Craig Bancroft is the managing director of Michelin-star Northcote Hotel and Restaurant, based in the heart of the Ribble Valley, Lancashire. Wine and spirits are a vital and intergral part of the dining experience and Craig is the wine connoisseur – painstakingly matching wines to chef patron Nigel Haworth’s British seasonal menu. The duo has worked together for 33 years, after their relative’s granny and aunty got them together. He tells Eatnorth why food and wine matching is so important, why he is so enthusiastic about Obsession17 and his pet hates about the hospitality industry.
Q How did you become interested in wine?
My father, step mother and biological mother were all very good cooks, so food and the wine have always been part of my life. My understanding of food and wine was not something I learnt about. It just became something I understood.
It was my late father who got me into wine – as young children we used to unbox the wines and fill the cellar. My family had always been entertainers and we were taught early on how to decant the wine for dinner parties
My father was not in the wine industry but a wealthy industrialist from Lancashire. He and his family had 26 factories that manufactured shuttles and bobbins for the weaving trade. When you come to Northcote you will see the hand crafted shuttle napkin holders and that is the connection to my family.
Q. Was it a natural progression then for you to enter the hospitality industry?
No. I was a failure at school. I was banished to London with my tail between my legs, under the watch of my mother, who was the sales and marketing director at Trusthouse Forte Hotel group. She got me a job as a kitchen porter in the group’s London’s Kensington Close Hotel and it was there that I was offered a place on the International Management Training programme.
As part of my training, I spent six months as a chef at Grosvenor House Hotel and six months in the two Michelin-star Plaza Athénée in Paris. I continued to work at renowned London hotels such as The Westbury and The Strand Palace. But I didn’t want to become a chef, I wanted to be on the managerial side of things. So, six months before actually finishing my training programme – yes I dropped out – I landed the position of general manager at Northcote. That was in 1983 and I became the youngest general manager at the hotel at just 23 years-old.
Q. And meeting Nigel?
Nigel and I met through my granny and Nigel’s aunty gossiping together. When I arrived at Northcote, I didn’t think I was going to last. I couldn’t find anyone that I wanted to work with especially on the cooking side. I told my granny that I was going to go back to London and she re-laid that back to Nigel’s aunty as ‘I couldn’t find a chef, so was giving up and going back to London.’
Nigel just happened to have come back from Switzerland and couldn’t find a job in a good hotel. He was actually going to quit being a chef and go into the police force! But thankfully, granny and Nigel’s aunty put the two of us together and the rest is history. We have now been working together for 33 years!
Q. How did you learn to match food and wine?
I am firstly a gourmet rather than a wine expert so food was my first love. That also means I must have a good palate in terms of pairing by marrying or divorcing the right levels of acidity and flavour in the grapes to pick up on the food. What do I mean by marry or divorce? Well, you can either pair the food with wine so they are seamless or you sit them aside from each other where they actually stand apart. With the latter they can still enhance each other’s flavour profile.
On a day-to-day basis Nigel and head chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen create gourmet menus to which my team match the wine. Matching every day of our lives means my brain remembers that I have done this before so maybe I should try a different vintage or maybe the same grape from a different country/region in the world.
For instance, I know that duck always works well with a Pinot Noir, rhubarb works with an Italian Abruzzo and that chocolate and port go well together. We also have rules such as we will never start a flight with a red wine because we believe it’s wrong to make guests pile into a Burgundy straight after finishing a glass of Champagne. It can ruin the taste. Instead, we find white or rosé wines that have savoury notes to start a flight.
What has become more difficult is matching wine to desserts. Desserts are becoming more savoury or umami and that is very difficult to find wines to pair with. The big sweet wines are not really right for that and there aren’t enough sauvignon blancs, semi-dulce or the sweeter styles of Champagne out there to match effectively. Most are off-dry, or not sweet enough. This is a big challenge.
In the last five years we have been looking outside the box and experimenting more with liquors and spirits. We have found Cognac works well with chocolate and a Hendricks gin & tonic was absolutely stunning with a merengue dish, served with quark and cucumber.
But the one that fathoms me is beer. Beer is not as easy to match as people make out, to be honest. It’s trendy but it’s difficult. There is always a bitter note to it, which doesn’t help.
Q. And Obession17?
There is so much to say about Obsession, where do I start? This is the 17th year. It was launched by Nigel as a ‘celebration of great food, wine and a meeting of friends, old and new.’
We look for chefs who are obsessed with working with the very best ingredients and challenging themselves to be as creative as they can be in the kitchen. To date, we have welcomed 139 chefs who have actually taken part in it.
The most wonderful aspect this year is that we are dealing with 23 chefs different chefs, with completely different characters and different styles of cooking, they all plate their dishes differently and work in their own individual ways with front of house. Some chefs are interested in the food/drink pairing and others don’t give a damn.
