Shortly after I married my Cumbrian wife 30 years ago, I learnt two things about the appetites of this particularly verdant county. The first is that size matters. Cumbrians do not like to see the plate underneath whatever dish they have ordered: the food has to be substantial. And second, there is invariably a hefty craving for dessert, the part of the meal that is most critically judged in this far north-western corner of England.
I was reminded of these 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 alleged “last battle” was fought on English soil in 1745.
As I looked around the crowded room, I spied three young men 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 choices there were four dessert specials.
In the restaurant, full of chairs and pews from an old church, we were handed the menu. One column gave a brief, tempting list of dishes, together with a hand-drawn map of the Eden Valley detailing the locations of all the farmers, fishermen and suppliers to the kitchen. At the centre was an outline of Lowther church and castle, which have belonged to the Lowther family for centuries and are part of the large estate on which their Game and Country Fair takes place next weekend.
The cooking itself was distinctly modern. A wild rabbit terrine packed lots of flavour, while a gravadlax of sea trout with beetroot was lighter and brighter. A fillet of sea trout as a main course was excellent and provided 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 delicious 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 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 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 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 justifiably proud of the consistent quality level the restaurant has reached so far, but 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, which until recently was 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. Right by the café entrance is a pizza oven recently built from Cumbrian stone by Alf Armstrong, putting the local craft of dry stone walling to an unusual purpose.
This restaurant and café are not only providing typical Cumbrian hospitality, but also giving new life to some very old and distinctive buildings.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
George and Dragon
Clifton, nr Penrith
Askham Hall Gardens