Fresh or frozen? Fresh from the farm

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Related tags: Cask ale, Beer, Local food

I am, irredeemably, a city boy. My local sourcing strategy involves popping to the corner shop for a bag of smoky bacon crisps, a Kit Kat and a copy...

I am, irredeemably, a city boy. My local sourcing strategy involves popping to the corner shop for a bag of smoky bacon crisps, a Kit Kat and a copy of the Racing Post.

During the transaction, though, I am always vaguely aware that these commodities probably began life considerably further afield than my nearest Happy Shopper.

For brothers Matthew and David Mooney, such wishy-washiness is not an option. At their pub, the Duke of Portland, in the village of Lach Dennis, Cheshire, they have turned local sourcing from an aspiration to a reality.

Food is sourced through local suppliers and, wherever possible, directly from local producers. And in this case local means just that - within a just a couple of miles. David, a trained chef who has appeared on TV and conducts cookery masterclasses at regional food fairs and shows, qualifies this. "Fish, obviously, comes from further afield, but I use a guy who brings it up fresh from Brixham. I've worked with him for nearly 30 years."

The Duke of Portland is a genuine attempt by David and Matthew - the latter in charge of marketing - to 'do' local food and drink properly. The Mooney family has owned the renowned Belle Epoque brasserie in Knutsford, Cheshire for the past three decades.

In 2004, having seen the growth in the casual dining market, they decided they wanted to expand the family empire to offer a similar quality of food in a more relaxed pub environment pub.

The Duke of Portland is roughly three miles from the Belle Epoque as the organic, corn fed crow flies, on the outskirts of Northwich. It was one of four or five local pubs on the Mooney's 'hit list' of potential site. "It was a traditional boozer - dark, oppressive and dirty," says David.

But the location was right, and the Mooneys took over the pub in October 2004 on a lease with Union Pub Company, now Marston's Pub Company. The pub now features a menu built around local produce, combined with a strong cask beer offer. "The food was what we knew about, cask beer is what Marston's brought to the party," says Matthew.

"Learning how to serve good beer has been a real learning curve," but the pub now stocks five or six cask ales regularly, and holds two or three beer festivals a year.

However, it's the fresh food suppliers who give the pub its USP, as I discover on a whistle stop tour of the area with David.

Our first port of call is the small holding owned by Dennis Bamford. A landscape gardener for most of the year, during the six-week asparagus season, which traditionally ends on Midsummer's Day, Dennis; efforts are entirely devoted to harvesting the daily output - around 60lbs - of his 9,000 asparagus plants.

The crop is much in demand at the Duke of Portland and a select group of other restaurants and pubs, as well a personal callers 'in the know'. While nobody is quite sure why this asparagus is so superior, Dennis himself has a theory.

"Northwich is a salt town, it was mined here for centuries. Asparagus has deep roots, and I think it may be the salt in the water table that gives it its flavour."

While we ponder this, it's on to Wash Lane Farm. Pete Moseley has a herd of dairy cattle, but his main livelihood is potatoes grown across 140 acres and mostly sold for chips.

Pete has known the Mooney family for many years. "Some friends of mine won a meal for four at the Belle Epoque, and kindly invited us along." However, there were no chips, with David and Matthew's mother having to explain that their usual supplier had let them down with poor quality supplies.

"I was back round there the next morning with some samples," recalls Pete. Suffice it to say, since that day, high quality chips have never been off the menu at either the Belle Epoque, or now the Duke of Portland.

From there it's on to Ken Webb at nearby Cheadle Farm. Ken breeds beef cattle under the provisions of the RSPCA Freedom Foods label, which means the herd has plenty of fresh air, space to roam and fresh food.. "They're much healthier - our vet bills have fallen dramatically," says Ken.

"We concentrate on flavour, not size," he says, with the beef aged for 21 or the maximum 28 days before being vacuum packed. Much of the farm's output is sold through its own shop - which also sells lamb and pork from other local farms - or at farmer's markets.

"We used to sell to supermarkets, but not any more" says Ken. "They should wear masks - Dick Turpin did, and as far as I'm concerned he was more honest."

On that note, which will ring bells with publicans up and down the land, it's all back to the Duke of Portland for an excellent lunch which includes Ken's beef, Pete's spuds, and Dennis's asparagus. Also joining us at the table are representatives of other suppliers, such as Cornvale Fine Foods, which works with Cumbrian producers and supplies lamb and other produce to the pub.

While David is the first to acknowledge that not every pub - whether due to location or other factors - can take the same 'total' approach to fresh food as the Duke of Portland, he does believe that most pubs could do more. "Issues such as food miles and provenance are becoming increasingly important to consumers, and people respond if their local pub is supporting local businesses."

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