Meet the Chef - Mark Birchall, Moor Hall at Aughton
PUBLISHED: 10:57 11 June 2019
Lancashire is now a powerhouse on the British food scene and double Michelin star holder Mark Birchall is one of its driving forces. He spoke to Roger Borrell
Ask any successful English chef to describe their style of cooking and the chances are they'll come out with the usual stuff about Modern British, most probably with a twist of something or other.
Here's a thought. Is it fanciful to suggest that the food you can find in our neck of the woods has gone well beyond a revival and there's a serious case for a school of cookery called Modern Lancastrian?
And that doesn't mean it's served with a twist of black pudding, although no one is complaining if it is.
Dine at Northcote, Hipping Hall, the Parkers Arms or the Swan at Fence and themes emerge - the best local produce cooked with style but a lack of fuss and a determination never to sacrifice flavour for flamboyance. OK, and then a piece of black pudding.
Nowhere is this is better illustrated than at Moor Hall at Aughton, near Ormskirk. Here you will find food that is not just among the best in the north but as good as you'll find anywhere in the UK. And it is all the creation of a Chorley lad who flunked his home economics exams. Mark Birchall stunned the food world by being awarded a Michelin star within six months of opening in 2017 and then followed that up with a second star in 2019. It's like Leicester City wining the Premier League - twice.
While dining in the 50-seater restaurant is an amazing experience staying over in one of the seven sumptuous bedrooms gives you access to a house of fantastic antiquity. There is a date stone for 1566 but parts are believed to be much older and the elaborate carved panelling in some of the public rooms gives you a real sense of history.
Moor Hall is owned in partnership by Mark and investors Andy and Tracey Bell, who live locally. Between them they've done a remarkable job of turning what was a rather run down building into something that should last another 500 years.
At the front, there's a substantial lake but the real joy is at the rear where a team of three gardeners have taken an ancient walled garden and turned it into a living veg and fruit larder for the kitchens.
What they don't grow comes from the locality with tomatoes from Banks, strawberries from Tarleton and yet more from Royal Oak Organics run by the Lydiate family just outside Ormskirk.
It is all put to good use by a substantial brigade in the open kitchen which remains steadfastly focused on producing food for guests to enjoy in a bright, relaxed restaurant with views over the lake.
'I wasn't interested in creating a restaurant that is uptight and pretentious,' said Mark. 'It's all about the food. We are here to make you feel good. No one cares about the waiters putting the plates down at exactly the same moment. I want people to relax, fall asleep in the chair if you want!'
Mark believes he has gathered together one of the best teams in the business and their culinary ability is almost matched by the verve and determination they showed when scrubbing down the kitchen at the end of service. I haven't seen anything like it since they took granny away.
It's hard to know where to start with such an accomplished menu but black pudding is as good a place as any. It came as a canapé which was a little crisp pillow of pudding with a pickled gooseberry soft centre. I could have eaten them all night.
But that would have stopped me from trying a dish of baked carrots with 'snow' made from Doddington cheese (Moor Hall has its own cheese room that you can visit).
Then came a tartare made from Holstein Friesians that had reached to the end of their milking days. A real deep meaty flavour with a caper jam accompaniment. A Herdwick dish was memorable in its own right but it was elevated to another plane by an offal ragu and a consommé of great skill. It was all served with great charm.
Mark, who lives nearby with his family, grew up watching the likes of Brian Turner and James Martin on television. I suspect you won't be seeing Mark on Ready, Steady, Cook - apart from not having the time, his natural environment is the kitchen.
However, he liked the creativity displayed by the TV cooks and he spent two years at Runshaw College learning some of the basics.
He struck lucky with a placement at The Pines in Chorley where the chef spotted his potential and recommended him to The Walnut Tree in Wales. After time at Northcote and Haighton Manor he went to L'Enclume in 2006 as Simon Rogan's head chef.
He won the Roux Scholarship and spent a further two years as Rogan's group executive chef. His food has built up quite a following - one chap eaten at Moor Hall 28 times - but despite its burgeoning reputation it remains a bit of a hidden gem.
While 28 visits might be pushing it, everyone should eat at least once at Moor Hall. And despite what Mark says, I guarantee you won't fall asleep.