On the final leg of my winter wonderland ‘eat and sleep Cumbria’ blogs I am about as easterly as this county extends and I’m in for a treat.
Close to Cumbria’s border with County Durham is Kirkby Stephen in the Eden Valley, and a couple of miles out of town is the magnificent Augill Castle.
So why am I giving so much love to this area without focusing on people with budgets? Okay, so here at JamieOliver.com we often talk about spreading the love, sharing the good work good people do to make the food choices better in this country and every other territory which may have slipped into bad habits over the last few decades. We love shouting about people who, in their own small way, help to create opportunities within the food industry for the less privileged and those who have somehow slipped under the radar and are in danger of falling off the cliff face. Through the love of food these lives can be and are often transformed – these are the main ingredients in Jamie’s Food Foundation and the fundamental principles of the Food Revolution and the amazing Fifteen Apprentice Programme. In that vein, my hosts for this weekend in Eden – Simon and Wendy Bennett – have helped local youngsters discover, develop and dedicate themselves to the craft of good food and cooking; on top of that, it is a glorious place.
The hotel, which Wendy describes as in the country house style of residences, also packs an almighty wallop with its own food ethos: seasonal eating using a ‘from the back door out’ policy with its local ingredient sourcing.
Ultimately this is a hotel, you can stay in one of the lavish rooms (roll-top bath, really good coffee, amazing beds, complimentary sherry, etc) and wander into any of the grand living spaces, music room, drawing room, dining room or well-stocked bar area. Someone is on hand to cater for your every whim….within reason.
Wendy and Simon used to run a Mayfair restaurant until they found this Victorian folly, ramshackle and in serious danger of being a ghost. They have since lovingly restored it, well, rather reinvented it and opened the entire ‘castle’ parts to guests – while they themselves stay with their children in the coach house to the back.
This is a lovely concept; really relaxed and comfortable. For the wallflowers among you, however, if you’re not keen on dining with other parties and would rather keep yourself to yourself then maybe this isn’t for you!
Now let me tell you about how kids are treated here – after all, The Sunday Times has voted it second best family hotel in UK. My two scallywags were fed in a separate dining room, a couple of hours earlier than us, before they were whisked off to the private 12-seat cinema near the bar and given freshly-popped corn and a choice of hundreds of films – heaven, right?
Dinner, like the majestic and generous breakfast, is served at a big refectory table, a little like the super-trendy and super-priced Convento of Puglia. A puffy goats cheese soufflé was followed by a pork loin rolled in cracked pepper – really wholesome and nothing too fancy; just filling and satisfying.
Our fellow diners (there were only two) were a couple from Cheshire. Their idea of an ultra-relaxing break was not going anywhere, staying near their room and reading papers and sipping G&Ts all day. We, however, had enjoyed the fresh air, taking in one of the numerous walks in the area.
On Sunday afternoon, the four of us indulged in a traditional English afternoon tea. Beautiful sandwiches, Wendy’s amazing naughty cakes and traditional scones and clotted cream were all served up. Yes naughty, yes delicious, yes decadent, yes, yes, yes!
It would be easy for our hosts to lord it up here, happy to take the money for an exquisite location and belting service, but they don’t – they give back and that is why I loved it at Augill Castle. Both Simon and Wendy are inspirational foodies, always learning and always sharing – The Augill Academy, is a non-profit making element of their offering, working with young people to inspire them about good food and careers in food and hospitality. The pair tap into the talent on their doorstep and inspire young people by giving them extraordinary experiences and opportunities in food and hospitality. The academy works with primary school children as young as four, introducing them to good food and the basics of cooking. Their annual Young Chef of the Year competition takes talented young chefs aged 14 and 15 out of school and gives them the chance to compete and work in professional, award-winning kitchens across Cumbria. In the summer they run day courses for young people getting ready to leave for university, helping equip them for independent living by giving them quick and easy recipes for healthy, good value food.
This is why JamieOliver.com is keen on keeping these folks close – Simon will be writing a monthly blog for us on food ethics, seasonal eating and spreading the love of good food to a community.
Thanks for having me guys – I will be back….
Simon’s book about the couple’s adventure at Augill – ‘Undressed for Dinner: the story of a family trying to lead an ordinary life in an extraordinary place’ – is available to buy online www.hayloft.eu