Craven Heifer Inn at Kelbrook north of Colne, where Lancashire and Yorkshire rub shoulders and get along quite nicely, thank you, and where there are fans of fine food on both sides of the blurred border.
Over the years, the inn has had many uses and has been knocked about a fair bit, but has now had a complete 4* refurbishment and is in the front rank when it comes to combining stylish, contemporary dining areas and up-to-the-minute bar with traditional features like stone flagged floors and open fires, while also offering the warmest of welcomes – and exceptional food.
The menu is striking, but by no means intimidating, offering a range of dishes to appeal to most palates, with the accent on using as much fresh local produce as possible and presented in a clean, attractive and modern style.
The food for our splendid, relaxed lunch couldn’t have been more appetising when brought to our table by happy, friendly and obliging staff. And it was served on real plates!
A must-have starter, given the season, was a mushroom and asparagus tartlet, with crisp, wafer-thin pastry that Mary Berry would have been proud of and which was as light as a feather.
Main course was a split decision: one flash-grilled minute steak which was deemed to be cooked ‘just right’, served with chunky, handcut ‘real’ chips, tossed salad and horseradish mayonnaise; and a trout fillet which was again cooked perfectly to stay moist and retain its taste and texture, served with potato, chive and horseradish salad, grilled asparagus, tomato and pine nut dressing and a salsa verde.
Dessert was indulgence time, but again with a light touch, with meringue a clinching feature of both choices – a pavlova with fresh fruit and cream; and an Eton mess, served in a large sundae glass, which cruelly prevented me from licking up the last delicious morsel.
I was driving (curses!) which meant I couldn’t fully explore the wine list, but it is well worth an inspection, with a wide, attractive range and no outrageous pricing, a glass of crisp pinot rosé weighing in at just £4.20. There’s also a good choice of beers, with four popular lagers and three cask ales, with regular changing guest brews as well, kept in good nick in the original vaulted cellar just under the bar.
Above the bar and restaurant there are eight guest rooms, which combine some modern styling with traditional features, and they all have either an en-suite shower or bath, free WiFi, TV with Freeview and the usual bits and bobs.
Just across from the large beer garden – where I’m determined to lounge about at least one day this summer, if we get a decent spell of sunshine – the there’s a new, purpose-built, ten-bedroom lodge as an extension to the bed-and-breakfast side of the business, aimed at long-term guests, business travellers and those looking for a touch of modern, spacious luxury.
Rooms cost from £70 (single) and £85 (double) and I dare say the breakfast will be one to remember.
Our lunch certainly was one to remember, and so was our food bill – just £31.90 for two very satisfied diners, with no reservations about going there again very soon, although we may well have to make a reservation to stand any chance of getting a table for dinner.
The Craven Heifer Inn