The final stop on our whistle stop eating tour of the Lake District was the one about which we were most excited, and with good reason. There are only two restaurants in the country which have scored 10 out of 10 in the Good Food Guide and one of those is The Fat Duck which, you may remember, was voted the best restaurant in the entire world a few years ago by People Who Know. The second is called L’Enclume, and it is situated in the tiny village of Cartmel, a few miles from the respective shores of Lake Windermere and the Irish Sea. Before chef Simon Rogan decided to make Cartmel the headquarters from where he would take over the world (of fine dining), it was chiefly remarkable for possessing the most randomly located racecourse in the British Isles and a village shop that did a fine line in sticky toffee puddings.
I predict that it will not be long before the good folk of Cartmel are forced to erect some kind of multi storey car park to accommodate all the people that flock there to eat good food and buy quaintly packaged toffee sauce. Even on an unremarkable Saturday in February the tiny village was packed to the rafters; we arrived at two and ended up in the racecourse car park. Goodness knows what it is like when you factor race goers into the mix. We wondered what local residents think about the regular influx of gastro tourists, eyes glazed and cheeks flushed with over consumption, although the maitre d’ at the restaurant said they were pretty sanguine given that the value of their properties has more than doubled in the past few years.
We had already dined at L’Enclume a few years ago, before it was awarded its second Michelin star and before Simon Rogan started to become a little more prominent in the popular media – you may remember him from the Great British Menu competition last year where he Kicked Ass. Back then we declared it as one of the finest meals it had ever been our privilege to eat. Back then too, you still got to choose between a few different menus whereas now, if you go to the website you will find that menus are passé and at L’Enclume you will eat whatever the kitchen decides: “Because we are not restrained by a set menu, we are free to express and to use whatever is available to us at that very moment in time.” In the hands of a lesser kitchen, a lesser chef, this kind of rhetoric would have made my heart sink, but here, I was willing to just go with it.
It would be tedious in the extreme for you to listen as I rhapsodised my way through the many and varied courses we scoffed during the course of the evening. Our personal highlights included “Oyster pebbles”: an apple meringue filled with a pop of salty oyster liquor – sounds weird, tasted amazing.
Smoked eel with ham fat – this, I think, was the only hot amuse and was a salty, crispy surf and turf delight – the nuggets were served on a swipe of “Ham fat cream” which are words that struck deep joy in our greedy little hearts.
The valley venison with charcoal oil, mustard and fennel was, I think, my absolute favourite dish. The venison was velvety tender, the flavours delicately balanced and the fennel “candies” – little sweet, aniseedy balls that popped in your mouth, made us both grin.
The mussels in their own juice were the musseliest mussels that we two mussel fiends had ever eaten. And with good reason – mussels are cooked, the precious liquor retained and then used to steam a fresh batch. So, mussels squared. Delicious.
The best of the pudding courses was undoubtedly the rhubarb with brown butter, wild sorrel and apple which struck just the right balance between sweet and mouth puckering sour notes.
But I can’t not mention the darling little ice cream cones that came sticking out of a piece of rock (very Noma!) flavoured with pear, sweet cheese and parsnip.
Not to mention a superlative cheese trolley – yes we somehow…just…managed to squeeze in some cheese…
It seems churlish to complain, but given that the nature of L’Enclume means that dishes are constantly being created and evolving, it is only natural that some are less successful than others; we both felt that the turbot with grilled carrots, Manx queenie scallops and celandine was a little on the sweet side (it could have used some ham fat cream perhaps?) and D also though that the honeycomb and quince dessert verged on the overly saccharine. I would never criticise any man for having a sweet tooth but the more successful courses (which was most of them) managed to get the disparate elements to harmonise and balance in a way that was perhaps lacking in these.
And of course, L’Enclume is eye wateringly expensive – especially if, like us, you throw caution to the wind and go for the wine flight to match the food (although this was very well chosen and included an amazing plum sake to go with the cheese course.) To stay at L’Enclume house is, conversely, very good value – for our standard double the B&B rate was less than we paid at The Best Western hotel the night before and the rooms and breakfast were an absolute delight. Still, it is not an experience that we will get to repeat often unless the civil service pay freeze is replaced with massive increments from 2014 onwards (although George Osborne should rest assured that should he do that there are at least two civil servants in the North East who will undertake to stimulate the economy with some serious spending).
Still, the fact that there is someone like Simon Rogan around, in tune with his environment, interested in brave and challenging flavour combinations, someone who utilises humour and whimsy and skill to make the kind of food that makes you break out in a broad grin full weeks after you have eaten it, that fact alone is enough to make this foodie content that the future of fine dining in Britain is in excellent hands.
People of Cartmel – I wouldn’t be planning to sell up any time soon.