It starts with black pudding bonbons served with Cumberland sauce, then chunks of bread made with Sneck Lifter, a strong, dark Cumbrian ale, and juicy Morecambe Bay shrimps, spiced and served with local honey mead. The menu at The Old Stamp House in Ambleside makes much of the fact that its food is inspired by its Cumbrian setting. Chef Ryan Blackburn offers Holker Estate fallow deer and, when it is in season in March, Herdwick hogget. Reared on the fells here, it’s a rich, almost gamey meat from sheep that are older than lambs but younger than mutton; it tastes better than either.
Swooning over Blue Winnow cheese from Thornby Moor Dairy, served with honey-roasted figs and warm Westmorland pepper bread, I ponder how Cumbria’s county recipe book grew. Take the pepper bread: rich with spices and fruit, it harks back to times when Whitehaven was one of the gateways to the Americas, where pepper, allspice, ginger, mace and rum were imported.
At The Old Stamp House’s simple, white-washed basement dining room, the set lunch is great value, but it’s worth paying for the evening tasting menu – a dance through the best of Cumbrian produce.
This fondness for farm-to-table eating is something I find throughout Cumbria. I stay at The Cottage in the Wood , a coaching inn high up in Whinlatter Forest with a dining room that looks, spectacularly, over Bassenthwaite Lake, Skiddaw and the North Western Fells. Owner Liam Berney makes his own jams, some from locally foraged berries, and in the evenings chef Chris Archer presents dishes that include Whitehaven turbot, Cumbrian roe deer and Ravenglass lobster.
In Kendal, I visit Naomi Darbishire, ‘chief infuser’ at Agnes Rose Oils. Among the jars of oils and vinegars she makes from foraged fruits are pickled walnuts and a lovely spiced blackberry vinegar. My favourite is her damson balsamic, sweetened with local honey (from £6.25/100ml).
Down near Penrith I find the slightly eccentric marmalade museum and tearooms amid the stunning gardens at Dalemain mansion. Owner Jane Hasell-McCosh runs the annual World’s Original Marmalade Awards from here each February. An on-site shop sells the winners, and I love the sweet but savoury Wild & Fruitful’s Orange Barbecue Marmalade (£3.50/227g).
In the market town itself is a glorious deli, JJ Graham. Housed in a beautiful old building, its painstakingly stocked shelves are set against painted tongue-and-groove walls and a vintage delivery bike. Owner Alan Reading has, commendably, shifted focus from national to local brands: Lakeland ales are big, as well as newcomers to the spirit scene, Bedrock gin and Kin toffee vodka.
In the nearby village of Clifton, I settle in a sunlit window seat at The George and Dragon pub and try an aged-beef shorthorn burger (£12.95), made from the rare-breed cattle reared by owner Charles Lowther. The kitchen uses much of the produce grown by the Lowther Estate and Charles is justly proud; the beef is intensely flavoured and smoky.
Crossing the county, I head southwest, down towards the village of Cartmel, famous for sticky toffee pudding and for being the place where chef Simon Rogan began his small empire of restaurants.
You don’t have to have a fat, L’Enclume-sized, wallet to eat well here. At the Pig & Whistle, Rogan’s ‘fine little boozer’, I have one of the best pub lunches I’ve had in ages – small plates of brawn and black pudding fritters (£6.50), pigs in blankets with mustard mayo (£3.50) and home-made scotch egg (£3.50). There’s a nice selection of ales here – Hartleys XB, Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde and Hawkshead Lakeland Lager – but it’s a short hop to Unsworth Yard Brewery and a lovely little collection of artisan food shops, including Cartmel Cheeses.
Over at Furness Fish Poultry & Game Supplies I am taught the art of peeling a tiny grey shrimp by hand before being shown the machines that strip thousands a day. The smell of mace and other spices lingers in the room where they make the butter that seals the pots of Morecambe Bay shrimps.
Down at seaside town Grange-over-Sands, at Higginson’s Butchers, a beardy, straw-boater-wearing Stuart Higginson tells me what makes a good Cumberland sausage without actually divulging his secret: ‘My Cumberlands are 90% meat, rare breeds whenever possible, with fresh herbs and spices. They’re different depending on whose recipe it is, but they must always be sold in a coil. And they need to be cooked slowly.’
Rare breeds are also the speciality of farmer and farm shop owner Steven Airey, who provides specialist meats from Lakeland and Herdwick sheep for restaurants in Cumbria and London. Airey loves his sheep: ‘the Herdwick has a bigger and better carcass, it’s slow growing and very gamey – it has PDO status. It is thought to have been introduced to the area by the Vikings at least 900 years ago.’
Back in the kitchen of The Mistral, a converted barn that’s my home for the night, I gather my supper. Buttery Morecambe Bay potted shrimps and toast to start, then rings of Higginson’s Cumberlands – meaty, dense and peppery, but with no overbearing spices – served with that prize-winning marmalade, cooked slowly as Higginson urged. Utterly delicious.
More budget holiday guides
Guide to Parma, Italy
The Douro, Iberia