Review by Fiona Duncan, published 10th September 2010.
When I read it, I confess I tittered. Mike Smith, author of a guide called The Best of Lancashire, published earlier this year, made a bold claim for his county. Are you a Francophile suffering from withdrawal symptoms, he asked? Are you one of the many thousands for whom the recession and the expensive euro has put paid to your yearly stay in the French countryside, where "the pace of life is slow, the roads are almost empty and the restaurants serve upcuisine de terroir"?
Fear not, said bold Mr Smith, you'll find all the delights of rural France right here in Lancashire.
Oh, come on. I am, it's true, a recent convert to the world-beating beauty of much of our landscape, but I'm also someone who is suffering, just as the author suggests, from Gallic withdrawal symptoms. This is the first year in decades in which I have not been to France. And yes, I mind.
While making comparisons, let's be more specific. The Dordogne and the Lot are regions that I know well, and love. Think of them and I see elegant rivers winding through sometimes gentle, sometimes dramatic landscapes, hilltop chateaux, sleepy, pale-stone villages, market days, simple auberges serving regional dishes, locally sourced. And when I think of Lancashire (or thought, for I know better now) it is of urban sprawls and former mill towns. I might partially be forgiven, for it turns out that the county has suffered almost as many boundary changes as Poland. Since 1974, it has lost Manchester, Liverpool, Widnes and Warrington, but a chunk of the western Pennines was happily gained, leaving Morecombe Bay, the Forest of Bowland, Pendle Hill and valleys of the Ribble and the Lune as its principal natural attractions. I decided it was time to put Mr Smith's assertions to the test.
We began our journey of discovery in the appropriately French-named Lune valley – though it must be said that by the time we reached it, the idea that we would find any similarity between Lancashire and rural France was already greatly in doubt. "Easy," announced Charles Bowman, proprietor of the Inn at Whitewell, when I phoned to book a room and told him my strange mission. "We even have a maison du vin in reception. Mind you, finding vineyards might be a bit tricky."
First stop, just five miles from Lancaster, was Crook o' Lune, where the River Lune makes a curve reminiscent of the Dordogne's Cingle de Trémolat. Stand at the viewpoint in France and you wouldn't, it's true, be assaulted by the smell of burgers being fried, as at Crook o' Lune, in a little café, but the view, stretching away to the peak of Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales, is just as beautiful as the vista at Trémolat.
By now it was lunchtime and we were dreaming of check tablecloths, steak frîtes and a carafe of red, but it was not to be. Being a Monday, just as in rural France, every hostelry along the Lune valley was firmly shut or not serving food. We ended up in Hornby (complete with hilltop chateau), sitting in the car, munching on stale custard tarts and packets of crisps from the village store.
It was also by now, if truth be told, raining, not an event I'm familiar with in the Dordogne though I imagine it rains there, too, sometimes.
But even the hopeless weather didn't stop us from wholeheartedly agreeing with John Ruskin, when he said of the Lune valley: "I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine."
You could say the same, with the greatest of ease, for the remote and beautiful Forest (ancient hunting ground) of Bowland, "an unspoilt land of round-topped moors, deep valleys, humpbacked bridges, isolated farmsteads and warm brownstone villages where traditional customs have survived to the present day", to quote Mike Smith.
In the wild Trough of Bowland, where the fells fall steeply to the narrow valley floor, we stayed at the aforementioned Inn at Whitewell, where we had our first taste of the closest that rural Lancashire, more than anywhere I have visited in Britain, comes to comparison with rural France: in its sincere and deep-rooted devotion to local produce and regional dishes.
Frankly, it's astounding. Everywhere in the British countryside plays the "local produce" card these days, but Lancashire means it, with upwards of a dozen inns and restaurants dotted about the moors and valleys whose food favourably compares with that of the French auberge of your dreams, and whose chefs work hand in glove with the remarkable number of family producers found in the Forest of Bowland, the Ribble valley and on the coast around Morecambe Bay.
