Sunday, 16 September 2012

Lake District culinary gems

Lake Windermere from the top of Wansfell Pike
I know it might seem like I've been abducted by aliens or something, but I kind of have a good excuse... I've been away on holiday and just didn't get around to update the blog as I mostly ate out, and after I got back catching up with work has taken pretty much all of my time. Then I had to go back to Finland for work for a few days. Excuses, excuses. I'll try to be better, I promise.

During my holiday, I spent a few days hiking and biking in the Lake District. I got plenty of warning beforehand about the weather. I think it's fair to say that in general the UK isn't exactly the driest place on earth, and apparently the Lake District is the wettest region in all of the UK. So I packed lots of warm and waterproof clothing. In the end, it turned out that we were extremely lucky with the weather as 2.5 of 3 days were totally rain free. Well, the remaining half day was a thunderstorm with heavy rain, so I guess we got our rain quota filled nonetheless.

I love sheep! And they were everywhere. I had a huge grin on my face for most of the
holiday, as I was so happy about seeing sheep everywhere. And the beautiful stone
walls, another thing that just screams British countryside. They make the landscape
so unique and beautiful. I can't even imagine the work that has gone into building them.
Anyways, my intention was not to go on about the UK weather, although of course you know how much the Brits love to talk about it. Much more interesting, I want to mention a few amazing food experiences that I happened upon more or less by accident during the all too short a holiday.

Let's start with the drive up to the Lakes. We stopped for lunch in Harrogate, a small and super idyllic town about halfway through the 4.5 hour drive from Cambridge to Windermere. The original reason to stop in Harrogate was that I would have loved to lunch at Betty's. You might remember me and Best Friend had afternoon tea there a few months ago. However it turned out that despite it being Tuesday and midday, the queue to get in to Betty's was so long that we quickly gave up on the idea as we would probably not have gotten a table until dinnertime. We did however get us a Fat Rascal from the bakery shop for later. I'm not exactly sure how to classify this huge bun type of thing, I would say it's basically a huge scone filled with dried fruit goodies. Anyways, another thumbs up for Betty's, the displays in the bakery shop were full of delicious looking breads, cakes and scones that I would love to sample. The service was super friendly as well. And the Fat Rascal, which was enjoyed later that night with hot chocolate, was delicious and sweet and crumbly.

I hadn't done much research on places to eat beforehand, so we picked our eateries by chance, based pretty much on the look of the place and the menus. And we did run into a few gems. The first one was a pub in a tiny village called Troutbeck we hiked through on our way to cross Wansfell pike. Good thing the pub, called The Mortal Man, was great, as it was the only one in the village. The menu was large enough to be variable and included the obligatory soup of the day, pie of the day, a sausage of the week and a large selection of sandwiches. I had a salmon and cream cheese on dark bread, and my hiking companion had the special of the day, a roast beef sandwich which enough meat to satisfy even the most dedicated carnivore. The sandwiches were absolutely wonderful, although I guess my judgement was slightly clouded by being crazy hungry after getting fresh air poisoning by hiking all morning in the sunshine. I have made no secret of my disdain of British bread, I think it's pretty much impossible to find good bread in this country, but I have to say the thick slices of brown bread in my sandwich were really delicious. I should have asked if it was local produce. As good as the sandwiches were, there was another gem in our simple lunch. The chips. They were the most golden brown and crunchy chips I have ever come across. They were probably deep fried multiple times, and contained more fat than you should have in a month. But oh mine, how good they were. So if you ever happen to have your way around Troutbeck, don't miss out on the chips in the Mortal Man.

