Local larders: Cumbria

Local larders: Cumbria

by Lauren Fitchett31 October 2023

Famed for everything from Cumberland sausages to sticky toffee pudding, Cumbria has long had a pantry like nowhere else. And now home to the most Michelin-starred restaurants outside London, it's fast becoming the food capital of the north.

Local larders: Cumbria

Famed for everything from Cumberland sausages to sticky toffee pudding, Cumbria has long had a pantry like nowhere else. And now home to the most Michelin-starred restaurants outside London, it's fast becoming the food capital of the north.

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Local Larders

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

While every corner of the country has food and drink to be proud of, it's fair to say Cumbria has an embarrassment of riches. Home to its famous Lakes, as well as moors, valleys and coastline, its local larder is second to none, boasting everything from protected Herdwick sheep and coiled Cumberland sausage to Morecambe Bay potted shrimp and Windermere char, a freshwater Cumbrian delicacy. Its outstanding meat and fish sit alongside – to mention just a few – popular local cask and bottled ales, damsons, cheese and pies, which are not only stockpiled by the eighteen million visitors who holiday to the Lake District every year, but also feature on the menus of the country's best restaurants and delicatessens.

While it has long been home to plentiful produce, over the last couple of decades Cumbria has also earned itself a reputation as a go-to for those seeking a taste of the country's finest dining. The likes of Simon Rogan's L'Enclume and both The Old Stamp House and The Samling in Ambleside have put the county on the map for food-lovers, and today it is home to the most Michelin stars outside of London. We didn't need any convincing, but here we've taken a closer look at just some of the reasons to head for Cumbria for your next foodie escape.

The L'Enclume legacy

Simon Rogan first moved to the Lake District in 2002

When Simon Rogan first arrived in Cumbria in 2002, it must have felt like something of a risk. He'd relocated with a plan to turn an old blacksmith’s in a tiny village called Cartmel into his first restaurant, L’Enclume (named after the old anvil which sits in the dining room). Over the last twenty years, the restaurant has become a phenomenon; renowned both for its deeply farm-to-fork ethos and its hyper-seasonal, modern British menu, its place in history having been cemented by the announcement of its third Michelin star (it is one of only eight restaurants to achieve the feat in the UK, with the others all in London or Berkshire) and green star in 2022. At its core, L'Enclume is an ever-changing snapshot of the Cumbrian countryside. Its chefs forage locally for everything from ceps and hen of the woods to herbs, while Simon has created Our Farm, a closed-loop, 12-acre working farm which supplies much of the produce for his UK restaurants.

What has changed, though, is all that surrounds L’Enclume. It might be a food-lover’s paradise now, but in 2002 the area was less widely-known for its cuisine. ‘When I first moved here, there already was a lot of good food and restaurants, but they weren’t really in the public eye,’ Simon says. ‘Over the years, that has shifted as people are attracted to the area by the quality of life and natural beauty. Now, there is such a wealth of fantastic places. Chefs have really taken to the land and have done great work in incorporating some of the high quality produce that the Lake District has to offer. It goes to show that you don’t have to be in London or another densely populated hub to be successful as a business.’ The quality of local meat, the tight-knit nature of the cheffing community and less pressure to fill seats and cover the capital's expensive rents have all done their part to redress that balance, he says.

In turn, that has helped to change perceptions of food in the north – Simon points to chef Paul Leonard at Forest Side and Sam Miller at The Cottage in the Wood (both of which have stars) as highlights of local talent. ‘The North may appear a bit wild compared to the rigorous order of the densely populated south, but it’s exactly that wild expanse that makes the countryside, and especially Cartmel, so special,’ he nods. ‘There is a tonne of possibility up here, even more so than in a city. People might think that because there is less choice and restaurants are more spread out, that the northern food scene is not as good, but they are overlooking the outstanding quality of the restaurants around here. Of course, the process of building a successful business in the North can take longer but like a tree, once it puts down roots, this slower pace and attention to detail will serve you well in the long term.’

