Ten years ago, few people outside of the Lake District had heard of the small farming town of Cartmel. Now, thanks to chef Simon Rogan and his fast-growing mini empire, it’s become one of those otherwise offbeat destinations – like Bray and San Sebastián – synonymous with thrill-ride, avant-garde, destination dining.
There’s not much of Cartmel, but what there is looks so lovely that it seems almost ersatz. At one end sits a tiny square, with ancient pubs and a shop renowned for its sticky toffee pudding. From here, the medieval main street crosses a stream – complete with a photogenic regatta of ducklings – and runs along to the huge stained glass windows of the 800 year old Priory church. There are antiquarian booksellers, chocolatiers and acres of fields with lambs and slate rubble walls. There are handmade, crafty jack-in-the-boxes in window displays and the kind of gift shops that obsess over handwritten labels on brown card tags and anything branded with Gil Sans type. Then there is a small contemporary British restaurant called L’Enclume, with its locally foraged ingredients and internationally influential, epic tasting menus, all bathed in the soft alluring light of its Michelin stars.
Back at the start of the century – with much of Cumbria deeply depressed by the devastation of Foot & Mouth Disease – this was a different, darker place. When born and bred southerner Simon Rogan moved here and opened L’Enclume in 2002 it was the opening salvo for a very new way of approaching ingredients and cooking. Inspired by rave reviews for his high-science cooking, which compared it to that of molecular masters Ferran Adrià and Pierre Gagnaire, Londoners began making the five-hour journey for dinner even before he’d opened rooms for them to stay in. Then he set up a second, more casual restaurant: Rogan & Co., and last year added a lovely ungentrified boozer, the Pig & Whistle, to the fold, with plans to create the perfect pub lunch. (“Because we’re doing it, people expect so much more than just a pie”). Increasingly, Cartmel is defined by one man’s vision and art.
“When we first came here, there was a real attitude of distrust,” says Rogan. “People wanted to know: ‘Who is this southerner coming up here, doing this strange food?’ But over time that changed. We’ve brought a lot of people to the village, lots of new businesses are opening up, and we shout from the rooftops about how lucky we are to be in such a beautiful place. I love it up here. I love going to Coniston and looking down at the water at what looks like a beach. And I love the desolation and isolation of Wastwater at the bottom of the highest peak of Scafell Pike.”
At a first glance around its conservatory dining space on a Wednesday evening in spring, L’Enclume is handsome, but hardly revelatory. It’s elBulli rustic rather than Ducasse grand. The waiters are jovial and diners wear jeans. A couple – who look like father and daughter – are sharing an electronic cigarette. “The style of service fits the food,” says Rogan. “It’s natural, happy go lucky and a bit wild. It’s about having fun. Take pictures, kick your shoes off if you want.” There’s no fancy art or David Collins palaver at L’Enclume. The bare wooden tables and chairs – all occupied – are evidence of a contemporary eye, but the walls of what used to be an old blacksmith’s are rough and whitewashed. This may be an unprepossessing space, but it’s a place of pilgrimage – a must-visit for Sunday supplement food porn addicts, drawn by its two Michelin stars and its 10/10 score in the Good Food Guide [only The Fat Duck has the same] – and a kind of foodie Lourdes for long married couples looking to rekindle the long lost art of supper conversation.
There’s a lot to talk about. Rogan and the town are on a roll. A summer refurb at L’Enclume has just added much needed space for the kitchen and front of house. The French in Manchester, a visually soigné sibling to Rogan’s Cumbrian mothership, opened in March and has become the talk of the town. With its art nouveau doors that open from the lobby of the Midland Hotel – where Mr Rolls first met Mr Royce – and its vast crystal chandeliers, resembling twin Swarovski Death Stars, it sits in stark contrast to the two year London pop-up Roganic, which was not so much Scandic austere as ascetic in style. The French has been booked solid every night, and looks like a dead cert to give the city its first and only Michelin star since Paul Kitching closed Juniper and decamped to Edinburgh, back in 2008.