Being the only pub in the village, they really needn't try so hard...
The second restaurant worth mentioning was the Village Inn in Bowness-on-Windermere. We walked in without a reservation on a Wednesday night around dinnertime, and the place was packed. However, we managed to find a cosy table for two in the back corner. The restaurant was very atmospheric and the decor was great including large fake antique mirrors with metallic frames, red and white walls, a low wood beamed ceiling and buddha statues, not to mention the huge wooden tables and wicker chairs. We were first told to order at the bar, but a waiter did appear and took our order. I was delighted to find mussels on the menu, and of course had to order them, with a side of garlic bread. My friend ordered a T-bone steak, which turned out to be huge and served with loads of sides including tomatoes, onion rings, chips, mushrooms and a pepper sauce. The food was absolutely divine. The mussels were perfectly cooked and the broth was deliciously flavoured with white wine, onion, garlic and herbs. I was in seventh heaven, and so was my friend whose eyes lit up at the sight of the oversized chunk of meat. And the mushrooms served as a side with the steak also got a rave review, they were very unusually flavoured with what I would have said was a smoky, BBQ-y aroma and lemon. Very unusual combination, but it worked really good and was oone of many details that definitely made us decide to come back if we are around those hoods again. I also had a cocktail called Death by chocolate, which indeed was delicious and richly chocolate-y. The only complaint we had was that the service was excruciatingly slow, and we never got the bill despite trying to catch the attention of the waiters seval times. In the end, we actually had to go up to the bar to ask for the bill, which I found very disappointing after the wonderful meal. Afterwards, I have browsed restaurant reviews for the Village Inn on Tripadvisor, and turns out this seems to be a common complaint, so don't expect to go there for a quick meal. However, the restaurant has a very wide variety of reviews, and I can't understand how some people have deemed the food vile and horrible. The food was definitely top notch!

Possibly the largest steak ever seen on this side
of the Atlantic. The T-bone at the Village Inn.
The second eatery worth mentioning was Heidi's Grasmere Cafe where we had lunch on our last day. Again, we just randomly picked a restaurant in Grasmere and ended up finding a gem. We were extremely lucky as the restaurant was very busy, but there was a table for two free right as we walked in. The restaurant was very quirkily decorated with paintings of cartoon cows, and lots of cute little things all around. The menu was variable but not too big. As soon as I saw they were serving barbecue ribs, I knew that was what I had to have, although we were supposed to just have a light lunch. My friend had the Cumberland sausage with mashed potato, a huge Yorkshire pudding and gravy. The food was absolutely amazing, I can't stop raving about my ribs. They we're cooked to perfection, so that the meat just fell off the bone and covered in a tasty BBQ sauce. The servings were certainly big enough, as neither of us could finish ours. The service was also very friendly, and I think the fact that the place was constantly full says a lot. Again, I was surprised when I had a look at trip advisor reviews as they ranged from excellent to terrible. I think some of the reviewers might not have visited the same place as we did. At least I know I will definitely be going back.

Then on to the sweets. Just to leave the best for last, let's start with Kendal mint cakes. Or as someone so eloquently put it, sugar covered with sugar. Obviously, the combination of mint and chocolate is a classic, and oh so great. According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom in the world, it is a popular energy source with mountain climbers. I'm not sure I would like to be halfway up a mountain when the sugar high from this baby kicks in, but maybe iyou should give it a go if you like to live dangerously. Basically the mint cake is a slab of mint flavoured glucose (i.e. sugar), covered in dark chocolate. This is an absolute classic that you just have to sample if you visit the Lake District. Well, if you don't have a freakishly hight tolerance for sugar like me, maybe you should stay away. However, the strong mint taste actually makes it seem less sweet than it is. At least that's what I think. Best Friend agrees with me, but maybe I should get the opinion of someone with a normal sugar tolerance.
The second place I absolutely loved, was the chocolatier in Ambleside. It's called Old Bank House Chocolates because the shop is located in the old bank house (how surprising), but the company is actually called Hutton's. I almost ran past the place (I don't know how that is possible, but I was chasing a bus, busy to get back to the B&B after a full day's hike up Wanfell pike). Anyways, the main point was that luckily I ended up inside the chocolate shop (and this was only the first time out of two visits during a three day holiday. Yes, as I have said so many times before, I have a problem, and I'm aware of it). The shop was filled with all sorts of wonderful chocolate goodies, including chocolate shoes, chocolate footballs, handmade chocolate pralines and giant slabs of chocolate. The most amazing thing to me however was the truffel logs. Big compact logs of the sweetest truffle in so many flavours, and covered in a thick coating of chocolate. There were so many flavours to choose from. Rum, champagne and white chocolate, Cointreau, Cognac and Irish Cream, probably more than that but I think my brain went into a bit of overload when I saw all the truffles so my memory of the place is a bit hazy. The truffle logs seemed to be for sale in several places, I also stumbled upon them in a chocolate shop in Keswick, so probably you will be able to get some even if you don't happen to be around Ambleside. Another thing I had never seen before was the honeycomb toffee, a chewy and crunchy type of toffee. The  toffee is made with baking soda and an acid such as vinegar which together form carbon dioxide which get trapped in the sugar liquid, and form holes giving the toffee it's unique structure. The toffee I got was further dipped in milk chocolate to form a thick coating, adding to the sugary decadence. I really liked the toffee, it was crunchy and not sticky at all.

