I’m gonna struggle not to sound too sycophantic with this restaurant – The Castle Dairy – it has an amazing ‘secret’ for a well-considered eatery, which I will happily share with you later, but let’s get the rest of the day out of the way first.
I woke up in Cockermouth, Cumbria, at the famous Trout Hotel. This place was practically underwater during the tragic floods a few years ago and a height gauge at the entrance reminds us of the power of water. The river burst its banks and filled the hotel with six feet of water. The transformation has resulted in a lovely, relaxed hotel next door to poet William Wordsworth’s childhood home and birthplace.
A robust and hearty Trout Hotel Lakeland breakfast later and I was ready to hit the road and head for the latest venture of eccentric England and another example of the power of water – a whisky distillery and visitor centre ready to be built from scratch.
I then take the long drive across the county to Kendal where I take in the spectacle of the Kendal Festival of Food and Drink.
The High Street in this busy town is taken over by stalls groaning with amazing produce and the freshest ingredients.
I talk cheese with Cartmel cheesemonger Martin Gott, I taste the famous gingerbread (Jamie has a recipe similar to the Sarah Nelson Cumbrian classic) and I talk Cumbrian food with those responsible for its fame. I don’t recall going to a food festival with so much on offer – it’s testament to the incredibly diverse and artisan nature of this county. From the coast across the fells and into the peak district, Cumbria is an astonishing showcase.
And now for the main event, my dinner at The Castle Dairy, and its ‘secret’ of which I had no idea when I turned up there, promise.
As part of the festival, the restaurant and its head chef Robert Stacey (previously of London posh-nosheries Galvin at Windows and Le Caprice) had put together an eight-course tasting menu of Cumbria’s finest.
First I got to tell you about the building, it’s ancient, 600 years old and beautiful, the oldest in town, with a preserved bedroom and listed four-poster bed to boot. It’s full of nooks and crannies, priest holes and wonky walls and really feels like a trip back to Ye Olde England, absolutely gorgeous.
Meal starts with a kilner jar filled with hay smoke and a delicate piece of smoked trout perched atop, clever eh? Self-smoking. With it came a delicate cone filled with a punchy liver parfait and topped with sweet roasted pine nuts.
Next up was a fancy-schmancy veloute of pungent wild garlic and a cheesy parmesan foam – this foam was quite robust, not like the cuckoo spit often spooned on as an afterthought by many Michelin-starred chefs. Here it was central to this lovely combo.
Ever eaten a slow-cooked egg? Well this was my first time, it looks almost raw as the albumen hasn’t quite whitened in the sous-vide (waterbath). This one came with air-dried ham and a very natty bit of crackling
The county boasts some lovely crab as well and Chef served this one with an ingenious horseradish ice and almond sand – who’d have thought it – stunning.
Herdwick hogget – the famous hardy breed of sheep roaming the Cumbrian Fells – was served very simply pan-roasted, the fat was bonkers, so full of powerful lamby flavours and absolute highlight and it well deserves its reputation as the best of the best meat.
Puds were delicate and where would a trip to Kendal be without a bit of their famous mint, given the Stacey twist.
The excellent front of house Adam, a genuinely friendly local chap then revealed to me the secret. Not only was this the first day of the new kitchen, but the kitchen was filled with students! Only the visionary chef Robert was a trained chef. Adam himself is a college graduate and he informed me all of the waiting staff were also current students at the college – you’d never have known, believe me.
My jaw dropped – I had to ask for confirmation: “So you’re telling me this meal was prepped and cooked by teenagers?” “Yes.”
One of the reasons I love Jamie and his vision so much is the way he gives youngsters a chance to fall in love with food and create a better life for themselves by introducing them into professional kitchens; although this is a touch different, as the students are part of Kendal’s further education college with an eye on apprenticeships and working in the restaurant, rather than Jamie’s apprentices who get a great deal of pastoral care and days out to help these disengaged youngsters come back from the brink. This isn’t a charity like Jamie’s in other words, but its efforts are equally admirable for inspiring a love of food.
Robert is equal to many big name chefs in this country and I have no doubt that his name will be up there with the likes of Simon Rogan and Nigel Howarth as multi-Michelen-starred ambassadors for the food of the north – even though he’s a Londoner!
I will be back as it’s one of the most complete dining experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of and certainly one of the most eye-opening.