To sit in the cool, grey dining room at Henrock restaurant is to perch at the cutting edge of modern dining’s artful, austere new mood. There will be little crinkled boats of twice-baked Jerusalem artichoke skins; flaking poached cod, aboard a speckled, fragrant pool of buttermilk and black lime curry; and a hypnotic duck neck consommé, slurped straight from the bowl at the urging of your server, and delivered alongside turnips pulled from the ground 20 minutes away.
It is, in short, precisely the sort of vegetable-forward, locally sourced inventiveness you would expect to be the jewel in the culinary crown of any major food city on the planet. Except, of course, it isn’t in any kind of city at all. Look up towards the vast bay window at Henrock, as I did, and rather than Copenhagen, London, Paris, or even Manchester, you will instead see the shad- owed rural landscape of the Lake District in the picturesque northern British county of Cumbria – an area that has come to embody one of the most fascinating gastronomic success stories of the past 20 years.
Because it is not just Henrock – a place that happens to be the latest opening from wildly successful chef-restaurateur Simon Rogan. Cast your eye across the sprawled majesty of England’s largest national park and you will see a cluster of some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world, ranging from the relative newcomers snaring AA rosettes and Michelin stars in tumbledown Lakeland cottages to Rogan’s gilded mini empire (and personal produce farm) in the village of Cartmel. Pilgrimages across the region now fill out the bucket lists of London food obsessives, gastronomy rivals literary history and natural beauty as the county’s biggest draw, and – with its constellation of eight – it has more Michelin stars than Manchester and Edinburgh combined.
So, how does this happen? How does a rain-lashed hiking hotspot almost 500km away from the capital become the white-hot crucible of form-pushing gastronomic experimentation? As the 250th anniversary of the birth of Romantic poet William Wordsworth (perhaps the Lakes’ most famous resident, albeit a man who was at best ambivalent about food and purportedly ate porridge twice a day) brings more attention to the region, I decided to meet the architects of this extraordinary renaissance and, naturally, eat my way to some answers.
“There have always been great restaurants in Cumbria but I suppose it had a reputation as a bit of a country house hotel environment before I got here,” says Rogan (below), the man whose two Michelin starred Cartmel restaurant L’Enclume – opened in a former forge in 2002 and named after the French word for anvil – is widely seen as the Big Bang for this particular movement.
In a region unaccustomed to fine dining, L’Enclume initially struggled to win fans. But soon, the south coast-raised chef’s talent and philosophy – a strict focus on local produce and an embrace of the unusual foraged ingredients that would in many ways define the next decade or so in food – meant things started to click.
L’Enclume was awarded its first Michelin star in 2005. In 2010, it earned a fifth AA Rosette and featured prominently in Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s biting gastronomic road comedy The Trip (“Steve was here two weeks ago,” chuckles Rogan. “He’s a regular customer”). By 2016 it had a second Michelin star, had received rapturous reviews from The Observer and The Telegraph and had been named Good Food Guide’s restaurant of the year for the fourth year running. It had, essentially, joined the likes of El Bulli in Catalonia, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Upstate New York, and Noma in Copenhagen as part of a global firmament of trip-worthy temples to gastronomy.
And, duly, as Rogan’s Cartmel empire rose (swelling to the point that he now operates the more casual, single Michelin-starred Rogan & Co, test kitchen Aulis, a shop, hotel and in-house smallholding Our Farm) he inspired others. Some of these were direct descendants of L’Enclume like Forest Side: the picturesque, one-Michelin-starred Grasmere hotel dining room that was established by Kevin Tickle, Rogan’s former head forager, and now plays host to new head chef Paul Leonard’s inventive, restrained spin on Lakeland cuisine’s prevailing earthy minimalism (below).
But some – like the husband-and-wife team of chef Nina Matsunaga and front of house James Ratcliffe – were more indirectly influenced by what Rogan had achieved for both a small, unknown Cumbrian village and a fiercely seasonal, hyperlocal approach. Having met in Manchester and established a business, The Moocher, within the city’s burgeoning street-food scene, Matsunaga and Ratcliffe expanded into the pretty, east Cumbrian book town of Sedbergh in 2014 (first with a cafe called Three Hares and then with a gastropub with rooms called the Black Bull Inn) initially because they needed commercial premises to alleviate the strain of “making 600 Scotch eggs in a domestic kitchen”.
