Looking for restaurants in the Lake District? Want to know where to eat in Kendal? Photographer and travel journalist Suzy Bennett takes us on a foodie road trip through the Lake District, stopping off at artisan bakeries, family-run bistros and cheese producers.
Looking for Lake District hotels? Check out our list of the best foodie places to stay in the area here.
Every day at 3.45pm, diners at Low Sizergh’s farmshop café break off from their conversations to watch a television on the wall. From the flurry of interest, you’d think that some breaking news had just come on. But the scene is far more pastoral: it’s milking time in Low Sizergh’s parlour, and it’s being aired live on the farm’s own television channel.
Outside, in what must be one of the UK’s most interactive farm experiences, the raw milk is available to buy, fresh from a coin-operated vending machine, while those who want to get up close with the cows can stroke them as they’re being milked. In the old shippon, rustic farmhouse tables, shelves and fridges are piled high with farmshop produce: creamy wedges of farmhouse cheese, velvety ice creams, craggy meringues marbled with raspberry and chocolate sauce, rich-bodied syrupy damson preserves and vibrantly coloured organic vegetables.
If you want to try Lake District produce, there have traditionally been two approaches – either filling your basket at farmshops such as Low Sizergh Barn and gourmet stores such as Booths, or splashing out at special-occasion restaurants, among them The Samling by Lake Windermere, newly opened Henrock and a Michelin-starred galaxy of Rogan & Co, Hrishi at The Gilpin, L’Enclume, The Forest Side, The Old Stamphouse, The Cottage in the Wood and Askham Hall (read on). Now, food-loving fell walkers can add polished casual dining to that mix with the recent openings of The Yan and The Queen’s Head.
Opened in July this year, The Yan – Cumbrian for ‘The One’ – is a seven-room family-run bistro with beds on a working sheep farm called Broadrayne just outside Ambleside. A flock of soft-grey Herdwicks, managed by the owners’ neighbours, stare at you inquisitively as you unload the car. Converted from a hostel, The Yan is sparklingly clean and modern, with exposed steel girders, wood-effect walls and huge picture windows framing cinematic views of Helm Crag, one of the Lake District’s most spectacular walks.
It’s a fitting setting for chef Will Manley’s gutsy dishes, which are perfectly tuned for hungry hikers and families in search of rustic, honest food at a reasonable price. My shepherd’s pie, made with Broadrayne’s slow-cooked Herdwick lamb and loaded with chunky vegetables, is deliciously oozy and comes entombed by perfect peaks of cheesy steamed mash topped with crispy parma ham. An enormous, curled-up Cumberland sausage sharing plate arrives impaled with a steak knife and fork; there’s a thyme and garlic smoked beef brisket; baked potatoes stuffed with garlic cheese; grilled corn on the cob; piles of roasted sticky onions and an enormous ploughman’s. Even the humble scotch egg gets a makeover, arriving encased in black pudding and accompanied with homemade mustard and bacon mayonnaise. For dessert, a Lake District invention: sticky toffee pudding, the acid test of any local restaurant. Will’s passes with flying colours – it’s light, fluffy, dimpled with dates and slathered in dark puddles of rich toffee sauce.
Breakfast is a similarly fortifying affair: thick-cut buttered sourdough toast, deep-orange scrambled eggs from the farm’s free-range chickens, creamy porridge with berries, nuts and honey, and a full English served with homemade baked beans and Will’s own smoky tomato sauce.
Over the fells in Askham village, at the base of mighty Lowther Castle, The Queen’s Head is part of a trio of hospitality businesses run by Lowther-owned Askham Hall. The Hall is geared to higher-end dining and the nearby George and Dragon pub to a discerning dining pub crowd, while The Queen’s Head, which opened in April, focusses on pub classics. Produce for all three is sourced from Askham’s estate and kitchen garden, which I sign up for a tour of with head gardener Colin Myers. We amble through the “nuttery”, where red squirrels nibble on fallen walnuts, dodge branches laden with plump pears in the orchard and peer in at a fruit cage heaving with blueberries. We study the beginnings of a truffle orchard, pass snoozing Saddleback pigs and enter the walled vegetable garden, where we proceed to sniff, stroke and sample edible flowers, Asian salad leaves and tender baby vegetables. Back at the Queen’s Head, I dine on a burger made with flavoursome Lowther shorthorn beef and served with chunky chips and just-picked salad from Askham’s kitchen garden.
