For anyone, as Wordsworth put it, “with an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”, there are few finer places on earth than the Lake District. He might have added “a stomach to fill”: from cosy country pubs to temples of gastronomy, finding sustenance after a bracing hike is never a problem.
Take The Brown Horse Inn at Winster, for instance, a couple of miles east of Windermere. Built in the 1850s as a coaching inn, it offers exposed beams, a roaring log fire, excellent food, terrific home-brewed ales (try the malty, marvellously moreish Old School bitter) and a remarkable collection of gins: 175, at the last count.
I stopped by for lunch: Cumbrian ham terrine, pleasingly piggy and squidgy, with sourdough and homemade piccalilli, then shepherd’s pie, made with lamb from a local farm and sloppy in the best sense of the word, a few slices of pickled beetroot lending savour. Portions are as generous as the welcoming staff.
Cumbrian produce also features strongly on the Michelin-starred menu at Hrishi, the restaurant at the glorious Gilpin Hotel nearby, but with a twist: the head chef is Hrishikesh Desai, and his Indian heritage is evident in the gentle, intelligent accents of spice in his cooking.
Mackerel from Morecambe Bay, for example, cured, then torched and dusted with panch phoron (Bengali five-spice powder), served with saffron-spiked carrots, tiny pickled beets and horseradish sorbet. Or crisply breaded quail eggs with a velvety velouté of celeriac and apple, sweet and sour sultanas, a few drops of curry oil and a scattering of coriander cress.
Slow-roasted pork belly arrived with an open raviolo of wild mushrooms (more Umbria than Cumbria), shreds of braised meat and cabbage “foogath”, an Indian term for vegetables cooked with coconut. More five-spice, this time the anise-rich Chinese version, perfumed the sauce.
Wild duck is a tricky bird to cook – the window between “raw” and “shoe leather” is frighteningly narrow – but Desai got it spot on, and the accompanying croquette of okra, stuffed with a confit of leg meat and fried in nigella seeds and breadcrumbs, was probably the smartest thing any chef has ever done to okra, the vegetable kingdom’s slipperiest customer. Pickled shimeji mushrooms and squash chutney added piquancy and colour.
There is serious talent in the pastry section too: I sampled nashi pear, both caramelised and worked into a smoky purée, harmoniously matched with salted-caramel ice cream and a blissfully light, fragrant frangipane tart.
Desai’s knack is to take the bounty on his doorstep and let it speak for itself, while his elegant, restrained use of spice adds frissons of flavour to each plate. Cumbria has always welcomed spice – Morecambe Bay shrimps are flavoured with mace, Cumberland sausages with black pepper, and the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop still does a roaring trade. Thanks to Hrishikesh Desai, it is a tradition in very safe hands.