Chef Kevin Tickle is pretty much the pick of the crop when it comes to ‘bright new things’ on the culinary scene. He was head forager at L’Enclume in Cartmel and then headed up Simon Rogan’s bistro operation, Rogan&Co. So he comes with impressive kitchen pedigree. But the foraging thing is more than a food moment gimmick. Kevin had a rural upbringing and spent hours and hours in field and forest getting to know the plants and herbs that would eventually be the mainstay of the creative menus that are so talked about today.
At The Forest Side he oversees a remarkable dining set-up in a cool new hotel that is packed with personality from the moment you step inside. Tweed-and-brogues clothe the staff who offer you a sea-buckthorn mocktail as you fill in your forms on a squidgy sofa in the informal reception. The grey slate building has undergone a very big makeover by the Wildsmith Group (they have Hipping Hall too – there’s a bit of Coogan-Brydon/ The Trip thing going on).
Interiors wrap you like the softest pashmina. It is tactile, witty and plush, measured and calming. Wallpapers and furnishings are touchy-feely with textured papers and bold velvets. The bar’s birds of paradise wallpaper and turquoise chairs are eye-poppingly fabulous and contrast with the stroke-me deep greys and pewter of the adjoining lounge.
Just outside of the hotel is the terraced kitchen garden, a work-in-progress by the busy-bee gardeners who are making chef Tickle’s dream of a self-sustaining produce garden a reality. It is all top-notch even before you get to the dining room. You walk in on reclaimed oak boards to your oak-topped table and take a moment to admire the room’s centrepiece of a glass table with a tree growing through. Much of the wood comes from land cleared during the renovation of the grounds.
The Forest Side’s tasting menu is definitely worth the adventure. Tickle’s deft touch and foraging expertise bring us a menu that lists marsh herbs, pickled allium flowers, conifer, lady’s smock, sunset velvet, birch sap, umbelifers and rowan shoot. Not a bad idea to bring along the Observer Book of Plants to pop under your napkin.
The ten-course menu (printed on a rustic take-me-home menu tied with twine) features seven meat, fish and salad courses and three dessert. Wine-matching was also something of a revelation with inventive offerings along the food journey.
We loved tiny marble-`sized Jersey Royals in buttery tarragon with crispy pigs ear. Then the seashore flavours of seaweed broth poured over surf clams, kohlrabi and zesty marsh herbs – like all the dishes, served in rustic rough-hewn pottery.
Venison pastrami was a real favourite. The slithers of juniper-infused meat a beautiful deep pink. Bursting with flavour and looking an utter picture it was topped with slithers of sweet Corra Linn cheese and delicate flowers. Continuing the juniper theme, alongside it we were served a glass of Forest Gin and Square Mile tonic.
A sweet, seared chunky blighter of a West Coast scallop came next with bright, garden-fresh new season asparagus.Then back to the land for beetroot, with Ragstone goats cheese embellished with sunset velvet flowers. This served with a glass of the hotel’s own Forest Beer for an inventive and gutsy mid-taster diversion.
Next it was exemplary line-caught halibut with mussels Chablis to accompany. We remarked on the absolute attention to detail in presentation at every turn and also the over-and-above knowledge of staff who pretty much knew the whys and wherefores of every ingredient. Quite an ask.
Meanwhile back at the menu we devoured rich, long-cooked crispy pig’s jowl that was well-matched with 2008 Barolo and scattered with those umbelifers (woodland-growing ferny plants from the cow parsley family if you’re asking).
We back to the land of less serious drinks with the dessert of sheep milk ice cream, rowan shoot and sloe gin. A glass of sloe gin to accompany. With the luscious scorched pear topped by a malty biscuit came a glass of chef’s home-made non alcoholic ginger beer, an inventive and perky addition at what could be flagging point. And more sparkle in the step again as beautiful, sharp rhubarb was married with a burnt butter crisp, sweet cicely and a spritely cocktail of sparkling wine and rhubarb puree.
It was one of the most interesting, unstuffy and entertaining meals we’ve eaten for a long time thanks to the pairing of skill and wit on the plates and in the glasses. You should go and stay – Tickle is a clever boy and you get to go and play in his garden too if you like a green-fingered Mr McGregor moment. Breakfasts are off the scale too!
Forest Hill tasting menu £75 and drinks-pairing, £55. Dinner, B&B from £299. theforestside.com