Kevin Tickle is bringing an authentic and creative taste of the Cumbrian landscape into the dining room, says Janet Harmer
Eating at Forest Side, the third and latest property from Wildsmith Hotels, provides a total immersion in and a connection to the surrounding Cumbrian landscape.
Just sitting in the restaurant in the Victorian 20-bedroom hotel, situated on the outskirts of Grasmere, makes you feel as if you have one foot on the outside. The space is pared back, and the vast windows, unadorned by drapes, provide a view of the steep fells. Reclaimed floorboards are used for table tops, menus are printed on recycled brown paper and tied together with yarn from the Herdwick sheep grazing outside, and hand-thrown, earthy-hued ceramics create an organic environment.
It is the food, however, that firmly attaches Forest Side to its locality. Head chef Kevin Tickle is Cumbrian born and bred, having never lived or worked beyond the county. He joined the hotel in November 2014, after working as sous chef and head forager at Simon Rogan's L'Enclume and as head chef at Rogan & Co.
His arrival at the hotel, 16 months' prior to its opening in February, enabled Tickle to become fully immersed, along with gardener Catherine Walsh (another former Rogan protégé) in the process of restoring what is a substantial Victorian walled kitchen garden.
The efforts Tickle and his 12-strong kitchen brigade go to in selecting the right produce and then extracting the maximum flavour have been well-rewarded, with what he describes as an "overwhelming" number of positive reviews from critics and customers.
At lunch, diners can choose from the Bait menu, a four-course table d'hote for £35, or a six-course tasting menu, called the L'al 'Un.
Of the three menus on offer for dinner - the 10-course Grand 'Un at £75, the six-course L'al 'Un (£60), and the Reet L'al 'Un Á la carte menu (£50) - it is the largest menu that is proving to be the most popular.
While the menus may be daunting to read, the food itself is simply prepared and beautifully presented. The focus is on dishes which pack a flavourful punch and introduce diners to one or two new ingredients.
Catherine's garden salad
While the produce is local, the influences may come from further afield. For instance, the venison pastrami dish on the Grand 'Un menu is based on the plethora of deli sandwiches Tickle and his wife Nicola enjoyed on honeymoon in New York. The venison, which comes from the nearby Cartmel valley, is accompanied by Corra Linn, an unpasteurised sheep's milk cheese from across the Scottish border, smoked juniper yogurt and pickled swede and allium flowers.
Tickle likes to break up the tasting menus halfway through with a refreshing vegetable-based course. Initially, this came in the form of Catherine's garden salad, comprising ragstone goats' cheese and scurvy grass, and has morphed into Pablo beetroot, ragstone, hazelnut, sourdough crumpet and wood sorrel.
Among the more unusual plants used by Tickle is dittander, a scarce herb found in only a couple of locations in Cumbria. "It is the closest indigenous plant we have to wasabi," he says. "You need to keep it toned down as it is very strong." He uses it to spice up a dish of halibut, charred lettuce and mussels.
North Atlantic cod, brassicas old and new, cured ham broth
Home-cured charcuterie which, together with pickles and preserves adds to the home-produced bounty, appears in several forms, including a version of the Italian-cured guanciale. "We cure and smoke pork cheek and slice it very thinly so that it melts in the mouth," says Tickle. "We add it to scallops and asparagus for a smokey hit, with a drizzle of Douglas fir oil for some acidity."
The hardy Herdwick sheep has played a significant role in Forest Side, with the fleeces used for carpets and the bespoke beds. For the restaurant, Tickle serves Herdwick hogget with a purée made from heritage potato, the skins of which are dehydrated and sprinkled on top, together with charred ramson for a hint of garlic. To finish, he adds a sprinkling of hedgerow clippings, which could include Jack-by-the-Hedge, orpine and vetch.
Desserts also feature Tickle's foraged plants, such as spignel, which has a similar flavour to chamomile, and the delicate, fennel-like fronds are used to sprinkle over a strawberry and lemon verbena dish.
Rhubarb, burnt butter, sweet cicely
From the menu
- Seaweed broth, kohlrabi, surf clams, marsh herbs
- Duck heart salad, savoury, turnip, pickled green walnut
- North Atlantic cod, charred alliums, mollusc broth, Flookburgh brown shrimps
- Dry-aged Middle White, cultured pollen, birch sap, umbelifers
- Sweet cheese parfait, sea buckthorn, colts foot
- Rhubarb, burnt butter, sweet cicely
From the L'Al 'Un, £60
Keswick Road, Grasmere, Cumbria LA22 9RN
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