Cumbrian chef Richard Swale is a forager who loves having home-aged meats on the menu. Jennifer Sharp reports
Chef Richard Swale has been involved since before the hotel's opening in August 2013. He's a local chap, but his cooking is anything but provincial. He trained in London with John Burton-Race and Anthony Demetre and had several stages in Europe, including at Noma in Copenhagen in Denmark, and with three-Michelin-starred chef Marc Veyrat in Annecy in France.
Swale's cooking is a light, modern and imaginative take on classic techniques and he's refreshingly scornful of gimmicks. Stockpots bubble away in the kitchen - he learned from strict masters and knows there are no shortcuts.
He has a small team - Alex the sous chef, who's been with him for eight years, and Ebony, the young pastry chef. They have enviable access to wonderfully fresh local produce from Askham's magnificent kitchen gardens, hot beds and greenhouses, as well as beef from Charles Lowther's prize-winning shorthorn herd and rare-breed livestock and poultry - Swale's particular passion. There's venison and Herdwick lamb from the fells, and plants and mushrooms from the fields and forests. Foraging has become something of cliché, but Swale takes it for granted as an essential part of his cooking. Sweet cicely is used with fruit desserts and pickled day lily works beautifully with langoustine.
"We gather the lily buds before they flower," says Swale, "and a light pickle gives them a unique peppery, floral taste." Local suppliers include top-class butter, honey, cheese and bread makers, and there's also the fish and shellfish landed on the coast.
The kitchen serves breakfast every day and dinner Tuesday to Saturday. There are 20 covers in the dining room, private dining for 8-10 at the chef's table in the pantry and for up to 16 in the atmospheric old chapel.
Swale also oversees lunch and teas in the seasonal garden café.
It's a busy life, but he's totally committed. Swale is proud of the new dry-ageing meat room with sirloins and giant ribs of beef, perfect for feasts, and the white-tiled ham-ageing room for locally reared pigs and ducks. You
can order a plate of charcuterie that includes home-cured duck breast and Cumberland air-dried salami and ham, alongside betterknown French and Spanish varieties.
The conservatory-style restaurant overlooks the garden and the tables are laid with fresh flowers and artisan tableware from Stuart Broadhurst, the village potter who was Swale's art teacher. Tempting glass jars of preserves and pickles line the shelves of an antique dresser.
A trio of amuses in a wooden box includes venison and beetroot tartare, home-cured duck ham, and a squid ink tuile with a hefty umami kick of Parmesan cream. Starters include chunky roast scallops teamed with whipped cod brandade and a rich sauce of madeira and winter truffle. A tranche of turbot on a bed of leaf spinach is enhanced with the salty punch of palourde clams, a frothy jus with ras el hanout and the brilliant green of monk's beard.
There are decadent desserts, such as Madagascan chocolate with barley ice-cream and a scattering of buckwheat, lemon, rhubarb, fennel and hibiscus presented as a fairy-like assembly of meringue shards with batons of rhubarb, slivers of sugar, shortbread triangles and soft strips of lemon rind. Home-made biscuits, sourdough bread, a British cheeseboard and a plate of friandes round things off nicely, along with picks from the connoisseur's wine list, compiled by house manager Nico Chièze.
The complex menu changes seasonally and, for many diners, this is a special occasion. But with some hotel residents staying several days, Swale will happily cook simpler dishes, such as chateaubriand or grilled fish, in addition to the British breakfasts each morning, made with home-reared bacon, sausage, fresh eggs and superb black pudding. To hell with the diet.
From the menu
- Langoustine, garden peas, smoked ham fat, pickled day lily and fresh herbs
- Guinea fowl, onions, garlic and ransom
- West Coast turbot, mixed grains, black kale, pickled wild garlic buds and apple marigold
- Hoggett belly and loin, spiced lentils, carrot, mihuna and goats' cheese
- Rhubarb, frangipane, yogurt
- Tumaco chocolate, caramel, malt barley and buckwheat
Three courses with nibbles, coffee and after-dinner treats: £50; local cheeses: £10 supplement. Five-course tasting menu: £65
Askham Hall, Askham,
Penrith, Cumbria CA10 2PF
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