I never visited the Lakes as a child. My parents liked North Yorkshire, occasionally venturing a little further up the coast to Northumberland, but they stuck firmly to the Eastern side of the country. I’ve never been to Devon or Cornwall either, something I hope to remedy someday (I hear the siren song of the clotted cream, you see). Anyway, D and I first started visiting regularly a few years ago (unsurprisingly, our primary mission even then was to eat) and I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the place. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. But man cannot live on beauty alone and it is also a region blessed with some excellent eateries – although to be fair, such is the quality of much British cooking and produce I think you can eat well in most parts of the country now.
The first little gem that I want to share with you is situated on a winding, narrow road that weaves its way up a hill just outside of Keswick called The Cottage in the Wood. It is picture perfect.
D discovered it from a Jay Rayner review – now there is a man after our own greedy little hearts: a critic who genuinely adores food, has a healthy appreciation of the pig and also eschews any sort of snobbery, as is right and proper. He is someone you could quite easily imagine going for a Michelin star meal and then picking up a kebab on the way home and when he says somewhere is good, it is generally worth a trip.
We arrived and were greeted by the owner, all smiles and firm handshakes. She ushered us to a seat by the fire and apologised that we would have to wait a minute for the menu – she was just on her way to print them. This made me very happy – so many restaurants claim to change their menus regularly but this place literally rewrites it on a daily basis to accommodate the available produce and, presumably, the whims of the chef. For lunch, the Cottage only offers a choice of two dishes for all three courses which again, I find an endearing feature, speaking of quality over mediocre quantity. We had decided in advance on a sharing policy so that we could both try everything. I must admit, my heart sunk a little when I saw that one of the desserts on offer was pannacotta – one of the few puddings that I actively dislike – but…well, more of that in a minute.
To start we had smoked salmon with apple, chicory and salted almonds which was as fresh as the proverbial daisy with a pleasingly delicate smoke, and a celeriac and saffron veloute with a crispy pig’s trotter. We both felt the texture of the soup could have been a bit lighter but the taste was earthy and delicious and I for one adored the little trotter croquette.
The stand out dish of the day for both of us was the fish main course: John Dory with samphire and potted shrimps. It was so good that as we reached the halfway point, whereupon we would swap plates, I began to panic a little and wonder if I could renege on my promise to share. The other choice, chicken with a spelt and mushroom risotto, did its best – the nutty spelt was a fabulous choice of accompaniment, being a perfect fit with the woody earthiness of the mushrooms – and, if it was in second place, it was second place with honour.
So, on to puddings, and D, sensing my wobbly pudding induced apprehension nobly offered to renounce his claim on half of the crème brulee with rhubarb puree and sorbet. But, we had promised to share, and I agreed to sample a tentative spoonful. What a revelation! It turns out I do like pannacotta when it is as sweet and soft and yielding as this. I would quite happily have licked the plate.
The really remarkable thing about this lunch was the value for money. For three exemplary courses we paid a mere £19.95, and the wine list ranneth over with reasonably priced treats. I would have paid more for the view from the dining room windows alone.
If you do find yourself up in the area at any point I really recommend that you check this place out – they have rooms and an evening tasting menu which I intend to go back and try. A chef whose skill can help shake my loathing of wobbly puddings is definitely one I would trust to cook me an absolutely splendid dinner. And you never know – I might even be persuaded to lace up my walking boots and head of for a pre supper constitutional. I said might…
The Cottage in the Wood