Forest Side in Grasmere, Cumbria, was one of three new venues to be awarded four AA rosettes last month. Caroline Baldwin talks to head chef Paul Leonard about his hyper-local menu and why the hotel and restaurant is turning so many heads
What is your approach to modern fine dining?
People get a lot of excitement about going somewhere after they've booked to eat at a fine-dining restaurant, but then they arrive and spend three hours standing to attention, and only relax and drop their shoulders when they leave. I want guests to come here and relax, and I feel like we're breaking down that barrier by having the chefs come front of house to serve some of their dishes.
Our hand-picked mushroom dish sums up what we do: accessible food, but the stories throughout the food are important. This dish uses foraged mushrooms with the addition of truffle for a bit of decadence, and then the bones from Dexter beef reared locally in Ullswater on an organic diet are used to make the broth. I like to see guests getting stuck in and mopping up their beef bone broth with a homemade crumpet. It makes me smile because they're really enjoying it.
You were recently honoured with four AA rosettes last month. How does it feel?
It's wonderful to be recognised in such a way for doing what we love. The whole team deserve this for the hard work and the amazing attitude they have shown over what has been a pretty tough two years. I'm so happy for everyone connected to Forest Side, and cannot wait to continue our journey.
Your predecessor Kevin Tickle is known for his foraging. How are you putting your own stamp on the Forest Side?
I'll have been here two years in November and we're really moving towards the visions I've got in my head of what we should be doing. Every chef has their different style. My background is rooted in classical cooking after working under Marcus Wareing at Pétrus and my time at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. I want to make it my own style, a touch lighter and more natural, but with those classics in mind and the discipline that comes with that.
I understand the foraging – not half as much as Kev, because he's bloody brilliant – but I know enough to pair foraged foods with our cooking techniques. Before I came to Forest Side, it was a favourite place for my wife and me, as I adore Kev's cooking, but to copy it was never going to happen. We have a team of 10 in the kitchen now, serving 35 covers eight times a week, and we had to bring in our own style. The ethos of what we do has been the same from the moment Andrew Wildsmith took over Forest Side in 2014: bring a bit of the outside in, be quite natural and friendly, but attentive. It's a place to relax; there's no pretentiousness here.
The word ‘local' gets seen a lot on menus today. What does local mean to you?
For me, it's truly believing in it. The sheep we use generally graze on the field in front of the hotel, and the beef are known to us, and we go along when the cows we use get taken to slaughter – I think it's important to fully understand the process. The fish we use are from a little further afield, of course, and our shellfish is from a supplier I know from my time up in Scotland. We work really hard and use as much as we can from the area and build relationships with the people who supply it – our suppliers have to understand how our kitchen works as much as the chef who cooks the meat.
I believe when you are in a particular area you have to use as much as you can from there. If you go to Spain you're going to eat paella, come to Cumbria and you're going to try Herdwick. I'm Yorkshire-born and proud, but I moved to the Lakes eight years ago and I can't think of a better place to live.
And your kitchen garden must come in useful to reduce those food miles?
During the summer, 90%-95% of the vegetables we use at Forest Side come from the kitchen garden, apart from the large carrots and onions we use to make our stocks, because we go through something like 20-30 kilos, so we get them from Lincolnshire. We work closely with our head gardener Bjorn.
I'm not in the kitchen garden every week digging and sowing, but it comes back to that understanding – I have to understand the process of how we grow our crops and carry on those procedures in the kitchen to get the best out of them, and understand that sometimes things go wrong and they don't grow as they should, and it's a challenge to do something a little different with what we do have.
The only other thing that we don't grow in our garden are the mushrooms, which come from the surrounding forests. My sous Fraser Cooper and junior sous Freddie Warne are super-passionate about foraging and know a hell of a lot more than me. They know exactly what to look for and what environment mushrooms grow in, and this experience is important because I always say with foraging that it's got to taste nice as well. Sometimes you can do things just because they're fashionable and forget about the flavour on the plate.
Sustainability must go hand-in-hand with your focus on local produce?
Since Michelin gave out that green star everyone has been thinking about sustainability. But for us, it's already become second nature, and you almost forget about it when people ask, because we've been doing it anyway. We use local produce, our kitchen garden does not use chemicals, we collect rainwater and make our own compost, and we give our fish suppliers reusable boxes to remove polystyrene. My wife is expecting our first child at the beginning of December and that's going to change our mindset even more. We're a tiny blip in the world; if we can do our little bit, it makes us feel better and we know we're doing the right thing.
What's your favourite ingredient to cook with?
