Shortly after I married my Cumbrian wife 30
years ago, I learnt of two particular challenges that continue to face chefs in
this particularly verdant county that stretches from the southern Lake District
to the Scottish border.
The first is that size matters. Cumbrians, I learnt, do not like to see the
plate underneath whatever dish they have ordered: the food has to be
substantial. And however well they have eaten, there is invariably a hefty
appetite for dessert, the part of any meal that is most critically judged in
this far north-western corner of England.
I was reminded of these two distinctive traits shortly after I had ordered a
half pint of Ruskin's bitter at the bar of the George and Dragon, a pub and
restaurant with rooms just south of Penrith in Clifton, where the last battle
was fought on English soil in 1745.
As I looked around the crowded room, I watched as three young men were
studiously preparing for the following day's wet outing on their mountain bikes
by devouring huge steaks. Behind them the blackboard revealed that this could
only be Cumbria: after the three first and main course specials there were four
What distinguished the food further became obvious as we were taken through to
the restaurant, full of chairs and pews from an old church, and were handed the
menu. While the right-hand side contains a brief list of tempting dishes, the
left comprises a hand-drawn map of the Eden Valley detailing the various
locations of all the farmers, fishermen and suppliers to the kitchen. At the centre
was an outline of Lowther church and castle that has belonged to the Lowther
family for centuries, part of the large estate on which their Game &
Country Fair takes place on 11-12 August.
The cooking was, however, distinctly modern. A wild rabbit terrine packed lots
of flavour while a gravad lax of sea trout with beetroot was lighter and
brighter. A fillet of sea trout as a main course was excellent and an
introduction to pan haggerty potatoes, an old northern recipe that incorporates
layers of thin potatoes, root vegetables, onions, local cheese and herbs, a
dish so good that I will definitely cook it at home.
If the desserts, particularly the lemon posset, had not been as good as they
were, then the George and Dragon would certainly not have prospered since its
conversion from an old coaching inn by Charlie Lowther and chef Paul McKinnon (centre) in 2008. But two other factors distinguished our stay. The first was the
enthusiastic service from a bevy of attractive young women, led by Chloe
Marshall, matched by the aesthetic appeal of the building, for which the artist
Juno Lowther, Charlie's wife, is responsible.
I learnt this last fact from McKinnon the following morning when I sat down
with him after a hearty breakfast. I had had to wait a few minutes while he
chatted with his mother, who had called in for a coffee, an interlude that
allowed me to discover that he had not grown up with good food. His interest
was confined to eating cream puffs, she recalled, while he countered that she had
only really been a whizz with microwave chips. He eventually took to cooking as
an alternative to the army.
Fortunately, he learnt his trade in Newcastle under the highly talented chef
Terry Laybourne before a disastrous move to Carlisle where he opened his own
restaurant and promptly lost £75,000, his entire savings. McKinnon had to begin
again at the bottom, cooking for dinner parties in the area, and this was how
he came to the attention of Charlie Lowther.
McKinnon is as enthusiastic about what the George and Dragon represents as he
is garrulous and adamant that an important part of what he has to do is to
ensure that there is an overall harmony between his kitchen team and his
waiting staff. And while he is justifiably proud of the consistent quality
level the restaurant has reached so far, what brought the biggest smile to his
face was explaining how Danny Keeley, a young recruit they had taken in as a
dishwasher when he was homeless, had recently been made young apprentice of the
year by the local college.
The George and Dragon's popularity has given Lowther and McKinnon the
confidence to transform an even older building right at the heart of the estate:
Askham Hall Gardens, next to the castle, that was until recently an old byre.
Today, it is a comfortable and hugely atmospheric café while a whole new area
outside has been created for the cattle, pigs and chickens that are being
reared, alongside the fruit and vegetable gardens, to supply the kitchens. It
is the kind of bucolic scene that would bring an enormous smile to the face of
Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, California, or Carlo Petrini, the founder of the
Slow Food Movement.
But in one very significant aspect this café is particularly Cumbrian. Right by
the café entrance is a pizza oven that has just been built from local stone by
Alf Armstrong, putting the local craft of dry-stone walling that is such a
distinctive feature across the Cumbrian hillside to a new purpose.
McKinnon explained how Armstrong had initially come to work in the kitchen
before discovering this particular skill. This restaurant and cafe are now not
only providing typical Cumbrian hospitality but also giving new life to some
very old and distinctive buildings.
George and Dragon, Clifton, Nr
Penrith, Cumbria CA10 2ER; tel 01768 865381
Askham Hall Gardens, Askham CA10
2PF; tel 01931 712348