Proof is in the pudding

Regularly topping surveys of our favourite desserts, sticky toffee pudding is a tried and trusted national treasure. Though its roots are subject to debate – with owners of several pubs laying claim to it – the most-told tale goes that it was at the least popularised in the 1970s by Francis Coulson and Robert Lee, who developed and served it at the Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel (which closed in 2020). It’s said the chef was handed the recipe by a woman in Lancashire, who had herself received it from Canadian air force officers who had lodged at her hotel during the Second World War. It made its way onto the menu at Sharrow Bay as ‘icky sticky toffee pudding’, though the recipe stayed a closely-guarded secret.

Sticky toffee pud has since, of course, become a restaurant and pub staple, but it remains particularly prized in Cumbria. In Cartmel, Sarah Holliday, her parents Howard and Jean Johns and brother Simon have been selling their version from Cartmel Village Shop for thirty-three years. 'When we first came here we did sticky toffee puddings in foil trays for visitors and caravanners,' she says. 'People started to ask where they could get them, but we were the only place that sold them in a take-home way, and it's just expanded from there.' A purpose-built kitchen in the next village helps the family meet demand from holidaymakers and visitors whilst also stocking the shelves of Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, their profile boosted by glowing reviews from the likes of Nigella Lawson. So what makes their pud so special? 'It tastes good, it's got proper ingredients and nothing else,' Sarah says. 'It's butter, sugar, cream, eggs – no oil, nothing added. Proper ingredients, made in the best way.'

A look at the sweet treats of Cumbia wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Grasmere gingerbread, a ginger-flavoured shortbread which has been made in the village of Grasmere since the 1850s (it was created by Sarah Nelson and is still sold in the same shop by her ancestors today), as well as Kendal Mint Cake, which dates back to 1918 and is particularly loved in climbing and mountaineering circles (Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay ate it when they reached the summit of Everest in 1953). Legend has it that a Kendal confectioner was intending to make glacier mints when he took his eye off the pan – when he looked back, the mixture had become grainy and cloudy, and the cake was born.

Mighty meat

Lakeland Herdwick sheep are cherished in Cumbria

Roaming and foraging across the Cumbrian landscape, the county's native Herdwick sheep is a cherished part of its heritage. Often nicknamed wild gardeners, they are credited with keeping the natural landscape in check, grazing heather and grass evenly and keeping bracken under control. The vast majority (as much as 99%) of the national herd lives in the central and western Lake District, with their shaggy grey coats making them a distinctive sight for visitors. They’re a hardy bunch, able to survive on the limited food available during winter and withstand challenging weather.

Meat from Herdwicks can only be classed as Lakeland Herdwick if the animals are born, raised and slaughtered in Cumbria, thanks to their Protected Designation of Origin status (which puts them in the same category as Champagne, Cornish pasties and Melton Mowbray pork pies). They’re usually left to mature longer than is common with lamb, and are often recognised instead as hogget (sheep aged between one and two years, somewhere between lamb and mutton) – blending the tenderness of a young animal with the rich depth of flavour that comes with age. Unsurprisingly, we'd struggle to find a pub or restaurant in Cumbria without them on the menu.

Another prized local export is the famed Cumberland sausage, which also has a badge honouring its geography (rather than a PDO, it's a protected geographical indication, which means at least one stage of their production must take place in the region). Known for being coiled, rather than in links, Cumberland sausages are typically filled with chopped, rather than minced, pork, which is flavoured with pepper, thyme, sage and nutmeg. They're common across the UK and loved in Cumbria, where many butchers prepare their own traditional family recipes.

Pubs and inns

The cheese soufflé at The Punch Bowl

A blustery morning exploring the Lakes calls for an afternoon warming up in a cosy pub. Luckily, they're not in short supply across Cumbria, whether that's in Carlisle (the area's only city), bigger towns of Barrow-in-Furness and Kendal or the county's pocket-sized villages. Wherever you are, there's almost definitely a cosy country pub with a great kitchen attached nearby. ‘The Drunken Duck in Ambleside is a favourite, especially after a long walk,’ Simon says. ‘They retain a countryside inn feel and its menu has some interesting takes on pub classics. The Punch Bowl in Crosthwaite is also a wonderful, relaxed country inn that used to be a blacksmith’s shop just like L’Enclume. Their food is modern and satisfying, with the cheese soufflé being the stand-out.’

Whether you're after a Michelin-level meal to remember, a weekend of walking and unwinding in the pub or just to sample the best of Cumbria for an evening of cooking at home, there's fantastic food at every turn.