Holidays with the in-laws, such as the one I’m currently enjoying, aren’t entirely gastronomic wastelands. My mother-in-law’s cooking is OK, though I’m a bit uncomfortable ceding kitchen control to anybody if truth be told, and when my father-in-law accompanies her to the shops he does his best to find wines that I will like, by only selecting those that have stickers on them saying they have won trophies, or awards, or been named by Oz Clarke as one of the 100 best somethings.
Meals on these little trips are normally fine, occasionally even good, but rarely very exciting. But, apart from being good people and producing an excellent daughter and really quite a lot of other positive stuff, they did get something right: they sorted themselves out with a holiday home about 10 miles away from one of the best restaurants in the country, a sentence that several people who know its rivals better than myself suggest could equally apply without either of the words “one” or “of”.
L’Enclume may or may not be better than Gordon Ramsay or The Fat Duck, but it certainly improves on them in one way: it’s hundreds of miles from London, and really inconveniently located for anyone in any of the country’s major cities, with the possible exception of Manchester, which is nevertheless ruddy miles away. Thus I could phone them on Tuesday and get a table on Wednesday, or indeed Thursday, or any other day of the week. This is a bit sad for them, because they should be booked up weeks in advance and would make more money if they were, but good for people like me, who can decide to go, and then go. Like that. No frantic redialling six months before you’re hungry. Just go.
Our menus cost £75 each, without drinks or service. There was a £55 menu, but then there was also a £95 menu. It seemed wise to take one in the middle. Clearly, this is expensive. But the following day we had lunch at Make, the restaurant at the South Lakes Wild Animal Park, and spent £12.50 on a child’s meal of disgusting meatballs with frozen peas and instant mash, and a not-even-hot baked potato with tuna, plus a mini Babybel, one Diet Coke and a carton of apple juice. That meal cost just over a seventeenth as much as our 12-course meal for two the previous night, once service and drinks are taken into account. It was at very best a thousandth of the quality. It was prepared in five minutes by a 16-year-old, who was probably picking his nose at the time. L’Enclume is expensive, but very good value.
And our meal? Here, for the record, is a list of all the things we ate, according to the menu (which was wrong, but we’ll come on to that):
Creamed foie, radish and smoked eel (my least favourite dish of the night, and I love foie)
Grown-up yolk from the golden egg
Humhrey’s Pool (a vegetable broth filled with sea moluscs of every shape and size)
Lamb sweetbreads, onions and ash
Salad of Artichokes and fresh goats cheese
Manx Queenies and wild sorrel, parsley and horseradish
Chick ‘O’ Hake
Valley venison with salsify, hedge garlic and parsley root
Stiffy tacky pudding
Fig in vanilla, sweet cicely and wild juniper
For me, it was almost all excellent, with a couple of less good things – the foie and the stiffy tacky pudding, gelified bubbles of the five constituent flavours of a sticky toffee pudding, Cartmel’s most famous progeny, and thus exactly the same concept as the Hot Pot that preceded it, only not as good. Pleasant, all the same. The Chick ‘O’ Hake, a hake fillet pan seared inside chicken skin, served with a wonderful lemon thyme infused jus and a puree of brussels sprouts (much nicer than it may sound), was brilliant. But top of the tree were, at No2, the grown-up yolk from the golden egg – golden rice crispies, something that looked like an egg yolk but was in fact a multi-layered chickeny mousse, covered with a delicious spoonful of mustardy excellence – brilliant to look at, wonderful to eat. And at No1, my favourite plate of the night, the artichoke, which was a combination of globe, Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes, with a mousse that tasted a great deal more of artichoke than of goats cheese, though that could be down to what it came with, covered with malt soil, and bits of the other artichokes poking out of it. You basically needed to like artichokes. But the combination of textures and (largely artichoky) flavours was impeccable. I would drive from London to eat it again.
It was a meal I could write 1,000 words about in half an hour. It was theatre and artifice, delight and disappointment. It was excellent. I’ll be back. Not, however, until I’ve paid off my credit card bill.