Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Monks To The Left Of Me, Jockeys To The Right, Here I Am... (For Lunch)

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.

Mum and I, outside L'Enclume

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. Cartmel Priory church from the air

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.

With such limited space it wasn't easy for front of house to accommodate the anticipated relaxation between door and table, but somehow they managed to find a small cosy seating area where we could settle ourselves with an aperitif, select our menu and confirm our special dietary requirements. Taking seats at our table, service began with snacks of goose fat and peanut lollipops, spiced popcorn and flavoured crackers. A pleasant start, but nothing exceptional and no real indication of the pleasures to come.Snacks of goose fat and peanut lollipops, spiced popcorn and assorted crackers

Crab mousse and crabmeat on a corn cracker - stunningly goodBut 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.Freshly made white flour, wholemeal flour and spelt & barley bread rolls

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.

"Creamed foie, radish and smoked eel" - served in ceramic pursesThe purses - at first glance white leather - turned out to be ceramic vessels, perched precariously on ridged tiles. Inside, a foie and smoked eel mousse with a foie gel topping and pieces of raw radish adding texture and colour through the dish. The pleasure was in drawing up the base through the topping, with the contrasts hitting your palate unexpectedly. In that respect it reminded me of the signature dishes of two great Catalan chefs - Carles Abellan's potato, egg yolk and truffle kinder egg and Jordi Artal's maple syrup, cream and cava sabayon. A delicious start to the menu.

One of only two dishes unsuitable for my pescatarian mother, the foie and eel purses were replaced for her by a dish of Baby beets and fennel snow. Local baby beetroot, cooked (as far as I could judge) in beetroot juice and served with a fennel granita and garnished with fennel leaf. Here was a dish very much of the modern produce-led era, drawing the purest balanced flavours from the simplest of ingredients, valued in the kitchen every bit as highly as the foie gras that they replaced. Simple perfection. My mum absolutely loved it."Baby beets and fennel snow" - beetroot served with a fennel granita

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.

"Humphrey's pool" - a shellfish broth with mussels, razor clams, cockles and seaweedSo it was a reasonable guess that our second dish, Humphrey's pool, was L'Enclume's tribute to the local healing waters of Grange-over-Sands. The dish was a lightly salted seafood broth, made with shellfish juices and containing mussels, razor clam and cockles, with locally-collected seaweed providing colour as well as additional links to the coastline. We agreed that it was a delicate and pleasing dish, although none of us thought it outstanding. The otherwise good execution of the dish was spoiled for me by the beards left on two of the mussels.

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.

Globe, Chinese and Jerusalem artichokes worked brilliantly together despite the fact, of course, that only the former is a true artichoke - the second being a tuber of the mint family and the latter a tuber of the sunflower family. They were presented with a cheese wafer, goat's cheese cream, baby chard leaf, malted soil (gluten-free ash for dad) and drops of tarragon oil. This dish combined the most delightful flavours, textures and colours - held cleanly apart but working harmoniously together. It was simply perfection on a plate."Salad of Artichokes and fresh goat's cheese" - a very clever and elegant dish - perfection on a plate

"Sea scallop meat and pearls" - a superb, balanced dish showing great techniqueOur fourth dish surprised me. I can't ever remember being served chopped scallops in a fine dining restaurant before, but this was billed as Sea scallop meat and pearls and comprised scallop pieces with scallop and mustard cream, watercress purée, samphire, dulse seaweed and chervil. Dad declared that the scallop meat would inevitably be overcooked during searing, but he hadn't realised that they were cooked whole and cut afterwards. They were absolutely perfect. This was yet another beautifully balanced plate with a superb choice of flavours and textures.

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.

Skate 'belly', cauliflower, buttered stems and Douglas fir used the pinnate leaves in a flavoursome air to dress a dish of skate. Being a flatfish, skate cuts into upper and lower fillets - the lower being the thinner and more delicate. This was perfectly pan-fried and served with cauliflower purée, wild mushrooms, parsley stems and the air of Douglas fir leaf. As with so much of this meal, we were all in agreement on this plate. There was nothing wildly original apart from the foam, but it was as well executed as anything we'd eaten anywhere. We all really enjoyed this dish."Skate 'belly', cauliflower, buttered stems and Douglas fir" - an excellent fish dish

"Goosnargh duck breast, wild greens, parsnip and sea buckthorn" - great colours but execution problemsI remember watching a Ray Mears Wild Food programme extolling the virtues of sea buckthorn, a salt-tolerant coastal shrub which bears vibrant orange berries in the autumn. In the sixth and final savoury dish of our tasting menu, Goosnargh duck breast, wild greens, parsnip and sea buckthorn, the plant was put to good effect in generating a golden emulsion to accompany sous-vide cooked duck from across Morecambe Bay, crispy gizzards, foraged greens and roast parsnip chips.

