The Langstrath Country Inn
I’ve managed to dodge fandom’s Easter splurge – the Clarke, the BSFA awards, Eastercon, the Hugo nominations – by dint of being in splendid isolation up in Cumbria. I spent the first half of my holiday walking the Cumbria Way, a 70 mile footpath that tracks across the county from Ulveston to Carlisle, taking in a good portion of the Lake District National Park. I am not a novice hiker but after the first day it became me and my wife had perhaps over-estimated our fitness. Not that we are unfit but a 10kg pack on your back radically changes the game. Add in the killer combination of a cold and hayfever – not to mention unusually fierce sunshine – and it started to seem a bit of a struggle. Had I gone on holiday by mistake? Thankfully with a bit of determination, some Lemsip Max capsules and the rapid purchase of a Titanium Omni-Shield we made it through with just a few blisters.
The proper way of doing things would have been to have packed our Trangia and couscous along with the tent and sleeping bags but we made a considered decision to keep the weight down by ditching them. This was no problem because there pubs all allong the route and what could be better than that after a hard day’s walk? After a couple of nights we started to wonde if we had made a mistake though. We had forgotten what pubs are like. Living in London you tend to get spoilt food-wise; gastropubs are ten-a-penny and often serve food of a standard that makes them competitive with the capital’s many restaurants. Outside metropolitan areas a pub is often your only option for a warm meal but often it isn’t an offer you’d want to take up.
A detailed survey of the pubs of Cumbria revealed the following formula virtually universally applied: indifferent meat in rich, thick gravy or sauce served with massacred veg and chips. Chips! The chip is a thing of beauty, a brilliant culinary invention, but not the sort of the way they are served up in these pubs. Never mind the triple-fried chip that is de rigeur on gastropub menus, these pallid potato sticks didn’t look like they had been fried at all. As for the veg, at various locations I received raw green beans, overcooked but stone-cold carrots, luke-warm leeks in a horribly watery cheese sauce and salad that consisted of half an iceberg drenched in oil. The meat was usually submerged in dark, viscous liquid designed to conceal its blandness. For the vegetarian option, replace the meat with cheese and the sauce with more cheese. Ensure this is served at a dangerously high temperature.
Am I being fussy? A pub is a pub and its primary purpose is selling pints. But the way these pubs treat food stands in such stark contrast to the way they treat beer. Every pub I went into had at least three (and usually half a dozen) local bitters on draft. Several had their own brewery. Is it too much to hope that some of this passion and expertise could make its way into the kitchen?
Thankfully, my faith in the ability of pubs to actually cook rather than just heat was the Langstrath Country Inn in Stonethwaite, a tiny village in Borrowdale. The pub is virtually next to the National Trust campsite we were staying at which is exactly what was needed after a day of brutal ascents and descents through Stake Pass. The landlady was extremely accommodating, squeezing us in despite having a full list of reservations and the fact we looked somewhat battered. She even offered to find us a space in the restaurant but we agreed that a corner of the bar was probably best all round.
I started with cheese souffle served with pear and walnut salad. The contrast in the level of ambition and execution suggested by this is staggering. Here is food that requires technical skill to create, which shows an interest in the way flavours complement each other and which takes pride in the quality and providence of its ingredients (the cheese was local). The salad was served with a simple balsamic vinegrette which caused me to reflect that such a staple as balsamic vinegar probably wasn’t even present in any of the kitchens of the other pubs. N’s potted shrimp was also local and came with four good sized pieces of toast, a huge mark in their favour given how stingy restaurants usually are when it comes to providing baked delivery vectors.
I then went slightly insane and ordered the mixed grill. As she served N’s seabass, the waitress remarked that my wife had made the sensible choice. The full meat roll call here was rump steak, lamb chop, lamb kidney, pork loin, gammon steak and black pudding. I will admit that I pocket the black pudding – a huge disc – for breakfast but otherwise I think I acquired myself well. The beef and gammon steaks were essentially ballast but chop and loin were lovely pieces of meat and not overcooked (the bane of the mixed grill). Again, care was taken with provenance, the lamb was listed by both breed (Herdwick) and origin (Rossthwaite, a mile up the road). If not a particularly skillful meal then it still showed care and attention to the meat and accompaniments: juicy mushrooms, light (but still superflously) onion rings, a perfectly cooked fried egg with a huge, bursting yolk and – yes! – proper chips. There was no need for sauce here but an offer of three different mustards was gratefully received.
The second half of the holiday involved recovering from the first half in a cottage in Glenridding on the shore of Ullswater. Whilst we did put our feet up for a bit we also did quite a bit of fell-walking, notably Helvellyn via the frankly awesome Striding Edge ridge and High Street by another rocky ridge route. Such exortion deserved reward and, rather than gambling with the local pubs, we returned to what we knew.
The Langstrath was just as busy as the previous visit and we opted for the 6.15 rather than 8.15 table. This was a good job since after a quick splash in the stream our party of four suddenly found their appetite. A friend was rapturous of the cheese souffle, another loved the combination of black pudding and chorizo in a salad and me and N both went for scallops from the specials. These were huge beasts served with beurre blanc and some shards of toast which enabled us to mash the equally huge roe into a sort of crostini. Nom. My main of duck was a bit of a let down though. We were asked if we minded it pink. To which the answer is, of course not, that is how it should be. So it is very disappointing then to find the meat was not at all pink and on the verge of being overcooked. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. It came with an excellent but too small slice of daulphoise but, to be fair, this was offset by the generosity of the very large portion of duck. The whole thing was swimming in berry sauce which I needed to be smaller, thicker and more self-contained. My duck-eating companion, on the other hand, averred that the sauce the better and promptly ate the last of my drenched cabbage.
It is worth mentioning the prices here. That huge portion of scallops was £5.95 which is a steal. The mains were a more normal £14-16 but that is still very reasonable. And it looks even more reasonable when you compare it to the inedible £11-13 dishes being served up in every other village across Cumbria.