Above: the honeycomb toffee
Below: Bailey's truffle log, both from Old Bank House Chocolates

And then to the grand finale, the pièce de résistance. We were supposed to stop by this particular little gem on our way from Windermere to Keswick, but we were too late as it had already closed and I thought that was it, end of story. However, on our way back home, I thought we were in a hurry to hit the road and get on home, but instead the car took a turn to Grasmere. And in retrospect, I'm eternally grateful to my culinary consultant for making the choice of stopping by Grasmere, and particularly The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop. I had read about them in travel guides, but thought "Oh well, it's gingerbread, how exciting can it be". In general I'm a fan of the extremely thin, call it Nordic (you know Anna's pepparkakor? The ones you can buy at IKEA) type of gingerbread which has a lot of other spices as well, and not so much ginger, and only dried ginger, not the chunky, preserved kind. But now I have seen the light. If you are anywhere in the Lake District, it's worth it to drive to Grasmere just because of the gingerbread. I kid you not. It's hands down the best gingerbread I have ever had. It's crumbly and crunchy and sweet in a strange, not-too-sweet way, and above all, it's gingery. But not in an overpowering way, just in a perfect blend of ginger and other spices. The consistency is crunchy and chewy at the same time, although you better eat them quickly as they get pretty hard after a few days. I was trying to see how they would keep in the freezer but they never got around to being there very long as I ate my two packs in just a few days. But the Gingerbread shop doesn't only sell gingerbread. It also sells rum butter. And I'm a sucker for any spread, be it marshmallow fluff, nutella, nut butter (except for peanut butter, that stuff is vile), lemon curd or jam. I can't resist a jar of any sort of gooey spread, I just have to eat it all in one go, often just the spread itself with a spoon straight out of the jar. The rum butter was no exception. It was ridiculously good. Super sweet, with a nice strong rummy flavour. And it was perfect on the gingerbread. It would also have been perfect on ice cream, or in a cake or possibly on muffins. Now that I think of it, some nice saffron and ginger muffins with a rum butter topping... wait, have to wipe off the drool. So actually, I showed great restraint in not eating the whole rum butter in one go, but only ate half at first and then the second half the next day. Incidentally, did I mention that I put on a stone and a half during the summer. Working hard to shed all that now, but let's just say it's not a mystery how that all happened. The scary thing is, that the Gingerbread Shop has an online store, and I'm afraid some day when I'm having a weak moment, I will hit the online store, and pile up on gingerbread and rum butter. Have to stay strong. Have to! Is there some way of blocking certain web sites on your browser so that you can't look at them? That might be the only solution to this particular problem. But I have promised myself, if I ever re-visit the Lake District, I won't settle for the small packs of gingerbread (which I stupidly did this time). I will most certainly get the large ones!

Well, I guess that concludes tonight's long ramble about things to eat in the Lake District. Somewhat heavy on the sweet stuff, but then again, if you were surprised by that, maybe you haven't followed my blog for very long!

Too bad the pub was out of Unicorn ale, so we didn't get a taste. Although,
 I'm convinced it would have been just as vile as any other beer. I
f you couldn't guess, I'm not much of a beer drinker...

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