Eat: Cumbria

A wealth of natural produce, regional charm and talented chefs and producers mean Cumbria is a veritable gourmet paradise, with Cumberland sausages, Morecambe Bay shrimp and sticky toffee pudding just a few of its specialities

By Audrey Gillan
Published 20 Apr 2015, 11:00 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 17:18 BST

We're chasing sheep around a field in Cumbria, hopelessly optimistic that these photogenic Herdwicks might huddle together for a picture. Farmer Steven Airey first tries to round them up with his 4WD, then, when that fails, he tries on foot but soon gives up, laughing. You can see from the joy in his face he loves these sturdy animals with their dense coat of grey-white wool. A special breed with PDO (protected designation of origin) status, they're found only on the Lake District fells. 

"The Herdwick has a bigger and better carcass; it's slow growing and tastes like meat used to, with more flavour than modern breeds," says Airey, who has a farm shop in Cumbria as well as a stall in London's Borough Market. "Herdies were introduced by the Vikings at least 900 years ago and now they're hefted to the fell."

I'd been nudged in Airey's direction by Ryan Blackburn, chef proprietor of the Old Stamp House in Ambleside. He prepares a dish of Herdwick hogget (meat from a sheep that's more than one year old) and sings Airey's praises. The hogget is astonishingly good and there's clearly no dearth of talent coming out of this tiny basement kitchen. The seasonal tasting menu notes that it has been 'created to reflect the Cumbrian landscape, its people and its history'.

My dinner starts with black pudding bon bons served with Cumberland sauce, then chunks of bread made with Sneck Lifter, a strong, dark Cumbrian ale, and the juicy jewels that are Morecambe Bay shrimp spiced and served with local honey mead. As my mouth tingles with the Blue Winnow cheese from Thornby Moor Dairy, served with honey-roasted figs and warm Westmorland pepper bread, I consider how Cumbria's county recipe book grew. The pepper bread is rich with spices and fruit, harking back to the days when Whitehaven on the coast was one of the gateways to the Americas, a slaving port as well as a place where pepper, allspice, ginger, mace and rum would be imported and used in local dishes.

I traverse the Lake District and the fells in an open-top Fiat 500, driving in search of the best of Cumbria's fields, lakes and seashore, and manage to get lost up some sheep passes, making friends with the Herdwicks along the way. In Kendal, tucked away in an industrial estate, is Naomi Darbishire, chief infuser at Agnes Rose Oils and purveyor of oils and fruit vinegars made from fruits she has foraged.

She says: "I've been foraging and making things from the age of three and when I made my blackberry vinegar I realised there might be a market for it. Then there's amazing Cumbrian damsons. We have a walnut tree and a few years ago we pickled some in spiced blackberry vinegar. The walnuts are done in a bath in the garden."

Down by Penrith I find the slightly eccentric marmalade museum and tearooms at Dalemain Mansion, with its stunning gardens, where Jane Hasell McCosh runs the World's Original Marmalade Awards. Their shop sells the global winners and I love the sweet yet savouriness of Wild & Fruitful's Orange Barbecue marmalade.

Crossing the county, I head westwards down towards the village of Cartmel, famous for sticky toffee pudding and being the place where multi-award winning chef Simon Rogan began creating his small empire of restaurants. Here I join up with a chef friend who would hang me by the garters if we didn't go to two-Michelin-starred L'Enclume for the 16-course tasting menu. It's articulate, technical and refined food, tweezered delicately onto plates. But I almost prefer the rough and ready punch of the grub at Rogan's Pig & Whistle where I have one of the best pub lunches I've had in ages: small plates of brawn and black pudding fritters, pigs in blankets with mustard mayo and homemade Scotch egg. There's a nice selection of ales too.

"Simon wanted to take it back, to get some pride back to it," manager Adam Thorpe says, explaining that in summer the massive garden is host to hog roasts and live music, and in winter people courie (snuggle) by the fire and sometimes listen as locals take the mic.

