This Ambleside restaurant is a paean to the Herdwick, the lamb turning up in Ryan Blackburn's main courses and even the petits fours. Tessa Allingham discovers a truly Cumbrian menu
A portrait of a Herdwick sheep lands its direct gaze on diners at the Old Stamp House, alongside a portrait of poet William Wordsworth, glasses perched on that famously aquiline nose, quill poised.
Neither are there by accident. In 1813 Wordsworth became the Westmorland Distributor of Stamps and this basement restaurant was his office. The sheep is there because Herdwick, the Lake District's native breed, is an animal whose meat chef-patron Ryan Blackburn reveres with almost religious devotion.
Herdwick has not been off the menu since Ryan and his brother Craig, who runs the floor, opened the Old Stamp House in 2014.
The low-ceilinged space below Greggs bakery in Ambleside has a tiny kitchen with room for two chefs and a pot-wash, space for 28 diners in two rooms, and private dining for eight.
Dishes on the four- or six-course tasting menu (£55/£70 in the evening, £45 for four courses at lunch) are smaller versions of the 3-3-3 à la carte, with a set lunch at three courses for £29.50. Everything changes, of course, with the seasons, availability or, says Ryan, "when I get bored, which is quite often".
The restaurant has been fêted, scoring well in a high-scoring region in The Good Food Guide, then gaining a Michelin star in October 2019. The resulting 35% surge in business was in part behind the brothers' decision to turn their nearby café, Kysty (‘tasty' in local dialect) into an evening bistro, with Ryan's sous chef Dan Hopkins now settled in as head chef.
"It's the flavour, the texture," Ryan says of Herdwick. "It's not lamby lamb; it's gamier, not so fatty." Three slices of loin are butter-soft, the shoulder braised down and stuffed into the skin of roasted and scooped-out Jerusalem artichoke. There's sweetness from charred Roscoff onion, savouriness from hen of the woods mushrooms, and freshness from wilted greens. In March and April he'll use scarlet elf cups (another mushroom) and wild garlic; in summer Jersey Royals confited in lamb fat. Year-round, it's a favourite dish (£28).
Ryan buys whole animals direct from Yew Tree Farm near Coniston. "The consistency is amazing," says Ryan. "The sheep are slowgrowing and live on the fells their whole life.
Jon [Watson, the farmer] lambs late and overwinters the animals, so when he finishes them the following spring-summer they are hogget." Nothing is wasted: guests are offered a cup of lamb broth on arrival, and fat from the flank enriches fudge petits fours. Ryan was brought up in Great Langdale, a few miles from Ambleside, and trained at Kendal College. He counts positions at Holbeck Ghyll in Windermere and Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh among his formative experiences. Prior to opening the Old Stamp House he was head chef at the Cottage in the Wood in Braithwaite for two and a half years.
Cumbria runs in Ryan's DNA. He digs deep into its larder, history and culture for inspiration, nurtures precious relationships with farmers and producers like Watson or John Stott of Cartmel Valley Game. "John will call and say he's got four woodcock or some snipe or teal. I spend hours speaking to my suppliers. Connections are so important."
A new source of farmed Arctic char – Hartlepool- based Hodgson Fish – excites him. "It used to be abundant in Windermere but was over-fished, so it's hard to get wild now." The fillet is poached and served with a spiced mead velouté, brown shrimps and cauliflower (£10).
Elsewhere, the menu features brown shrimps from Morecambe Bay (when available), havercake (Cumbrian oatcakes), and a bestselling dessert that nods to Sarah Nelson's Grasmere gingerbread with its famously secret recipe. Ryan uses Jamie Oliver's version, with the gingerbread base topped with ginger wine-infused cheesecake or panna cotta (£9). There is always a chocolate dessert (£10), while British cheeses from Thornby Moor Dairy near Carlisle and Courtyard Dairy in Austwick are served with Westmorland pepper bread, a spiced, fruity bread (£10).
An average spend of £60 per head is bolstered by good uptake of wine flights (£35/£45) from a Europe-leaning list bought through Edinburgh-based l'Art du Vin, a connection Ryan built while at Restaurant Martin Wishart.
From the menu
- Roasted west coast scallop, pumpkin purée, seeds and pickle, Old Winchester, Waberthwaite ham £14.50
- Wild Cumbrian brown hare, roasted beetroot, black pudding sauce, pickled damson, hazelnut £9
- Goosnargh duck breast, carrot, salsify, chicory, blood orange £25
- Roasted cod loin, lentils, kale, shellfish sauce £26
- Cartmel Valley roe deer, parsnip, hen of the woods, chicory £30
- White chocolate and coffee ganache, chicory root ice-cream, blood orange £10
- Cumbrian gingerbread cheesecake, forced Yorkshire rhubarb, marigold £9
The Old Stamp House, Church Street, Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 0BU www.oldstamphouse.com
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