Those chefs that are really interested in food and wine matching can be quite opinionated and you end up in a situation that you don’t necessary believe in what they are trying to do. We usually get our own way by getting the dish to be made in advance and pair the two wines together that have been suggested and hoping we will win.
In the 17 day event we will use around 650 bottles of Champagne and 2000 bottles of wine!
Q. How do you source the wine?
Wines are sourced by Julian Kaye, owner of Wright Wine Company in Skipton, Yorkshire. At the beginning, I had so many suppliers I couldn’t cope and found it very difficult on a Monday morning to ring 15 people so, I started to look at how I can do this more easily and have more control over what we were getting.
I went to see Julian and said: ‘If I gave you the list, would you get me anything I wanted in the world?’ He said he could. That was 22 years ago. His award-winning shop is fantastic and he is part of our wine team.
The wine team – head and advanced sommelier Tamas Czinki, Nick Adams (Master of Wine) and Marek Przyborek (advanced sommelier) – take part in a monthly panel to help evolve the wine list to ensure we have a bigger paint palate to put to the flavour board of the menus.
Seven years ago we got hold of the list and we stripped it back, country by country and painstakingly rebuilt it over a two year period. As a result the list has a healthy mix of the ‘old and the new’ and includes value for money to genuinely rare and fine wine examples. We must be doing something right as for the last four years we have been winning wine awards all over the place.
We currently have 750 bins on the list. It’s not a huge list but big enough. We are reviewing vintages all the time and moving things off that aren’t good. If a wine maker comes off the boil it goes off the list and if the wine ends up in a supermarket then it’s not on our list.
One area that Julian does struggle with, however, is securing is English Wine. We source sparkling and still wines from Gusbourne Estate Vineyard, Nyetimber and Chapel Down. The Bacchus grape variety, we like a lot but this year we couldn’t get any supply. It was all taken by the likes of celebrity chefs Rick Stein and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage).
Q. And a pet hate?
At Northcote we have a three price point (no pressure) policy. If you ask me to recommend a wine, for example, I will say: ‘this is really good value and drinking well at the moment and it will cost say £35 a bottle, this is something we think will work exceptionally well with the dish, it cost say £66 and if you are really celebrating we would recommend a top end or rate wine such as the Chateau d’Esclans Cotes de Provence Garrus Rosé. It’s outstanding but at £140 a bottle it should be. I will leave you with it.’
What drives me mad is being ‘driven up the wine list’ by a sommelier. For my 40th birthday I dined at Alain Ducasse (3*) in Paris. The head sommelier recommended a different wine to all of the four that we had decided on and every one of them was double or more in price. We told him we would stick to our choice. He went into a huff and refused to serve us. We were downgraded to a junior sommelier for the rest of the night. But, before dessert, our wealthy friend ordered two bottles of Château d’Yquem for us all to savour and suddenly the head sommelier wanted to know us again. It just proved that once he got the big ticket all the guns were out. It upset me. That is why at Northcote we make sure people are respected for their choice and if that is to order a £30 bottle of wine, so be it. But, by the same token you can’t always judge what the customer wants, hence the three price point challenge.
Q. What else riles you about hotel-based restaurants?
Breakfast! Yes Breakfast! Chefs not caring about breakfast! The guest relishes in a Michelin star dinner but is then expected to put up with a hard poached egg or knackered scrambled egg in the morning. That really riles me. In London it happens a lot. The whole evening experience is amazing and then you get breakfast and you wonder what happened!
I want my breakfast to be executed perfectly. If I order two poached eggs on toast I want them to be amazing. I don’t want them hard or cold. If a chef can do wonders with a piece of Fois Gras for dinner then the next morning can’t even be bothered to poach an egg. That can’t be right. I don’t understand it. That would never happen at Northcote.
Q. Anything else?
We don’t like stuffiness; we try and make sure everyone is relaxed the staff are allowed to be them themselves. They don’t follow a script. The best comment from guests is simply that the staff are lovely and professional.
Craig Bancroft won trade magazine, Caterer and Hotelkeeper’s (now the Caterer) Acorn Award in 1987 and the duo were awarded a Michelin star in 1996, making them the only manager and chef to collect the award together.
Bancroft entered The Academy of Food and Wine Hall of Fame in 2010. In 2013, he won the Association of Portuguese Wine Importers (APWI) Special Award, which had only been presented three times over the past 25 years.
He was named trade magazine, Imbibe Hotel Personality of The Year 2014 and the hotel was awarded AA England Wine Award 2013/14 and AA Hotel of the Year 2016/17.
Northcote recently underwent a £3million 11-month refurbishment that included four additional rooms and a revamped restaurant. Other perks include a luxurious Louis Roederer Rooms for private dining and the Northcote Cookery School.
Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn,
Lancashire, England, BB6 8BE
T: 01254 240 555
Eatnorth had the privilege of dining at Northcote during the sold-out Obsession17 event. Look out for our review of Shinichiro Takagi (2*) Zeniya, Ishikawa, Japan.