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 selection from the Chariot of cheese

"Ice cream made from Cumbrian stout, pistachio, blackberry" - a great pre-dessertOur 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.

It was a dish that had everything. Contrasting temperatures with the warm quince and membrillo and the cold apple sorbet; complementing textures with the softness of the rosehip jelly, the crispness of the cobnut and the crunch of walnut powder and a colour spectrum from the deep ruby of the quince to the delicate green of the aniseed leaf. Drawing on local, autumnal produce with the rosehips, hazelnuts and heirloom variety of apple. It was a superb conclusion to our meal."Caramelised quince, Ribston pippin sorbet, rosehip and cobnut crisp" - the perfect conclusion to a meal

Petit fours: Malt macaroon with cream filling, mint cake and dark chocolate lollipop and red grape and raisin Turkish delightWell, 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.

Dad couldn't resist taking a close-up shot of the chocolate lollipop half-eaten, with that delicious local mint cake filling on the verge of dripping from the centre. Our sweets were accompanied by as much coffee as we could comfortably consume. I didn't enquire as to details of its source, but I can be certain that it wasn't locally grown. It was an excellent choice of fine coffee bean, selected and ground by people who really care about their work. Our petit fours and coffee made the ideal end to a near-perfect meal.Close-up of the mint cake & dark chocolate lollipop

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.


The Boston Foodie said...

Anaother awesome post! Congratulations to your Dad for finding this treasure and to you for sharing it!

Trig said...

We've known about it for ages - since The Observer published a piece about Britain's most promising chefs. One was my friend Nuno Mendes and one was Simon Rogan.

Pete said...

Definitely my favorite restaurant outside London - I had such a great meal there and as you say, definitely worthy of 2 stars.

James said...

Wow some cool things to try out there. Just found out what malt soil is. Cutting the scallops seems like sacrilege, but works really well.
People always mention the bread.

soulscape said...

What a wonderful writer you are and I greatly appreciate your pages of spice descriptions! I have one question for you to consider re: comment about Douglas fir as I was quite sure it was native to N.America (other species in Asia) and introduced to Scotland then England by a Scottish botanist, name of Douglas, in the first quarter of the 19C.Have you uncovered other evidence to the contrary? Best of 2010, keep up the great posts!

Trig said...

Pete - good to hear from you and really pleased you came to the same conclusion about L'Enclume. I'm in the part of the world you last wrote about, for a job interview. Fingers crossed.

James - that was my view when I first saw those scallop pieces, but it definitely worked. As for the bread, don't you agree that it's the little things that make all the difference to a customer experience.

Soulscape - your comments are very much appreciated, but my dad deserves a lot of the credit because he does all my layout and editing so most of my posts are pretty much a joint effort. As for the Douglas Fir, ouch! You are completely right and I've changed the post to correct the error.

Pastryqueen139 said...

Love this post Trig the food looks great.
I've only just discovered your blog and i just love it, I've been reading it on off for 3 days now.

GOOD LUCK on your interview. Where is it? I hope it's in my part of the world.


Trig said...

Where's your part of the world?

Pastryqueen139 said...

not as scenic as Barcelona but still worth a visit

namastenancy said...

What a wonderfully written, beautifully photographed post. It's almost as good as being there and since I live in California, reading about this is a lot less expensive than flying over there. I visited the UK way back in the day and I just say that food standards have really improved. I remember eating peas so hard that they could have been bullets and a stew that was ..well, interesting in all the wrong ways.

Anonymous said...

Thank's for the 'blog' much appreciated. Mark@L'Enclume

Trig said...

namastenancy - You can still get awful food in Britain, believe me. Last time I was in London I got food poisoning from a kebab.

Mark - It was great to meet you and the food really was something special.


Incredible food, incredible review.
Well done.

As for your dad, have him spent some time in Western Canada (Calgary), so he can eat GF all day long at my bakery.


chris duckham said...

Hi Trig, had a great meal at l'enclume in early december (took the middle of the tasting menus) and the best dishes were reaaly memorable. The crab/cucumber/ginger appetiser was 3* for me. Regards Chris Duckham

Trig said...

Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did, Chris. It's only a shame that not enough locals share the same appreciation of great food.

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