A national park in northwest England, Cumbria – also know as the Lake District – is one of Britain’s loveliest regions, an undulating landscape of low wooded hills and scenic farmland, of glacial ribbon lakes and rugged fell mountains. Sweet-looking market towns with not-so-sweet names – Kendal, Keswick and Ambleside – have provided the backdrop and inspiration for creative types through the ages. Beatrix Potter spent time here writing and illustrating her beloved children’s stories, and William Wordsworth wrote his applauded poem “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” after a stroll along the daffodil-lined promenade of Ullswater. You can still visit Wordsworth’s onetime home, Dove Cottage, in Grasmere. Dramatic but peaceful, the region’s rolling hills and picturesque, calming waters make it a perfect place to get lost in thought. And thanks to an enduring commitment to quality produce, it’s also a great place to get lost in seriously good food.
From Michelin-starred meals to dining out in centuries-old pubs and inns, from multi-course degustations to hearty winter pies by the fire, Cumbria’s food credentials tick all the right boxes.
Strolling the cobbled riverside streets of Cartmel, overhung with willows and lined with historic stone buildings, I almost expect Peter Rabbit to hop past – the inspiration for Beatrix Potter’s books is alive and well. The town’s 12th century priory remains, surrounded by fields where happy sheep roam. But today the town’s biggest draw is chef Simon Rogan’s (a protégé of Marco Pierre White) L’Enclume restaurant, located in an 800-year-old former smithy that backs onto a garden and fast-flowing stream. With two Michelin stars, the restaurant is hard to fault: in the main dining room you can indulge in palate-thrilling degustations that might begin with “oyster pebbles” (petite apple meringues filled with a sharp oyster cream that smacks of the sea) and end, many courses later, with a lollipop of aerated chocolate and Kendal mint cake ice-cream.
If you can get in to Aulis, the private dining chef’s table adjacent to L’Enclume with space for just six people, you’ll be given the chance to glimpse chefs preparing experimental dishes that might make it onto the menu next door. Rogan’s team is passionate and knowledgeable, and explain the thinking behind each creation that they put together while you wait. lenclume.co.uk
The Drunken Duck
The story of this whitewashed inn’s name dates to back Victorian times, when it’s said that a flock of ducks became drunk on a spilt barrel of beer in the cellar. The inn’s landlady assumed the drunken ducks were dead and had them earmarked for the oven; when she discovered they were “quick” and not dead, she apparently knitted them all waistcoats to keep them warm through winter.
Fast forward 300 years and animals are still treated like royalty here: beside an open fire in the bar area, locals – and their pets – gather to enjoy a pint and a bite such as the kipper Scotch egg with plum ketchup.
Beside a microbrewery (which produces eight beers), the dining room is more formal but still has a lovely, light-filled ambiance, with tables overlooking flowerbeds and pebbled country lanes. Order à la carte dishes, including lamb rump and shoulder with jersey royals and ewe’s curd, or go straight for the six-course tasting menu, available on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Like many destination restaurants in the area, the Drunken Duck comes with boutique accommodation. All are extremely comfortable, but the Garden Room is spectacular, with its floor-to-ceiling cantilevered windows offering views across the fields towards the Langdales.
Regardless of the time of year, the gardens surrounding the inn are a magical place to explore. Coots, ducks and moorhens all nest here, and woodpeckers and pheasants are also common. drunkenduckinn.co.uk
Steps from Lake Windemere, Storrs Hall is luxe accommodation at its heart, but many people come here for the culinary offerings. The handsome Georgian mansion is set across seven hectares of grassy fields and woodland, with a pebbled trail winding along the property’s waterside boundary – halfway along the trail you’ll find the National Trust-owned “temple” on the end of a stone jetty.
Inside, a sweeping staircase sits beneath a central cupola and glazed domed skylights; there are chandeliers made of antlers, heraldic wallpapers, brocade sofas and wardrobes crafted from pale walnut. The Tower Bar is a great place to start proceedings with a glass of pinot (or port) by the fire before moving into the restaurant, where imposing windows overlook gardens that lead straight down to the water.
The menu is seasonal but might include pretty-as-a-picture plates of salt-baked English turnip with remoulade and puffed pearl barley, or a poached loin of rabbit with winter truffle, maple peas, Alsace bacon and parsnip puree. Duck also makes a regular appearance, which is no surprise given the bird’s prominence around the lake – they are featured throughout the property as well and appear on everything from the hotel’s stationary to guest room keys. storrshall.com
With its hillside setting between Bowness-on-Windermere and Ambleside, Holbeck Ghyll enjoys a truly astounding outlook, with stunning views of the lake, fells and mountains beyond. The lovely Edwardian estate is home to 29 rooms and suites as well as two exclusive cottages that exude country charm: think, oak-panelled walls, open fires and armchairs you’ll sink into and never want to leave.
Many are drawn here for the health spa – which offers everything from Ayurvedic treatments and reiki to reflexology and crystal healing – and equal numbers come for the restaurant.