In Kendal, I meet Lovingly Artisan baker Aidan Monks, who is busy kneading a new batch of gluey dough for delivery to his customers, who include The Samling and The Yan. His naturally leavened sourdough, which he makes using organic heritage grains, has won him basketfuls of gongs, most recently Baker of the Year at the Baking Industry Awards and olive Chef Awards’ best baker. Aidan tells me how older grains have been shown to contain 60% more vitamins and minerals than modern wheat varieties, that sourdough contains a bevy of gut-friendly probiotics, and that it can be digested by some people who can’t stomach modern-grain breads. “Sourdough has staggering health benefits,” he tells me, “and has more depth of character than non-heritage grains.” His recipes include cheese and chilli, walnut, Kalamata olive, wholemeal and fruit bread.
Further south, at St James Cheese near Cartmel, I meet another man whose produce is turning heads in the nutrition world. Martin Gott is the only UK producer of washed-rind ewe’s milk cheese, which he makes from his own sheep and with his own starter culture – a rarity in Britain’s commercial cheese-making circles. On the menu at L’Enclume and Forest Side, and in the farmshop at Low Sizergh Barn, the cheese is so packed with goodness that researchers at University College London are studying its potential for delivering probiotics to immune-suppressed children. “The milk comes straight out of the parlour and into the vat so it’s never stored, which means the vitamins and minerals stay intact,” Martin tells me. He explains how the cheese’s taste alters according to the weather and season, turning from fresh and yogurty in spring, to herby in summer, to “muttony and bacon fatty” in autumn. He slices off a piece to prove this is a good thing. It certainly is.
The most scenic spot to try Red Bank Coffee is sitting by the river at Ambleside’s Rattle Ghyll Café, or at The Yan, Forest Side or the Drunken Duck Inn, but I meet owner, Tom Prestwich, at the heart of operations, an industrial unit on the banks of Coniston Water. A roaster with a conscience, Tom explains that traceability is crucial to the company ethos, so he often travels to Central America to visit the farms himself. “I want to pinpoint exactly where the coffee comes from. Not just the region but the actual farm.” Some of Red Bank’s beans come from an all-female cooperative in Guatemala, and he donates £1 from every kilo sold of his Mountain Rescue coffee to the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association. His coffee isn’t just Fairtrade, it’s eco-friendly too, made in a fuel-efficient roaster that recycles heat and uses renewable energy. Coffee bags are collected from customers and reused.
Boosted by virtuousness as well as caffeine, I head on to Growing Well, an organic farm that helps people who are suffering from mental health problems. Referred by their GPs, people work alongside occupational therapists and gardeners to produce fruit and vegetable boxes that are delivered to the local community, and sold commercially at neighbouring Low Sizergh Barn and Tebay Services. Manager Mary Houston tells me that the improvements she sees in patients are dramatic. “It gives people a shared purpose, a social life, new qualifications and is a gentle introduction back into work. Being here stops people being reliant on antidepressants or being sectioned in hospital.”
There’s one more stop to make – and a 20-minute queue to get in, despite a heavy downpour. “It’s like this every day,” says Yasmine Hunter as she leads me through the crowd at Grasmere Gingerbread’s tiny shop and into the back office. The gingerbread recipe is a long-kept secret: staff sign a confidentially agreement and the kitchen door is padlocked shut. The recipe, she says, is much as it was in 1854 when it was invented by Victorian cook Sarah Nelson. Behind the counter, staff dressed in Victorian costumes wrap up little slabs of gingerbread in pretty blue paper. Yasmine hands me a pack. It’s chewy, sweet, with fiery spices and every mouthful leaves a dusting of brown sugar on my lip. Never mind those Lake District fells: a few mouthfuls of this biscuity rocket fuel and I reckon I could scramble my way up Everest.
Words and photographs by Suzy Bennett
More info: golakes.co.uk