A decade ago, some of them were loss-making farmers; today, with government funding, they are putting English produce back on the map. Take the Ribble Valley Food Trail or the Lancashire Cheese Trail and find out for yourself. Not to mention the profusion of farmers' markets, farm shops and food festivals: not a month goes by when the quality local produce isn't being celebrated in one form or another.
Next morning, after a very English breakfast, we crossed the stepping stones over the River Hodder at Whitewell and walked amid glorious scenery in dappled sunshine, passing quiet stone farms, one with an old, restored cheese press, cows grazing in the bright green meadows, and no traffic save one (Lycra-clad) cyclist. It didn't feel like the Dordogne, but it could have been the Auvergne. There's even a wild boar park up the road.
Leaving Bowland, we dropped down to the Ribble valley, pottering about its various villages and beauty spots, the hulk of Pendle Hill always brooding over us. There were no signs, of course, announcing "vente direct à la ferme" as we might find in rural France, but we marvelled at the collection of bottles in Byrnes' amazing wine emporium in Clitheroe (crowned by another hilltop chateau), bought one of 70 varieties in Cowman's famous sausage shop, ate delicious local ice cream at Bashall Barn, visited the home of such brews as Pheasant Plucker and Sawley Tempted at little Bowland Brewery and, the highlight of our day, tracked down one of Lancashire's seven artisan cheesemakers, Mrs Kirkham.
As luck would have it, the delightful Kirkham family are the only ones of the seven who encourage visitors (phone in advance for directions) and the only ones who keep a specially fed dairy herd (who sleep on mattresses to keep them calm and improve the milk quality) to provide unpasteurised milk for their glorious cheese.
There could have been no more fitting end to our vacance dans la campagnethan dinner, followed by bed, at Northcote, the one-Michelin star (it should have two) restaurant and hotel of Craig Bancroft and chef Nigel Haworth, whose Lancashire Hotpot was picked as the winning main course on BBC's most recent series of Great British Menu.
Along with Paul Heathcote, at whose Longridge Restaurant we managed to fit in an excellent lunch, Haworth is a true champion of cuisine de terroir, with three superb gastronomic inns (Three Fishes, Highwayman and Clog and Billycock) in the region. Pièce de résistance is Northcote, where we dined as well and as happily as at any top French restaurant I can think of.
"It's funny you should be looking for rural France in Lancashire," Bancroft told us, "because what one finds there is exactly what we are trying to emulate here in the Ribble valley."
How they succeed. Fittingly, Mrs Kirkham's cheese turned up on the gourmet dinner menu in the form of ice cream and at breakfast as the most meltingly delicious cheese soufflé I have ever tasted.
OK, locally produced foie gras eluded us (who needs it anyway?) but little else in our quest proved impossible to find. Even so, one can't seriously pretend that the delights of France can be reproduced at home. Instead, what we found in Lancashire was, in its own right, the very best of British.
Plus one more priceless ingredient: unreserved warmth from everyone we met. The perfect place to spend an autumn weekend.
The Inn at Whitewell (01200 448222; www.innatwhitewell.com), doubles from £127; Northcote, Langho (01254 240555; www.northcote.com), doubles from £225; Hipping Hall, Cowan Bridge (01524 271187; www.hippinghall.com), doubles from £165.
Longridge Restaurant, Longridge (01722 784969; www.heathcotes.co.uk);Three Fishes, Mitton (01254 826888; www.thethreefishes.com); The Highwayman, Burrow (01524 273338; www.highwaymaninn.co.uk); Clog and Billycock, Pleasington (01254 201163; www.theclogandbillycock.com).
The Best of Lancashire by Mike Smith is published by Landmark Publishing, £7.99 (www.landmarkpublishing.co.uk). For further information on Lancashire, visit www.visitlancashire.com. Details of trains to Lancaster at www.virgintrains.co.uk and car hire from Avis in Lancaster (0870 608 6387;www.avis.co.uk).