Dining at Cumbria’s Best Tables

“Chefs are like magpies,” says our editor Cindy-Lou Dale, “they travel the world picking up ideas they love, then bring them home where they give it a twist and call it their own.” In Cumbria though, chef’s take local traditional dishes deconstruct them, add some finesse, a little je ne sais quoi and deliver food full of honesty and freshness; food that comes from places that haven’t been messed with.

Chef Oliver Martin, of Hipping Hall in Kirkby Lonsdale, serves a picked mussel starter which dissolves on the tongue and tastes of the sea – a real tango for the taste buds. “I put a spin on the classic moules mariniere and instead of onion, I serve it with leeks which are at peak season right now. I quickly steam the mussels in white wine, pick them out of their shells, then I mix all the mussel juice left from cooking with chardonnay vinegar and preserve the muscles in this juice for 24 hours. Using some of the juices I make a light butter emulsion and finish with fresh chives.”

Hipping Hall is a five-star, 15th century restored stone house set in the romantic Lune Valley. The hotel and gourmand experience restaurant is a mere stone’s throw from the majesty of Wordsworth’s lakes and the wilderness of the Brontes’ moors, positioned between the Eden Valley, the Lake District and the Yorkshire dales. Light pours in through windows overlooking manicured gardens with its whisper quiet fountain. Its nine bedrooms and one suite are simple but luxurious with minimalist limestone bathrooms.

I’ve had an ongoing love affair with soufflé for 45+ years, so I’ve eaten my fair share, including that served at the celebrated Le Gavroche in London. At Sharrow Bay in Ullswater (yet another hotel with a raft of awards for food and hospitality, all much deserved), Head Chef Colin Akrigg presented me with a Suissesse Soufflé of Stilton. It oozed spinach and pureed roasted onion and has to be the best soufflé I’ve ever had – real food and big flavours.

He explained his recipe: “The stilton, mature white cheddar, butter and egg yolks should be at room temperature when combined. Milk is warmed in a pan and flour added. This is whisked continuously until the mixture reaches boiling point. It is then poured straight in to the egg and cheese mixture and whisked until smooth. The pureed roasted onions, finely chopped buttered spinach and seasoning (nutmeg, cayenne pepper and salt) are added at this stage. Whisk egg whites until they form soft peaks then fold this into the mixture and spoon it into buttered moulds. Bake in a bain marie at 150˚C until firm. The soufflés are left to cool, before being turned out in to their serving dishes. Pour fresh cream over the soufflé and a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese. Return to the oven at 140˚C for 20 minutes, allowing them time to absorb the cream and rise.”

With its lakeside location, vast gardens, 17 bedrooms, numerous suites and an Edwardian lodge, Sharrow Bay is one of those country house hotels that must be visited at least once in a lifetime. The degree of unbridled luxury and comfort in the individually created bedrooms is astounding. You’ll soon see why Paul McCartney choice this as his engagement location. It’s sumptuous, filled with priceless antiques and may be considered a little old fashioned by some as it has a few too many cushions and pieces of china adorning the tables, but this is all part of its period charm. Ask for the Silver room, with a big bay window overlooking the lake.

The four-star Ryebeck Hotel in Bowness-on-Windermere is another temple to fine dining and where rock-star service delivers gourmet food in degrees of excellence. Chef Dom Clarke’s chocolate and mint dessert can only be described as a religious experience – a wedge of aerated melt-in-the-mouth milk chocolate, warm dark chocolate mousse served with roasted white chocolate crumbs and mint ice cream. I enquired after how one would go about aerating chocolate then listened to what could have been Heston Blumenthal discussing molecular food science. I decided then that cooking is like public speaking, to some it comes naturally, which is why it’s best left to the professionals.

Now a sophisticated getaway, the Ryebeck Hotel, once an Edwardian gentleman’s residence, is a timeless and elegant country house with perfectly manicured gardens stretching down to Windermere. The hotel is classic in style and has recently been renovated to includes 21st century modcons. Select a Grand room which has a six-foot bed, a double ended tub in the ensuite and a couple of easy chairs at the picture window with its hard to beat views across Windermere – there’s no better place to enjoy a cup of tea and homemade biscuits (compliments of housekeeping).

Cumbrian cuisine is synonymous with the ultimate fine dining dream, with timeless excellence and chefs who stand head and shoulders above the rest in their sheer brilliance. I left Cumbria both humbled and awestruck (okay, and slightly fatter), convinced this to be where the UK’s food scene is happening.

For further information about Cumbria, click here.

About the author: Cindy-Lou Dale

Cindy-Lou Dale is a freelance writer who originates from a small farming community in Southern Africa, which possibly contributed to her adventurous spirit and led her to become an internationally acclaimed photojournalist. Her career has moved her around the world but currently she lives in a picture postcard village in England, surrounded by rolling green hills and ancient parish churches. Her work is featured in numerous international magazines, including TIME and National Geographic.

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