By Sophie Ibbotson
The Lake District National Park has long been one of Britain’s most popular tourism destinations. The dramatic landscapes caught the attention of famous artists and writers: from William Wordsworth to Beatrix Potter, and JMW Turner to John Constable, they all found inspiration amongst these rugged mountains, rivers, and lakes. It is estimated that more than 15 million tourists visit the Lake District – which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – every year, admiring the scenery, hiking, biking, camping, and generally making the most of the great outdoors.
But what fewer visitors realize until they arrive in the Lake District is that this region is also one of England’s greatest culinary destinations. In recent years, a number of imaginative chefs and restaurateurs have invested heavily in the local gastronomic scene, as have the producers who supply them. The Old Stamp House Restaurant in Ambleside has a Michelin star and a three-month waiting list for tables, but you can also dine at its more casual sister restaurant, Kysty.
Chef Simon Rogan opened L’Enclume in Cartmel 20 years ago, and has subsequently expanded his offering to include Rogan & Co, Aulis Cartmel, and Henrock. Heft in High Newton is run by Kevin and Nicola Tickle, whose ancestors have farmed the Cumbrian fells for 400 years. Their love and understanding of their surroundings is reflected in the menu and the ingredients that they choose, from the locally reared meats and wild venison, to foraged alliums and flowers, and beers from the likes of Lakes Brew Co. which is made just a few miles away in Kendal.
For my gastronomic extravaganza, I based myself at Rothay Manor, a Grade II listed country house retreat in Ambleside, at the northern end of Windermere. At more than 10 miles long and a mile wide, Windermere is the largest natural lake in England, and it inspired Arthur Ransom’s Swallows and Amazons novel.
Rothay Manor dates from 1823, when it was built as a private home for a wealthy merchant from Liverpool. It was converted into a boutique hotel in 1936, retaining many of its Regency features, including open fire places, wood paneling, and huge windows looking out onto the gardens. Today, it is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, and it regularly wins awards for both its restaurant and its rooms. Demand for accommodation here is such that in spring 2022 Rothay Manor opened a second building, The Pavilion, adding eight exquisite suites to increase its capacity.
I checked into Aira, a Superior King category room at the front of the main house, which has been sensitively renovated in the past three years. The statement wallpaper in Aira is Melissa White’s “Verdure”, a striking pictorial scene, the design of which was influenced by 17th century painted cloth. Light floods in through the French windows, which open out onto a private balcony and a well positioned table and chairs, the perfect place to sit and enjoy a morning coffee whilst listening to the birds twittering in the gardens mature trees.
Shortly before dinner, I sashayed downstairs for a drink in Rothay Manor’s attractive bar lounge. Photo collages made of vintage and modern photographs of the Lake District decorate the walls, giving the room a strong sense of place. I browsed the extensive drinks list, umming and aahing over what to choose, and had more or less settled on a cocktail made with Assam tea when the barman, Mario, arrived. Boldly and absolutely rightly, he questioned my choice and suggested instead a yuzu martini. For my partner, he proposed an unusual lychee cocktail, but with tweaks so it wouldn’t be too sweet. He had the measure of his audience, understood every element of the drinks, and tailored the recipes so that the two were a perfect match. That demonstrates a rare level of attention to detail, and his recommendations were, I’m glad to report, spot on.
Rothay Manor’s restaurant is under the astute leadership of Head Chef Dan McGeorge, who was crowned “Champion of Champions” in last year’s final of the BBC’s Great British Menu TV series. He looks to Scandinavia and Japan for ideas, but is proud to be from the north of England and sources most of his meat from Cumbria, and fish from the North East coast. The local, seasonal nature of Dan’s food is one of the things which has earned the restaurant its sought after three AA rosette rating.
Whilst the restaurant does have an a la carte menu, the best way to treat yourself to the breadth and depth of Dan’s culinary artistry is to order the tasting menu. This can and should be paired with a wine flight, and there is also a vegetarian option. We nibbled on spoons of red caviar whilst finishing our cocktails and perusing the menu, and could hardly wait to get started.
Rothay’s expert sommelier paired the amuse bouche with Wiston NV, an English sparkling wine from the Wiston Estate in Sussex. Light, crisp, and slightly floral in flavor, it was the ideal accompaniment to the three beautifully prepared morsels which whet the palate for what was to come.
The first of the appetizers was chawanmushi, a savory egg custard traditional in Japan. Embedded in the custard were small, soft florets of cauliflower, and Dan flavored the dish with truffle and, unexpectedly, pickled onion. His ability to combine unusual tastes in marvelous ways was evident as we progressed through the courses, never quite knowing what would come next: the oyster was with kohlrabi and horseradish; cured lardo, sea kale, and elderflower accompanied the monkfish; and the Dexter beef was served with king oyster and salsify – a root with a flavor akin to that of a artichoke heart. Such surprises continued into dessert: I’ve never eaten tofu and strawberries before!
Perhaps the biggest revelation, however, was the cheese trolley. I hardly had room for cheese, but with row after row of lovingly cut slices – around two dozen in total – it was irresistible. The waitress introduced each cheese as if it were a friend; she had a story about each one, and knew exactly where it came from and how it was made. Her passion was so infectious, in fact, that not only did I manage to polish off her recommended selection of five different cheeses, plus crackers, but I noted down the name of the cheesemonger. The Courtyard Dairy is an hour’s drive away from Rothay Manor in Austwick, and I made my own pilgrimage there the following day.
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