Then there’s the new Rogan-owned farm, a short drive from L’Enclume, that grows much of the specialist greens that are a staple of Rogan’s menus, from apple marigold cress to borage. “Visiting is a real experience,” he says. “We’re building a room for schools, and we hope to have barbecues up there.” As with Thomas Keller’s farm in Napa, which diners are invited to visit before they take their seats for the evening at The French Laundry, being able to see the agricultural side of Rogan’s kitchens brings depth to the Cartmel experience. On any given Rogan tasting menu, there are umpteen ingredients that you may never have encountered before, and most of them are either foraged, or grown here in a collection of giant polytunnels. The greenhouse containing Rogan’s cresses is particularly beautiful – myriad verdant plant beds sit together, creating a wild green patchwork. “I loved being in this space in the winter,” says Lucia Corbel, who works on the farm and in the L’Enclume kitchen. “It’s always so green and bursting with life. The nasturtiums are growing like mad now, and the borage is so succulent and fresh, it’d be great to just throw it in a gin and tonic.”
There are, increasingly, echoes of Napa in Cartmel. Both are rural idylls that have mined a rich vein of gold in the form of fine dining – but Rogan has an arguably more contemporary approach to the concept. He’s developed a distinctive signature that’s proving influential: small, light, surprising dishes that customarily do eccentric things with English herbs and vegetables – celeriac, ramsons, sea buckthorn, sorrel and stonecrop – rather than depend on sous vide cooked meats and overwrought sauces. Possibly the most memorable dish on the L’Enclume tasting menu is raw venison with charcoal oil. It’s basically the best steak tartare that will ever be. Tellingly, coal oil is starting to appear on menus in London, along with second, third and fourth rate versions of Rogan-style plates.
Meanwhile, the Cartmel influence is rippling across the Lake District. The Samling, on Lake Windermere, is one of the most famous luxury country hotels in the country. It’s old school, rural, chic with overstuffed cushions. The Michelin-starred restaurant, however, is anything but trad, and recently won “Best Dining Hotel in the World” at the annual Boutique Hotel Awards. Dinner (“No photographs please” begs the menu, to thwart the Instagrammers) includes tuna sashimi with Iberico ham, mandarin and vanilla oil. Roast venison – rich, dark and lush –comes with reindeer moss, a much-foraged favourite down at L’Enclume. Dessert involves theatrics with dry ice. The bar has been raised in this part of the country, along with expectations.
At the same time, Rogan has pared back the science. His heart is in his farm, and the alchemy now comes from the combination of just a few fresh ingredients, rather than spherification kits and culinary jazz hands. The experience is better, more delicious. It’s a very modern way of eating. Long after the surprise of the first encounter, who ever needs to see another piece of salmon served in a bell jar pumped full of smoke? “I became bamboozled by technique and foreign ingredients for a while,” Rogan admits. “A few people I trusted told me to concentrate on my strong points. So I got back to basics. We went through the science phase, and kept the bits that worked. Spherification essentially dilutes flavour. Now I just want to take the most perfect carrot ever, and barbecue it. Five years ago we would have deconstructed and reconstructed it four different ways. We still have the latest kit in the kitchen, but we use it in a different way.”
With Heston Blumenthal’s credibility adrift somewhere between his hot cross buns for Waitrose and his quest to make the world’s largest Kit Kit on television, Rogan has ascended to becoming the most influential, and arguably the best, chef in the UK. He wants a third Michelin star for L’Enclume (“Michelin only became important to me when we got our second star – now I want another one”). He also wants to win at least a single star in Manchester – where a second restaurant, Mr Cooper’s, is opening in September – and re-establish an outpost for his team in London. But it comes back to Cartmel in the end. “Absolutely everything we do is about making L’Enclume as good as we can,” says Rogan. “The town is a magical place and it’s a very significant part of who and what we are.”