The menu is truly innovative, with chef Darren Comish responsible for the mod-British creations. Depending on the season, Comish might pair a boudin of Cartmel Valley smoked salmon with a textural horseradish and beetroot crème fraîche, or will transform a roast loin of Lakeland venison with celeriac and juniper.
The team really turn it on come afternoon tea, when tiered silver trays laden with dainty cakes and finger sandwiches prove the perfect accompaniment to the finest Harrogate teas. holbeckghyll.com
The Cottage in the Wood
Describing itself as “a restaurant with rooms”, the Cottage in the Wood occupies a former 17th-century coaching inn in the Whinlatter forest near Keswick. Its isolation makes it a great base for those looking to enjoy hiking and biking trails, yet it’s still easily accessible from Windemere and other lakeside hubs.
The restaurant’s menu is contemporary but uses plenty of Cumbrian ingredients. If you are planning an alfresco excursion, the chef will happily pack you a picnic lunch using fine artisanal produce from the region.
If you are settling in to the dining room you’ll want to order delicate dishes such as smoked duck with flavours of apricot, pistachio and vanilla or Cartmel Valley pigeon with black pudding and smoked potato, nettle and bacon. The superb tasting menu is available on Saturday evenings, and there’s also a seven-course option for vegetarians.
Tumble back to one of the newly renovated rooms, with comforts including whirlpool baths, Bose sound systems and soft leather sofas, as well as valley and garden views. thecottageinthewood.co.uk
RAISE A GLASS
The only thing better than a pre-dinner gin is one prepared using the Lake District’s own damson-flavoured spirit. In the Lythe Valley, Cowmire Hall occupies buildings that date to the 1500s, surrounded by a fertile damson orchard. Today, the owners transform the fruit into a delicious, ruby hued gin – great on its own or as a mixed drink: just add lemonade and ice and serve with slices of lemon, cucumber, apple and mint. If you over-indulge, you’ll be happy to hear that Cowmire offers a number of pet-friendly accommodation options. cowmire.co.uk
The Cumbrians have been brewing beer for centuries and today, it’s thought that there are around 50 microbreweries across the region. The establishment at the Drunken Duck, Barngates Brewery, names most of its ales after pub dogs and cats; the Bitter End in Cockermouth serves a range of its award-winning beers on tap in its on-site pub; Coniston Brewing Co’s ales include the low-alcohol Bluebird Bitter and gutsy Special Oatmeal Stout; and Hawkshead Brewery is popular for its seasonal, limited-edition brews – try the Raspberry Barrel Aged Sour or Northern Imperial Stout.
Restaurants aside, there are a number of traditional Lake District specialties that should be added to your culinary travels through the region.
Kendal Mint Cake: Although it may have been conceived through a batch of peppermint creams gone wrong, this oh-so-sweet minty slab, slathered in chocolate, has become one of the UK’s most popular sugar hits. Originally marketed as a high-energy treat for hikers and climbers (legend has it Sir Edmund Hillary even took some with him on his first successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953), it’s now packaged up in pretty gift boxes at just about every store through the Lake District. Try it from Wilson’s in the town of Kendal – the recipe used today is based on the original from 1918.
Cumberland Sausage: Unlike most sausages, the Cumberland version is not linked – instead, it’s a single long (around 50cm) seasoned pork sausage served in a coil. The traditional version of the sausage is quite spicy thanks to a generous hit of white and black pepper, which mingles with other herbs and spices including thyme, sage, nutmeg, mace and cayenne (the Cumbrian port of Whitehaven has a longstanding relationship with the spice trade, hence the interesting combination in these sausages).
Cumberland Cheeses: Cumbrian cows, goats and sheep live a happy life in the lush green fields of the Lake District. And it shows in the quality of the cheese they produce. Highlights include the Crofton from Thornby Moor Dairy, a semi-soft, natural rind cheese made from a blend of cow’s and goat’s milk; Cumberland Smoked Farmhouse, an unpasteurised fromage that is hard pressed and smoked over oak chips; and a deliciously creamy Eden Smokie from Appleby Creamery, a brie that is smoked over oak and apple chips.
Sticky Toffee Pudding: It’s said that the sticky toffee pudding originated in the tiny town of Cartmel. Today, the Cartmel Village Shop sells out of the original cake – moist and drizzled with a warm toffee sauce – but also offers a range of flavour riffs including ginger, chocolate, banana, fig and even a sticky toffee apple crumble. Whatever version you order, you’re guaranteed all natural ingredients that pack a punch.
Cumberland Rum Nicky: A rich, rum-scented date pastry, Cumberland Rum Nicky is a staple of hand-me-down Cumbrian cookbooks and can be found on the dessert menu of most restaurants and cafes around the region. The pie contains a good measure of dark rum (another nod to Whitehaven’s trade past), which goes into everything from the butter to the sugar – it’s even splashed onto the pastry lattice that tops the pie. The result: chewy and rich in the middle with an addictive, crisp top.
Damsons: These small, tart plums are grown across the UK, but they’re particularly delicious from the Lythe Valley in the Lake District. Purple-black in colour, the plums have a bright yellow, aromatic flesh. They’re a great snack fresh, but are also regularly used in chutney, sauces, muffins, ice cream and even to flavour gin.