Known as a place of constant scenic beauty, the Lake District also boasts a blossoming gastronomical scene. One such wonder can be found at Forest Side Hotel, which houses a one-Michelin-star, 4 AA Rosettes restaurant run by Head Chef Kevin Tickle. Renowned for his foraging and use of local, seasonal produce, Tickle sources as many ingredients from the hotel’s Victorian walled garden or gathered from the surrounding countryside as possible, which results in an authentic, creative and deeply Cumbrian suite of menus. We dropped in for “the Grand Un” 10-course tasting menu (£95) with wine pairing, to see what Cumbria’s finest had to offer.
As we’re lucky enough to be staying at Forest Side Hotel tonight (read our full review here), we have already eyed up our dining spot. Rustic and welcoming, the restaurant is simply dressed, with white walls, wooden floors and tables fashioned out of the room’s old floorboards. As meal-time approaches, we are brought to a table in front of a large window, from where we are able to watch the sun withdraw and witness the space fill with diners as the evening progresses.
Restaurant Manager, Gareth Newton, explains that they have three menus on offer night: a three-course à la carte (“the Reet L’al Un’), 6-course (‘the L’al Un’) and 10-course (‘the Grand Un’). Naturally, we have opted for the 10-course with wine pairing and ogle the menu excitedly. As we are doing so, a waiter comes over and introduces himself as Alex as he sets down a selection of the informally named “snacks”, comprising Toasted Sourdough with Slow-cooked Egg, Pork and Summer Truffle, Butternut Squash Cracker with Damson Jam, Black Pudding and Tunworth Cheese, Raw Beefsteak Mushroom, and a “Critter Fritter” made from grey squirrel with Douglas Fir mayonnaise.
The egg is thick and indulgent contrasting beautifully with the light, crisp base. Truffle shavings and salt brighten and accentuate the flavours. A similar textural play is found in the next with the deconstructed black pudding’s softness and rich taste resting upon the slightly sweet crisp. Creamy mayo finishes this bite and combines in the mouth to perfect completion.
We take a break from gushing about the exciting precursors to stare at the beefsteak mushroom. If we were not told what it was, we would’ve assumed it was a thin slice of liver as it looks decidedly meaty. Alex pipes up to say that it has been grown in the garden and is topped with smoking oil. With this further bit of information as incentive, we dive, in. Simple and surprisingly delicious with a slight citrus note, it is a brave and wholesome expression of the beauty of Cumbria, directly in contrast to the powerfully flavoured, salty and juicy squirrel croquette, whose grey coat is comically alluded to in the colouring of the crumbing. The latter is a brilliantly moreish snack that we could happily eat like popcorn.
As we are wiping our hands with the hot towel provided, our Sommelier Vanessa walks over with the first wine, Gayda Figure Libre Freestyle Blanc 2015 – a deeply golden, highly aromatic blend with a smooth minerality, hint of oak and notes of blossom, grapefruit and honeysuckle. This is shortly followed by our first course of Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Dale End Cheddar, Douglas Fir and Quinoa. The broccoli is perfectly cooked with a lightly charred crumb made with Douglas Fir oil and breadcrumbs that brings a fresh, authentic element to the dish. The cheese custard is creamy with a rounded flavour that works well with the simplicity of the vegetable to create a balanced dish with the textural crunch of quinoa. A mutualism forms between wine and dish with the minerality cutting through the custard and the cheese imparting a creaminess to the wine.
Alex brings us a perfect looking loaf of 50% Swiss rye, 50% strong white bread, together with Cumbrian butter topped with Maldon sea salt and a baked hay and caramalised celeriac butter topped with crispy apple. We are not going to wax lyric al about the bread because if we start we may never stop. Suffice to say, we needed to push both bread and butters out of arms’ reach so that we didn’t eat the whole thing in one sitting and then eye up other diners’ portions.
Campfire Chanterelles Cooked in Bone Marrow, Corned Brisket and Mushroom Broth are up next, paired with an elegant, American oak aged Amantriado sherry that smacks of Christmas prunes drowned in booze and imparts a nutty characteristic to the course. Tiny pickled Shimeji mushrooms rest atop of sliced Paris Brown mushrooms. Alex finishes the plate off at the table, spooning campfire Chanterelles cooked into the small dish and placing a cup of mushroom broth by it, recommending that we drink it alongside the dish. The Chanterelles are full of a smoky richness, pairing with the equally flavoursome pastrami and the meaty mushroom broth. This is an example of what Sous Chef Martin Frickel expressed about “hitting above the level in terms of flavour over size”.
Vanessa pours us a glass of a Torrefavale – a Northern Italian wine that is incredibly fruity on the nose. Somewhat surprised that we are served a white with venison, we take a sip and discover why. Apple is felt so intensely on the palate that it almost tastes like cider. Dry but fruity, it is a very individual yet perfectly balanced wine that is truly stunning, pairing perfectly with the Venison Pastrami served with cuccubit relish, smoked juniper yoghurt, nutty Càis na Tire cheese and draped in a sliver of suede.
As we power through the next few courses, the room begins to fill up with hotel guests and visiting diners alike. The atmosphere remains relaxed and the service faultless as we sink back into our comfortable spot and start to feel fully at home at Forest Side.
