In April of 1973 I became 13 and was subsequently bar mitzvahed (yes, it is a verb in the Anglo-Jewish vernacular) . The event itself was typical of most traditional bar mitzvah celebrations, and followed the orthodox coming-of-age for boys format in most respects. This included all the usual suspects vis-à-vis the presents I received – except for one wonderful surprise gift. Unbeknownst to me, my mum and uncle (her brother) had planned a five day visit to the Lake District especially arranged around two of my passions; of landscape photography, and far more importantly, an abnormally precocious love of gastronomy.
Since my first visit to France three years before I had developed an unusually sophisticated palette in a juvenile, so much so, that it formed almost as important a part of my early teenage years as more typical factors such as a parallel ever-growing fascination with members of the opposite sex.
Many reading this now, especially non-British readers might be surprised that my mum and my uncle didn’t take me back to France, or to Italy or Spain, or just about anywhere in the world beyond the British Isles – if not for the photography element of the trip, certainly for the cuisine component. And while it is undeniable that in that dark long-ago of 1973, a full decade before the reawakening of fine British gastronomy, good British food was hard to find, there did exist a few pioneering outposts of fabulous British cooking.
Of all the pioneers manning these few gourmet mission stations none played a more heroic role in the resurrection of fine English fair than the formidable Francis Coulson at his famous Sharrow Bay Hotel on the shores of Lake Ullswater in Cumbria, in north western England. Since 1948, ably assisted by his life-partner, Brian Sack, he reminded the British of the fact that their countryside and its surrounding waters comprised a national food larder as rich as any on the planet. Furthermore, he devoted his life to demonstrating exactly how to make the best culinary use of that copious store cupboard.
When mum took me to Sharrow Bay in 1973, Coulson was in his pomp, both in regards to his international reputation and the output from his hotel kitchen, and thus I was one privileged bar mitzvah boy! Not that the my rabbi back in north London would have approved, but to this day, my first taste of a Cumberland sausage, in the heart of Cumbria, at our first breakfast remains one of the many abiding and formative food memories of those fantastic five days. Manx kippers, and fried duck eggs were other breakfast wonders but after days walking along the lake shore and up and down the local fells it was the suppers that really sent me into bouts of ecstasy. “I’ll never forget” is possibly the ultimate cliché, but I can’t think of any other way to phrase my first experience of British game in the form of Coulson’s famous roast grouse, and the intense redcurrant jelly accompaniment. Other gamey wonders included saddle of hare and the finest venison stew I was ever to taste – at least up till now, and as for the Herdwick lamb chops and the trout, fresh from the lake itself cooked to perfection. And then the steamed puddings – simply the lightest, most unctuous, most well-crafted puddings in the universe. And I could go on, and on.
But oh, I almost forgot! There was also the photography, and while sadly for you, I can’t share the experience of the Sharrow Bay’s phenomenal kitchen, I can at least reveal something of the stunning scenery in which it sits. I’ve rendered these ancient images (originally taken on my trusty old Canonet 28) in a watercolour style, which I believe faithfully captures the dramatic beauty and changeability of the Ullswater environment.
In the mean time, anyone reading this with a curiosity for traditional British food at its finest or the majestic wonder of Lake Ullswater and its surrounding countryside, could do a lot worse than saving up for a few days at the Sharrow Bay – the best Bar Mitvah gift or any gift for that matter, ever!