I love cooking with game at this time of year. It probably comes from where I've worked in Scotland. The idea that a bird arrives at the back door and the feathers need plucking and you roast it with a shedload of butter and carve and send it out – it's a really special journey and an exclusive window starting with grouse, then partridge and mallard. It's not about vac-packing it down and sticking it in a bath. Each bird cooks slightly differently because of its wild diet. It tests the skill of a chef and requires a cook's intuition and using all their senses to cook it exactly how you want it, because cooking it two degrees more might ruin it.
Paul Leonard's CV
- 2019-present Head chef, Forest Side
- 2017-2019 Head chef, Devonshire Arms
- 2015-2017 Head chef, Isle of Eriska Hotel & Spa and Island
- 2014-2015 Junior sous chef, Restaurant Andrew Fairlie
- 2012-2014 Senior sous chef, the Samling
- 2010-2012 Junior sous chef, Feversham Arms
- 2008-2010 Commis chef, Pétrus
Herdwick hogget belly
"Herdwick hogget belly is one of my favourite snacks on the menu," says Leonard. "We use the Herdwick hogget, which is a native breed to Cumbria. The belly has beautiful layers of fat, which works perfectly on the grill.
"The rib bones and any cartilage is taken out, and the meat is brined for 12 hours in a 12% mushroom brine. We then wash it and use a ‘meat glue' to stick it together in a top and tail fashion. We press it overnight to set it, before it's vacuumed down, cooked at 85°C for eight hours, then pressed between two heavy chopping boards.
"We portion the belly pieces down into one-inch squares, before cooking them on a red-hot Konro grill until sealed and slightly charred. We then glaze the squares with a black garlic and lamb glaze, and serve with some cultured sheep's yogurt and an oil made from herbs from our kitchen garden."
Forest Side crumpets
This is the recipe for the crumpets that accompany Leonard's mushroom in bone broth dish. Forest Side overnight guests can also find them on the breakfast menu.
- 125g bread flour
- ¼tsp caster sugar
- 7g packet of dried yeast
- ¼tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 150ml tepid water
- 30g smoked beef dripping
Mix everything together in a bowl and whisk until smooth, then cover and leave to stand somewhere warm for 15 minutes for the yeast to develop and bubbles to form on the surface of the mixture. Next, grease eight 90mm crumpet rings. Place them in a large frying pan or a flat griddle plate on a low heat.
Fill the rings about three-quarters full with the crumpet mix and cook for around 10-12 minutes, until the top has formed a skin and the mix is almost cooked through.
Carefully lift off the rings, and place the crumpets in a pan with smoked beef dripping. Finish cooking on both sides for three to four minutes, until they are a light golden-brown.
A walk on the wild side: foraging tips
According to Leonard's team of top foragers, research is crucial. There are plenty of books that will give you a basic knowledge before hitting the woods. Miles Irving's The Forager Handbook is the perfect guide.
A quick search online will also bring up plenty of guided walks or foraging courses in your local area. Sign up to one and spend some time with a real foraging expert.
When it comes to the actual looking and picking, the following four tips are key.
- Know your seasons and habitat. Knowing what is likely to be grown when and where is really important. For instance, while mushroom season is currently coming to an end, the hedgerows are still full of late sloes and bullaces. Bullaces are from the same family as damsons and sloes, but are not as sweet and lend themselves to savoury dishes and also make great infusions. Bullaces are easier to pick than sloes, which grow amid the sharp spikes of blackthorn trees.
- Spend time researching look-a-likes. When you are ready to start picking, you need to be 100% sure you that what you are harvesting is going to be safe to eat.
- Make a diary and note down the location and dates of where you picked certain things. This will help you in years to come.
- Be respectful. If you come across a large patch of something, don't take it all.
Sample eight-course tasting menu
- Cured chalk-stream trout, sugar kelp and cured roe
- Native lobster cooked over forest pine, with a sauce made from their heads
- First of this season's hand-picked mushrooms, raw Lakeland Dexter beef and smoked bone marrow
- Beetroots cooked all day in their own juice, cultured sheep's yogurt and whipped cod's roe
- Wild seabass cooked in winter tarn butter, summer squash and smoked pike roe
- Aged Cumbrian red deer, alliums and last of this year's broad beans
- Selection of cheese supplied by the Courtyard Dairy (£15 supplement)
- Hand-picked blackberry, honey truffle
- Victoria plum cooked in whey, sweet cheese and lemon thyme
- Eight-course dinner menu £95
- Four-course dinner menu £50
- Six-course lunch £65
- Four-course lunch £45
- With eight-course dinner £85
- With four-course dinner £45
- With six-course lunch £80
- With four-course lunch £35
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