In the Black Bull (below), which I first encounter after a dramatic, winding drive from Oxenholme Lake District station, Matsunaga and Ratcliffe have built something that feels both beautifully singular and reflective of the hearty, welcoming traditions of the Lakes. It is all fleece-clad, young hikers beside a crackling fire, walls taste- fully clustered with retro sake adverts and a menu that heaves with expressions of the Dusseldorf- raised Matsunaga’s German-Japanese heritage: crisped nuggets of rabbit karaage with a dribbled fermented chilli mayo, pheasant with leek kimchi, and a rich cottage pie swimming with beef hearts and pickled onions. It is, in short, an eclectic affair that shows the culinary boldness that has swept a region where, as Ratcliffe notes, even the idea of sourdough bread raised eyebrows a few years ago. “A lot of the Lake District restaurants fall into the same sort of style,” notes Ratcliffe. “And I feel like what we do is quite different.” This freedom to take some risks (along with lower operating costs, a steady stream of tourists and beautiful surroundings) is undoubtedly one of the things prompting more and more chefs to trade big cities for life in the Lakes.
But, equally, the tension between the haute and the hearty – the approachable and the challenging – is an interesting by-product of the region’s culinary boom. Yes, there have been acclaimed recent openings like The Yan in Grasmere: a warmly run, down-to-earth bistro where table-straining sharing platters, spectacularly comforting fish and chips, and a masterful sticky toffee pudding reign. But to what degree have the stars in local chefs’ eyes led to the sort of alienating, fussily tweezered cuisine that can be easy to admire but hard to love? Rogan himself admits that some of the molecular “deconstructions and reconstructions” of L’Enclume’s early phase now make him “cringe”.
But it is James Cross, founder and chef-patron of the wildly praised Lake Road Kitchen in Ambleside, who seems to have turned rail-ing against this technique-heavy branch of fine dining into a kind of animating philosophy. A veteran of both Noma and Per Se in New York, Cross opened in 2014 with a rigid, Nordic- influenced culinary vision (foraged sea herbs, no imported citrus or oils) that he now views as something like youthful hubris.
“There’s no point in me feeling the need to push the boundaries of a guest’s experience if they don’t want me to,” he says, after I have negotiated a stormy drive from Sedbergh to Lake Road’s cosy dining room in a well-trammelled area near Wordsworth’s former home, Dove Cottage. “‘Is it delicious?’ is the only question we ask of the food.”
This is not to say that there is anything all that straightforward about the dishes at Lake Road Kitchen: a procession crowned by an extraordinary taco where the “tortilla” is often a gorgeous, pliable disc of slow-roasted celer- iac. But for Cross, the key change in his cooking – undoubtedly Michelin worthy if not yet Michelin starred – is that he prioritises the experience of the kind of repeat customers who form around 60 per cent of the business he runs with his partner, Sally Wilson. “We were boxing ourselves in with a concept,” he admits. “But people didn’t care.”
Though Cross doesn’t see himself as an antecedent of L’Enclume’s ethos (“Simon Rogan casts a long shadow over Lake District dining but we do not stand in it”) there is an echo in Henrock’s relaxing of the gastronomic rules which, in some senses, put this area on the culinary map. “The idea was to loose the chains and cook a more sort of international type cuisine,” explains Rogan, who hired head chef Brian Limoges from San Francisco to bring a “Pacific” feel to the menu. Rogan is hopeful that the formula will bring him a fourth Michelin star in the region (and what would be a personal sixth, combined with his stars at spin-off establishments in London and Hong Kong), and – with Matsunaga and Ratcliffe also having plans for a possible small Japanese restaurant in Sedbergh – the picture of dining in the Lake District looks exceptionally healthy.
“We’ve got seven Michelin-starred restaurants in Cumbria but there’s scope for so much more,” says Rogan. So expect more eye-catchingly pretty bowls garnished with wild flowers, more impeccably sourced game cooked to perfection, and more elegant, intricately rendered desserts that still carry the DNA of Cumbria’s canon of fortify- ing, caramel-drenched staples. Expect, basically, that bucket list of Lake District restaurants to get longer. Wordsworth may not have been especially bothered about food. But perhaps even he would see that, in their maximalism, their energy and their embrace of the untamed beauty of the natural world, these modern chefs are keeping his spirit very much alive.
Verse case scenario
The Lake District celebrates poet William Wordsworth
Known for such poems as I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud, William Wordsworth is one of England’s most celebrated Romantic-era poets. Born and raised in Cumbria, in the north of England, much of his work was inspired by the landscapes of the Lake District.
Tell me more
This spring marks 250 years since his birth with a series of events countrywide that includes the reopening of former Grasmere home Dove Cottage a er an $8 million reboot. See the website for more info and a full line-up of events.