|If someone was to suggest lunch in a cramped, white stone medieval blacksmith's workshop wedged in-between a massive Augustinian priory and one of the country's tiniest racecourses, you'd probably show a degree of reticence, especially if it involved a long drive in icy conditions. If they were to tell you to expect one of your best ever British dining experiences as reward for the expedition, you'd probably think they were utterly bonkers. But my dad wasn't daft. The food was truly exceptional.|
It was the Sunday after Christmas Day and time for a delayed Christmas present - a planned two-hour drive to what dad assured me was North-West England's finest restaurant, L'Enclume in Cumbria. We headed out in snowy conditions, uncertain whether we'd arrive on time or even arrive at all. But, amazingly, just 90 minutes after we set off from Skipton we found ourselves in the tiny village of Cartmel and managed to negotiate the car across the local racetrack and safely into the icy car park.
|As we ambled past the door of our lunch destination, the Maître d' and his staff were attentive with anticipation and, given the road conditions, seemed pleased to have the safe arrival of his booked customers pre-announced. That left us with 20 minutes with which to explore the local priory church round the corner. Which, as you can see from the photo, came literally as a massive surprise. Cartmel Priory was founded in about 1189 by William Marshall, Baron of Cartmel and Earl of Pembroke and was populated by Augustinian monks until dissolution in 1536. Although the priory was destroyed, the church was saved because it had earlier been shared with the local parish and given its own altar and priest.|
|The nearest sizeable town is Grange-over-Sands, which fronts onto the mud flats of Morecambe Bay, brought to public attention in 2004 with the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster in which 21 Chinese migrant workers were drowned or died of hypothermia after their work gang leaders misjudged the incoming tides. Tragedy apart, the area offers some of England's best seafood, along with hill farms that provide some of the best quality livestock in the UK. If ever there was a perfect location for surf and turf dining, this is it, as the founders of the Priory were well aware. Farming and fishing were the mainstays of life for the local population in the Middle Ages, supported by the monks of Cartmel Priory.|
And that brings me full circle back to L'Enclume. Those with knowledge of French will be able to translate this as "The Anvil". The building in which the restaurant is located was once the Priory smithy, where iron hinges, horseshoes and farming implements were forged for the monastery. Today they forge superb fine dining experiences, using the very best produce that the local area can provide. Our visit being for lunch, we took the shorter of the tasting menus. Next time we'll take the longest one.
|But our collective experience told us we were in for something very special even as the second snacks were being served. An absolutely perfect mouthful of crab mousse and crabmeat on a corn cracker, accompanied by a cucumber cocktail in a Martini glass, topped with a ginger beer and lemongrass head delicately dispensed at the table from a soda siphon. A superb, challenging combination of a very traditional, conservative flavour and texture with a modern, young flavour and texture. Stunningly good.|
|In fine dining, good freshly-made bread is taken as as a given - but it's amazing how many restaurants fail this basic task. Not so L'Enclume. The selection of warm rolls baked with white flour, wholemeal flour and a traditional English spelt & barley mix, served in an attractive wooden box and accompanied by a seeded, nutty gluten-free bread for my coeliac dad (which he described as tasting something like a toasted brioche) was absolutely perfect, as was the butter served with it.|
|The first of our eight-course dishes, Creamed foie, radish and smoked eel, brought smiles as it arrived at the table. My immediate thought as a professional was of the gap between the delight of its artistic creator, the discomfort of the chef tasked with getting it safely to the pass and the misery of those faced with doing the washing up afterwards.|
|To Cumbrians, the name Humphrey denotes healing. Humphrey's aquifer is a hawthorn-enclosed stone structure set in a cleft in the cliff of Humphrey Head, from which saline water spurts and feeds the holy well of Cartmel Priory, renowned for centuries for its healing powers. The water is now bottled locally as Willow Water and is known to contain the natural analgesic salicin - a close relative of aspirin - produced by rainwater washing through ancient strata of white willow bark.|
