It’s not good news for squirrels. The most eagerly awaited hotel opening in the Lakes might be called The Forest Side but this is no safe haven for the bushy-tailed. Head chef Kevin Tickle is a man on a mission, switching from forager to vermin vigilante, hunter as well as gatherer. His aim: to put grey squirrel on the menu and save the native red. Squirrel Nutkin has a new champion – although Beatrix Potter might turn in her grave.
Kevin’s credentials are Lake District gold. He spent nine years learning the ropes from Simon Rogan at L’Enclume on the Lakes’ southern edge. Now he has his own kingdom. The menu, on rough brown paper tied with twine, a pen-and-ink drawing of the Lakeland fells on the front, outlines his ethos: Inspired by the Cumbrian Landscape. But, then, this bastion of heart-stopping beauty has inspired more than its share of creative genius over the centuries.
The 10-course tasting menu (11 including cheese) is called The Grand Un – and it is. From the almost cloying richness (tempered by seaside saltiness) of hen’s yolk, kohlrabi, sea lettuce and marsh herbs, to the fresher-than-toothpaste zing of frozen yogurt, celery, lemon thyme, ingeniously paired with sparkling sake. The scorched pear, malt, ginger beer dessert is pungent and peppery, and is paired with homemade ginger beer, a mouthful of thick, dark, fiery sweetness.
Set back from the road on the edge of picture postcard-pretty Grasmere, and surrounded by sweeping grounds, Forest Side is grand, grey and Victorian, and another filly for the Wildsmith hotels stable, sister to Hipping Hall. Inside, roaring fires flicker beside contemporary Cole and Son wallpaper. Outside, the large kitchen garden will soon bear fruit and veg. Seedling to plate is another of Kevin’s passions.
Forest Side is an exciting addition to a culinary landscape that has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. England’s largest national park, the Lake District is home to the country’s longest lake (Windermere), its deepest (Wastwater), its highest waterfall (Scale Force) and its highest peak (Scafell Pike) but, until quite recently, the most innovative food to come out of the region was a curly sausage (it now has PGI status).
No longer. Pubs that once dished up chicken-in-the-basket vie with restaurants, including former Cumbria Tourism Pub of the Year, The Wild Boar Inn, Grill and Smokehouse (englishlakes.co.uk), near Windermere, which has a micro-brewery and smokehouse stocking the restaurant with smoked wild boar chops.
The Drunken Duck in Barnsgate also has a microbrewery, as well as a handful of boutique hotel-style bedrooms. Instead of basket meals, these days you can enjoy cheddar and almond soufflé with onion soubise and crispy sage, and pork collar with celeriac, celery, truffle and crackling before your jam roly poly. Thankfully the name hasn’t changed; you can’t help loving a pub with a legend involving a leaking barrel of beer and ducks half-plucked by a landlady who thought them dead, not dead drunk.
Another quirky place to stay is the Rum Doodle in Windermere. This stylish b&b is named after the mountaineering spoof novel The Ascent of Rum Doodle, and serves Cumbrian-sourced breakfasts and a fine line in home-baking to guests.
The region’s sweets are celebrated; from sugary confection Kendal Mint Cake to Grasmere Gingerbread and Cumberland Rum Nicky, a rum-scented date pastry revived by the Appleby Bakery (now owned by Bryson’s of Keswick). Look out for the latter at Booths: the community-minded supermarket chain is an institution here, with seven branches in Cumbria, four of them within the Lakes, and it champions local producers.
Another sweet treat, sticky toffee pudding, is also a Lake District invention. Last autumn it celebrated its 25th anniversary and, while the puddings are now made in nearby Flookburgh, their original home, the pretty village of Cartmel, is where you’ll find a clutch of Simon Rogan’s restaurants.
L’enclume, the most celebrated, feels low-key and local with its stone-flagged floor and slate walls. But from the fragrant pink rhubarb cordial, served in a long glass with a slice of sweet, dried rhubarb, to the bread (freshly made sourdough with a jar of rendered pork fat and apple) the attention to detail is obvious.
Each dish is exquisite and clever. Broth of artichoke, Westcombe, hen of the woods, teases diners: the cheese ball is cheese-free. Cheese-infused water is thickened and made into balls. Valley venison, charcoal oil, mustard and fennel is a house specialty. The delicately diced venison from the Holker estate is peppered with tiny sugary balls of gin infused with fennel and sugar which explode in your mouth.
There are other starry places to eat in the Lakes – Sharrow Bay, near Pooley Bridge, Gilpin Lodge, outside Windermere, Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside, and The Samling, near Ambleside, among them; the latter has just bagged Nick Edgar from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons as head chef – but I have other cravings. In Ambleside outdoor clothing shops vie for space with gourmet delis as well as restaurants. At one of these, The Old Stamp House, the signature dish is hogget. The whitewashed walls of Ryan Blackburn’s restaurant are hung with drawings of native Herdwick sheep and the fell-fed hogget, from John Watson’s Yew Tree Farm, is richly gamey.
Ryan highlights the native Cumbrian larder, from an amuse-bouche of black pudding bonbons on Cumberland sauce reduced to a curd, the sweetness complementing the black pudding’s pungent earthiness, to brown shrimps, cauliflower, pine nut, curry and mead – his take on potted shrimp.
Staggering back outside, I waddle towards the local bookshop in search of an Alfred Wainwright fell-walking guide – relieved that I’ve packed my walking boots. All foodie travellers making a beeline for the Lake District take note. A tramp in the hills is the only way to shift those calories.
Written by Lucy Gillmore. First published June 2016
photographs: John Arandhara-Blackwell, Getty, Phil Rigby/Cumbria Life
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