The village of Cartmel lies just to the south of the Lake District, near the town of Grange-over-Sands. With narrow streets flanked by stone-walled cottages and an imposing 12th-century priory, it is an exceptionally beautiful place, as well as something of a tourist trap. Twice a year, thousands turn up for the meetings that take place on the village's tiny racetrack (the smallest in Britain) and throughout the year visitors use it as a base for exploring the Lakes. Not surprisingly, this desirability has driven up property prices: many of the houses are now used primarily as holiday homes.
Cartmel has never lacked food-related attractions, although for the most part these have been of the traditional, Olde English variety. The village shop doubles as the headquarters of the English Sticky Toffee Pudding Company, and Morecambe Bay, home of the eponymous potted shrimp, lies just a few miles to the south. A little bit further away, to the north-east, is the town of Kendal, where the quintessential hiker's snack, Kendal mint cake, originated. Recently, however, the picture has been complicated by the arrival of L'Enclume, a hotel-restaurant whose chef-proprietor, Simon Rogan, aims to make it "one of the finest establishments in the country".
L'Enclume is housed in a 13th-century cottage that was once the Priory's smithy, an origin reflected in the restaurant's name, which means "anvil" in French. Rogan has converted the ground-floor dining room into a single whitewashed space, creating an uncluttered atmosphere that contrasts nicely with the building's homely exterior. The rooms upstairs, meanwhile, have been converted into luxury bedrooms, each one kitted out with furnishings from a different fabric house.
Rogan, who is 34, has worked under a variety of chefs, including Jean-Christophe Novelli and Marco Pierre White. However, he is keen to emphasise that his style differs from his previous bosses. The biggest influence on his cooking, he says, is the French chef Marc Veyrat, who is famous chiefly for his innovative use of obscure Alpine herbs. Rogan plans to put the indigenous flora of the Lakes to similar use: he is currently employing someone to research the edible plants of the region, many of which will be incorporated into L'Enclume's 16-course "taste and texture" menu this spring.
At the moment, Rogan's cooking still feels slightly unfinished. Some of his flavours are not expressed confidently enough, and at times he combines ingredients in a slightly awkward way: one starter, a gayette of oxtail with turbot and star anise, for instance, was not entirely successful, the turbot's flavour proving insufficiently robust to stand up to the gutsy taste of the meat. However, as Rogan points out, things are still at an early stage, and he is managing with only two additional staff in his kitchen at the moment. Considering the complexity of the food L'Enclume already offers, this is nothing short of remarkable.
Rogan told me that he hoped L'Enclume would earn "at least" one Michelin star when the next edition of the guide was published. Such ambition is admirable but, as I discovered the next day, it has also attracted hostility. Wandering around the village following a hefty (and delicious) cooked breakfast, I encountered George Broadhurst, the proprietor of a slightly shabby-looking hotel in the main square. Broadhurst told me that L'Enclume's arrival had been damaging for the village. Customers had been forced away from establishments such as his own, where you could obtain "proper food at decent prices".
I sympathised with Broadhurst but I doubted that L'Enclume's arrival had been a bad thing. The spread of genuinely innovative restaurants, capable of fitting in with the local environment while offering a degree of sophistication not usually associated with it, is surely just what Britain's beleaguered countryside needs.
L'Enclume, Cavendish Street, Cartmel, Cumbria LA11 6PZ. Telephone: 015395 36362. Website: www.lenclume.co.uk
Bee Wilson returns next week