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Hospitality in the Lake District has became renowned over the last 50 years with three hoteliers in particular having been instrumental in shaping Cumbrian gastronomy. They were Francis Coulson of the Sharrow Bay, Bronwen Nixon of Rothay Manor and John Tovey who put Miller Howe on the tourist map in the 1970s. Like the landscape, the dishes they created were rugged and bold, often taken from traditional, local recipes and refined to achieve classic status – not only surviving to this day but remaining firm favourites on menus across the country.
Sticky toffee pudding
A classic dessert on any British menu, sticky toffee pudding was created by Francis Coulson at the Sharow Bay Country House Hotel, back then aptly named 'icky sticky toffee pudding'. Coulson's recipe is now jealously guarded by Sharrow Bay but the simplicity of this date pudding with toffee sauce means you don't have to look hard for an excellent recipe. For those who aren’t seasoned bakers, there are some really good off-the-shelf versions, too, notably from the Cartmel Village Shop.
Easter ledge pudding
Like Simon Rogan of L’Enclume (a two Michelin star, five AA Rosette restaurant located in Cartmel), the foodie pioneers of yesteryear were keen to ‘tap into the terroir’ of Cumbria, developing traditional recipes that utilised wild foods. Easter ledge is a term given to young wild leaves, mostly bistort or dandelion and nettles. These are boiled and made into a purée enriched with butter, chopped boiled eggs and boiled barley, which is then pressed. A favourite of legendary Windermere chef John Tovey, he served a warm slice of his refined version with lamb roasted in hay.
This freshwater fish is pretty unique to the Lakes, particularly Windermere – England’s longest lake. Was it a freak of the ice age, or perhaps it was the Romans who introduced the species? We may never know for sure, but being close to the shores of Windermere, it landed on the menu at Rothay Manor thanks to legendary chef Bronwen Nixon and now is used widely. She would either bake the fish simply and pair it with seasonal vegetables, or serve it potted – very much like potted shrimps – with the fillets cooked and carefully flaked, then made into a paste. Today, stocks of char are protected by fishing restrictions and its close relative, the Arctic char, is farmed to a very high standard.
Growing fruit in damp Cumbrian climes is a challenge. However, the damson prospers, especially in the Lyth Valley, southeast of Lake Windermere. Bronwen Nixon would use a glut to make her 'damson cheese' to serve with local lamb: 1kg rinsed damsons are cooked slowly in a covered casserole pot until tender, drained, then passed through a sieve to form a purée. After adding 500g of sugar, it is boiled until the mixture leaves the side of the pan. Try making your own spiced damson cheese with our easy-to-follow recipe. By the way, damsons, like sloes, also make a very good gin.
Cumbria's native sheep is officially recognised as a world-class breed and has attained PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin). They roam the fells, foraging amongst the wild grasses and heathers, shaping the very landscape of the Lake District and are central to the local cuisine. Often the animals are left to mature to the point that their meat is no longer recognised as lamb and instead is referred to as hogget (that's a sheep aged between one and two years). Herdwick hogget may, however, be cooked like lamb. For example you could enjoy a roasted leg, a braised shoulder or a grilled cutlet. If you visit The Cottage in the Wood try their Taste of Cumbria Menu offering a roasted loin served with a slow-braised breast and a crispy nugget of sweetbread.
Cumbrians developed a taste for spicy food long before Asian restaurants began to influence eating habits across Britain in the 1960s and ‘70s. The port of Whitehaven on the west coast of Cumbria was one of the busiest harbours in the country and accounted for the majority of trade with the Americas and the Caribbean – namely, sugars and spices. Additionally, immigrant miners from Germany brought with them a taste for spicy sausages that helped to inspire the recipe for the region's most famous banger (see below).
Not just a favourite in Cumbria but across the nation, this is another food icon that has gained PDO status. Local butchers have their own interpretations of this much-loved sausage, however, they all have spicy notes and high pork content in common, as well as often being served in a long coil. Delicious for breakfast or dinner with creamy mash and onion gravy, you can find a standout example of this classic sausage at R B Woodall in Waberthwaite. They've been making sausages and curing bacon since 1828 and hold a royal warrant.
Back in Victorian times, a humble cook named Sarah Nelson combined simple ingredients to create the gastronomic, afternoon tea delight that is Grasmere gingerbread and sold it at her church cottage home. That cottage is now The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, an important stop-off for foodie travellers where you can try the benchmark example. It's a cross between biscuit and cake that comes from a recipe which is faithfully reproduced but remains top-secret.
Morecambe Bay shrimps
While the town of Morecambe is in neighbouring Lancashire, Morecambe Bay laps the southern shores of Cumbria and those sands yield plenty of sweet and succulent tiny brown shrimp to which Cumbrians happily stake a claim. They are simply prepared by ‘potting’ with melted butter seasoned with mace, a little cayenne and grated nutmeg. Cool quickly in a refrigerator, but don’t forget to warm a little before serving with good brown bread. You'll find them as a ‘cheffy’ garnish in top restaurants.
Cumberland rum nicky
Spices and sugar were not the only prized ingredients to come across the pond from the Americas – Cumbrians were quick to adopt Caribbean rum as part of their gastronomy. This simple dessert of shortcrust pastry, dates and brown sugar is elevated to the 'something special’ category with the addition of dark rum. Bronwen Nixon, the matriarch who established the Rothay Manor Hotel as a quality destination, was famed for a particularly good rum nicky.
For more ideas on where to stay and what to do in Cumbria and the Lakes, visit Go Lakes.
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