Over at Furness Fish Poultry & Game, I'm taught the art of peeling 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 shrimp, sweetly moreish served on toast. I stick my head in the huts where they hang and pluck game — it's quite a bloody business.

At the seaside town of Grange-over-Sands, at Higginsons butchers, a beardy, straw boater-wearing Stuart Higginson tells me the secret to a good Cumberland sausage: "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 cook them slowly."

I scoop up my produce — the shrimp, the sausages, the oils and the marmalades – and take them back to Mistal, a converted barn on the outskirts of Cartmel where I demand that my chef friend rustles them up. Steven Airey has joined us and as I hand him a glass of wine, he eyes up this impromptu buffet. He forks a Cumberland with barbecue marmalade. Then a slice of toast and shrimp.

"You can't beat Cumbria," he sighs. He might just be right. 

Five Cumbria food finds

Higginsons of Grange

Cumberland sausage, rare breed meats and fabulous pies, all handmade.

Airey's Farm Shop
For Lakeland Herdwick hogget, rare-breed beef and other locally grown or reared produce. 

Agnes Rose Oils
Oils and fruit vinegars, such as damson balsamic, made from foraged fruits. 

JJ Graham
In the market town of Penrith, this glorious deli sells a cornucopia of Lakeland gourmet goodies.

Unsworth's Yard
A lovely little collection of artisan food shops, such as Cartmel Cheeses and the Unsworth Yard Brewery.

Four places for a taste of Cumbria

The Old Stamp House

Housed in a low-ceilinged, whitewashed, simply furnished room, this Ambleside restaurant owned by chef Ryan Blackburn and his front-of-house brother Craig is a joyful journey across the larder of Cumbria. Every dish thoughtfully uses produce sourced locally or from within the boundaries of the county, paying tribute to its history. Bread might feature locally-made ale 

and Ryan is fond of using Lakeland Herdwick hogget or Holker Estate fallow deer. A set lunch menu is excellent value at £18.50, but the tasting menu really is worth the treat.

How much:

A six-course tasting menu is £35 per person, without wine.

The Cottage in the Wood 
It's a spectacular drive up to this 17th-century coaching inn high in the Whinlatter Forest and the dining room gives truly splendid views over Bassenthwaite Lake and the Skiddaw mountain range. Here chef Chris Archer presents dishes that include Whitehaven turbot, Cumbrian roe deer and Ravenglass lobster. On my visit, there was a Cartmel Valley Game terrine served with smoked apple-damson gingerbread, a real taste of the county. You can stay here or in the little town of Keswick just a 10-minute ride away.
How much: Three courses £45 per person, without wine.

The Pig & Whistle
A pub in the lovely village of Cartmel from the stable of mega-chef Simon Rogan (you don't need a fat, L'Enclume-sized wallet to eat well here), it prides itself on being 'a fine little boozer'. Food is served in a little dining room from Wednesday-Sunday. Starters can include brawn and black pudding fritters, pigs in blankets with mustard mayo, and homemade Scotch eggs. Changing main courses feature a pheasant, rabbit and smoked bacon pasty with salt baked carrots and gravy. There's a nice selection of ales, a lovely beer garden and a great pub snack menu.
How much: Three courses from £22 per person.

George & Dragon Clifton
Another country estate pub and restaurant with rooms owned by the Lowther family of nearby Askham Hall, from where they source their own intensely-flavoured, aged-beef shorthorn (a rare breed reared by Charles Lowther) and use much of the produce reared or grown around the grounds. Housed in an 18th-century coaching inn, there's a lovely courtyard and garden. The menu changes monthly, with daily specials, and also includes food sourced from local suppliers and farmers as well as from the estate. You'll find shorthorn beef in myriad styles, including salt beef, burgers or chargrilled steaks.
How much: Three courses from £28 per person, without wine.

Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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