Crayfish with onion purée (where the onions are cooked down in mead), ham fat sauce and crayfish oil is topped with a thin slice of cured pork cheek that perfectly matches the meatiness of the crustacean. The accompanying, unoaked Australian Chardonnay is clean and light, quietly matching with the dish whilst the mead in the sauce brings out the sweetness of the crayfish and plays with the saltiness of the meat.
Our server, Kayleigh, brings out her “favourite course” comprising pickled beetroot, toasted hazelnuts, beetroot vinegar, Sunset velvet and Ragstone (an English style of goat’s cheese from Herefordshire) that has been pureed and then served with a dehydrates rind. The result is a delightfully textured dish that is a lot of fun. The cheese is amazing and brings the course up a notch whilst the wine that Vanessa pours is a very complex and intriguing natural wine from Greece that gets its coral hue from red grapes. Strawberry, raspberry and port come through, with chalky minerality and something resembling ketchup.
This is followed with a beautiful chunk of North Atlantic Cod, served with charred baby courgette rounds, Malabar spinach, a light dill sauce and a semi-transculent entity that we find out is smoked lard and which adds a full and salty taste to the dish, combining with the unusual, bitter orange wine provided to bring out a rounded, oily mouthfeel.
Gareth brings out our next dish, Cumbrian Rare Breed Pork, Smoked Potato Custard, Damson, Garden Shenanigans, explaining that the loin and belly have been slow-cooked before being lightly barbecued to produce a smoky flavour. These are served on a bed of very lemon-y caper jam and finished with a dollop of smoked potato, a splatter of damson jus and fresh garden chard leaves. Delicious and unexpectedly subtle in flavour, it’s a true beaut of a course. The wine that accompanies it is an orange wine from the Czech Republic that has been created using only old methods, with horses replacing tractors to minimise the carbon footprint. Initially incredibly dry and surface-level, it develops with the fat of the pork.
We fall back into our chair and let out one of those sighs reserved for moments of blissful indulgence, again reflecting on how knowledgeable and attentive the staff are, and how thoughtful the savouries have been.
Just as we feel we are about to melt fully into our own contentment (and possibly become inseparable from our seat), a palate cleanser of creamy cow’s milk ice cream, dotted with lemon verbena fast-frozen into sorbet pearls, and pretty viola and woodland sorrel is placed before us. Quirky and cute, the novelty and perhaps the coldness wakes us from our sybaritic stupor. This is further aided by Alpha Domus Pilot Leonarda Late Harvest Semillon 2010, a stunner of a wine, similar in style to a Sauterne, with an aroma redolent of roasted nuts and freshly squeezed grapefruit, followed by a luscious palate of vanilla, acacia honey and citrus. The wine is the perfect accompaniment to the dessert of delicate scorched pear, frothy and light sweet cheese, rosehip, smoky, grilled walnut.
As the course comes to an end, we ask Vanessa why there are no red wines on the menu. She candidly responds that they could have done but always found that reds took over the dishes with their oaky flavour. Their goal with the pairings was to find wines that develop the food.
Happy enough with the reasoning, we push on to the last course on the menu – Blackberry, Douglas Fir, Fresh Cobnut. A sphere of blackberry parfait coated in freeze-dried blackberry powder is surrounded by cobnuts, granola and blackberries macerated in star anise syrup. The nuts and granola make the dish, adding a woody crunch to a bright and fruity dessert. The pairing is an ice wine with berries picked during the first frost. Packed full of exotic yellow fruit, it holds a heavy syrupy sweetness that is juicy and natural, and which compliments the parfait.
Kayleigh clears our plate and asks the question that we’d been asking ourselves for the past four courses – “Would you like to try the cheese course”. We fake being in two minds about the decision until she informs us that all the cheeses come from The Courtyard Dairy – the best cheese shop in UK, in our humble opinion (read our reasoning here), that supplies many of the country’s Michelin-starred restaurants with phenomenal English farmhouse cheeses. Quickly throwing off our act, we objectify the laden cheese trolley, which has been divided into four sections: Goat’s, Blue, Hard and Soft. All present are made in the Cumbrian area and support local farming.
After much deliberation, we choose St James (a sheep’s milk cheese from Cartmell), Coat Hill Blue (the UK’s first unpasteurised soft blue cheese), famous cheesemaker Martin Gott’s “cheese with no name” (an extremely young sheep’s cheese), Synadon Hill(made from goat’s milk), and Amalfia (an ash-rind-wash goat’s cheese named after the Greek goddess of goats). These are accompanied by a glass of Dunagin Ratafia Champenois – a wine made in the same manner as port but using pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. Whilst all the cheeses are decidedly different, from the dense, crumbly and mellow St James to the exceptionally pungent blue that somehow retains its youthful flavour, the wine works wonders across the board. Full of fresh apricots, peaches and slivers of almond, it doesn’t overpower, instead working in harmony with the various cheeses. Gott’s nameless cheese is a curiosity to behold and a calling card for The Courtyard Dairy’s championing of unusual British wares. The middle is young and fruity with a lightly bitter zest whilst the rind is deeper and creamier with a zinginess that coats the tongue, making it seem as though we’re having two cheeses in one.
We push our plate away and somehow summon the willpower to drag our gourmandised being up the stairs to our room. Everything from the food to the service has been spectacular at The Forest Side and we leave feeling supremely spoilt.
Forest Side Hotel, Keswick Road, Grasmere, Ambleside LA22 9RN
To book your table at Forest Side Restaurant, visit their website here.
To learn more about the hotel, read our Forest Side Hotel Review here.