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Lancrigg - a vegetarian idyll in the heart of the Lake District

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 October 2015 | UPDATED: 11:20 21 October 2015

The Lancrigg Hotel restaurant

The Lancrigg Hotel restaurant

Archant

Meet the pioneering couple who have been putting wholesome, nutricious food on the menu for more than three decades. Eileen Jones reports

Sauce, cauliflower taboulleh, marinated olives, harissa sauce, salad, tzatziki and Peshwari flatbread Middle Eastern mezé  falafels, roast aubergines in a rich tomato and roast almond Sauce, cauliflower taboulleh, marinated olives, harissa sauce, salad, tzatziki and Peshwari flatbread Middle Eastern mezé falafels, roast aubergines in a rich tomato and roast almond

There is a place with a distinctive country house hotel atmosphere and a fascinating history. It has the location of your dreams with a view to die for. It has a host of devoted diners who return time and again for an exquisite culinary experience. And it has no meat on the menu.

The Lancrigg is a beacon of vegetarianism in the heart of Herdwick hogget and Cumberland sausage country. And here, up a winding lane at the start of the delectable Easedale valley, it’s run by a couple who are the longest-established hoteliers in Grasmere.

When they arrived 35 years ago, first at the Rowan Tree café, the locals laughed at them. You’ll be selling meat pies by the end of the week, Rob Whittington recalls the villagers saying. Instead, he and his wife Janet had queues of fans in the lane, and within four years they were moving up the hill to open their hotel at Lancrigg, then a rather run-down nursing home.

But it had a noble history. Once a farmhouse dating back to the 1600s, it was bought by a friend of William Wordsworth, one Elizabeth Fletcher, the wife of an Edinburgh solicitor who was herself a leading light in the worlds of art, politics, education, women’s welfare and prison reform. A friend of several Romantic poets, her son was a great friend of Charles Dickens – who visited Lancrigg. Her daughter married the pioneering surgeon and Arctic explorer Sir John Richardson who, in turn, was a friend of the Scottish bard Robert Burns, another frequent visitor to the house.

The Lancrigg Hotel owners, Robert and Janet Whittington The Lancrigg Hotel owners, Robert and Janet Whittington

It offered Janet and Rob the opportunity to develop their hospitality and culinary skills. Janet had always been a vegetarian, brought up by parents who had espoused the cause on health and moral grounds. Rob gave up meat about 40 years ago when it was still considered a very quirky lifestyle choice.

‘We were seen as the sandals and lentils brigade,’ recalled Rob. ‘Though actually, sandals are very comfortable, and lentils are very nutritious.’

They had met at Leeds University where Rob was studying applied zoology and Janet was doing fine art. She subsequently did a further science degree specialising in nutrition. He played keyboards in a rock-reggae-calypso-ska-funk band called Jab Jab. The rest of the band came from the Caribbean.

The couple have four children – and several grandchildren who are fourth-generation vegetarians. It was after the birth of their first child that Rob lost the urge to tour Europe with the band. Instead, he and Janet and their baby daughter moved to Whitby to run a small café, The Shepherd’s Purse (now a guest house and boutique), and from there to Grasmere. They became part of the local community, their children went to the Lakes School, and they altered the image of veggie-hospitality by installing the first whirlpool baths in a Cumbrian hotel.

‘We wanted to challenge the notion that vegetarians were solemn people who didn’t have much fun,’ said Rob.

Over the years they have developed the hotel, creating 11 individually-designed bedrooms, each named after the people connected with the house, or the landscape surrounding it - Wordsworth, Florence Nightingale, Silver Howe, Easedale - and developed their menus for the hotel’s Green Valley restaurant.

These retain the principles applied when Janet and Rob first came to the hotel: good food, wholesome food, nutritious food. Back in the Rowan Tree days they would serve breakfasts of muesli and fresh fruit salad - during a time when everywhere else served tinned fruit salad - fruit compotes, and cooked mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes. That’s the basis of their breakfasts today.

Rob said: ‘We have always been keen on real ingredients, not pre-prepared foods. We still use brown rice and wholemeal flour. And we never have refined white sugar on the premises.’

The dinner menus, though, have become much more sophisticated. For those wedged in the era of veg curries and veg goulash, consider this: mushroom and brazilnut puff pastry roulade with potato and celeriac mash, stoved root vegetables, steamed broccoli, red onion gravy and cranberry and apple sauce.

Or how about farinata di ceci? That’s a traditional Italian baked torta of gram flour, artichoke hearts, fresh herbs, olives and slow roasted tomatoes served with lemon roast potatoes, pesto drizzle, steamed broccoli and salad garish.

There are always vegan alternatives on the menu, but each dish is plated, not with side dishes, and always nutritionally balanced. Most of the menu also has gluten free options.

‘In many restaurants, the vegetarian option has very little protein in it, apart from cheese,’ said Janet. ‘Vegetarian cooking can be very labour intensive. But at least now we can get unusual products throughout the year, though we try to keep to seasonal dishes. We have always looked for inspiration from around the world.’

The restaurant is open to non-residents; the hotel guests come from all over the world, and only a minority are vegetarians. They include people who choose to be meat-free for health or religious reasons, or they come for the hospitality, the setting, the location, as well as the good, natural food. Among their regulars are several writers, actors, film-makers, musicians and poets. A cross section, Rob said, who love the location, the relaxed atmosphere, the fact that the furniture doesn’t all match. And some who don’t even notice that they are not eating meat.

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