|The third course of our tasting menu was billed as Salad of Artichokes and fresh goat's cheese, though there was no need to highlight the third word to deliver the wit of the dish.|
|Douglas fir - native to North America and introduced to Britain in the C19th - is not something you often see on a dinner plate, though our next dish made good use of it. Actually, this evergreen pine has multiple uses. The young shoot tips offer a subtle woodsy flavour in cooking, whereas a refreshing tea is made from young leaves and twigs. The fresh leaves have a pleasant balsamic odour and are used as a coffee substitute, while the inner bark has been dried, ground into a meal and mixed with cereals for making bread in times of famine. The tree was employed medicinally by various indigenous North American tribes who used it to treat a whole host of conditions from cuts to coughs and venereal diseases to athlete's foot.|
|The dish was well presented with a great balance of colours. Unfortunately the meat, although still pink as a result of being cooked at the right temperature, had been cooked for too long and passed its optimal point of tenderness. A very attractive dish, sadly not executed correctly on this particular day.|
|It's a long time since I ate in a restaurant where they brought a cheese trolley to the table. Very retro and very French, but the selection of fromages on L'Enclume's Chariot of cheese was very modern and we devoured every last morsel. Our selection from the amply-stocked chariot included a Livarot, a Bleu D'Auvergne, two goats' cheeses, a Brie and a local ewes' milk cheese. They were served with crackers and wafers - tapioca cracker, poppyseed wafer, walnut crisp and fennel biscuit, along with toasted gluten free bread for our coeliac diner and a caramelised red onion relish.|
|Our cheese chariot break over, it was time to attack the menu's pre-dessert of Ice cream made from Cumbrian stout, pistachio, blackberry. This dish comprised ice cream flavoured with Cumbrian oatmeal stout from a local micro-brewery, pistachio sponge and a blackberry granita. The dish cleverly balanced sweet, bitter, tart and nutty flavours without being oversweet. We all agreed it was a clever pre-dessert that served well as a palate cleanser and introduction to the main dessert.|
|It seemed that we'd not long sat down, though by the time our final dish arrived at the table with the customary perfect timing we'd been feasting for well over two hours. Time was simply drifting by in a haze of hedonistic pleasure. Caramelised quince, Ribston pippin sorbet, rosehip and cobnut crisp was yet another dish drawing on the very best of local produce, totally seasonal and beautifully thought out.|
|Well, not quite the conclusion, of course. We were still to be treated to petit fours and coffee. The waiter arrived with stylish wooden platters bearing malt macaroons with a malt cream filling, mint cake & dark chocolate lollipop and red grape & raisin Turkish delight. However eclectic these may have sounded they were - as with so many of L'Enclume's dishes - deeply rooted in local produce. Not least of this was the mint cake for which the nearby Cumbrian town of Kendal is world-renowned.|
|This was food at a level indisputably above the 1* ranking of the restaurant - many of the dishes held their own against those of the best 2* restaurants at which I've eaten in Britain and Spain. Simon Rogan's menu showed consistent and clever use of traditional local products, especially local wild herbs, flowers and fungi and ingredients foraged on both sides of the water-line along the local coast. The hallmarks of a chef known to admire Marc Veyrat , Homaro Cantu and Grant Achatz are unmissable, despite his more conventional tutelage by The Great White. There were many hints of modern French cuisine but with a strong English theme throughout, very good execution of dishes with clear, delicate, well-balanced flavours and good textures and a great eye for colour and form. All within a relaxed and informal service environment very much to my personal taste, but probably with too many violations of Michelin's strict codes for their inspectors to overlook when considering a second star.|
I could find a few criticisms here and there, but no more than I found at Mugaritz or Quique Dacosta. This was a splendid fine dining experience from a team clearly able to maintain the highest standards despite the boss being on his day off when we visited. It was a meal that will long be remembered.
Photo of Cartmel Priory Church courtesy of Roger Savage, Flying Pictures, Penrith. Other photos by my dad.