I had a broken childhood. My legal advisors have encouraged me to quickly point out, as my parents read this, that I don’t mean I suffered any abuse or neglect (assuming you don’t count their cooking in either category anyway). My upbringing was in two very distinct parts, separated by three hundred miles: until the age of twelve I was raised in a small, sleepy, pictoresque town in Devon; then we uprooted, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, to a small, grimy, insular town on the Cumbrian coast, where I stayed until my A-levels were done and then gravitated towards London, as I suppose many of that age do.
While I kept in contact with a few of my grammar school friends for a while after moving north, and indeed went back to Devon a couple of times in my teens, the continental drift of passing years inevitably removed us from each others’ lives and I eventually lost touch with them all, with social networking coming too late to resurrect the relationships lost. Cumbria was a slightly different story but with a similar ending: I never grew into my new surroundings, nor did they flex to accommodate me, and thus my teens passed unhappily, with the impulse to escape growing stronger as the years elapsed. I made few friends there and this time made little effort to retain contact when I left.
This year coincidentally afforded me opportunities to visit both venues, and given my subsequent detachment from them I was able to view them with a relatively objective eye. First, a family holiday in Northumberland in August brought us close enough to Cumbria to warrant a day-trip. The town had changed only in small details: improved parking on what passes for a main shopping street; a massive wind farm a couple of miles out in the Solway Firth; the harbour area a little less neglected. What I hadn’t appreciated when I lived there was the sheer size of the beach; at low tide it must be half a mile from water line to sea wall, and my abiding memory of the place will now be a pleasant one of my two little boys cantering along the sand and trying to find crabs in the rock pools.
A couple of months later, my new job has me travelling to coastal resorts around the country, as one of our main markets is holiday parks. Heading south to Dorset recently I realised I would be only a few miles from my other childhood home, so I resolved to make a small detour and grab a bite to eat there if I could find somewhere suitable before the four-hour journey home.
After a little while driving round the town wallowing in flashbacks, I recalled that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage endeavour was based locally and quickly discovered the town had a River Cottage Canteen in the town square. Perfect! I could eat in a little style before doing battle with the M’s 5 and 42. I rang, and found they could accommodate me as soon as they opened.
So at 6.30 I strolled in, through the deli and into the – well, canteen is not an entirely inappropriate name, as it (I presume deliberately) dresses down somewhat, but I’m still inclined to call it a restaurant. There are no printed menus, with the day’s offering written on chalk boards dotted around the large, rectangular room that my server eventually jogged my memory into volunteering was a rough and ready disco the last time I was there. Being early and midweek one might expect custom to have been slow to build through the hour or so I was there, but given Hugh’s fame and the strength of the brand I had thought I might be out of luck for a table, so when I departed around 7.30 with the room still less than half full I must admit to a little surprise.
Service was prompt and friendly; knowing I had a long journey ahead the staff did not dally, which I appreciated. The menu was not extensive, and options for vegetarians were limited, despite Hugh’s most recent project: but as I was eating out, regular readers will know that I tend to over-indulge in meat, so this did not concern me. I went immediately for main course of confit duck with lentils and bacon, accompanying it with some purple-sprouting broccoli, and after consulting my waitress and sampling the carpaccio-style beef fillet I decided to start with the parsley soup with poached egg, deciding the two salty meat dishes would not be the best combination.
I am very glad I did. The salt and pepper bread (that’s pepper as in the vegetable*, not the spice) was delicious, but on top of two other salty dishes would have had me drinking gallons of water and stopping at every service station on the way home. The soup was, I thought, a little bland, although the egg was as perfect as you would expect. The duck managed to be crispy and yet moist, but the salt I found almost overpowering, and I am a fan of salty food. The lentils and bacon were underseasoned to compensate but it was a little unwieldy trying to make sure I had the right ratio of duck to lentils on my fork to ensure a good balance. The broccoli was tender and delicious, and I am glad I chose that over the chips I had been recommended earlier in the evening.
Finishing with a mocha intended to both substitute for a sweet and keep me awake on the motorway, I decided I was being misled a little by the fame of the proprietor. I was judging the Canteen by inflated standards, expecting perfection for no other reason than that Hugh is a household name and so many people have River Cottage cookbooks. The meal was in fact very pleasant overall; a little salty, yes, but I would certainly have been happy with what was served for the price paid (below £25 including a ginger beer) had I not been familiar with the name of the establishment before walking in, and the litmus test – would I consider going back – comes out positive.
The lesson to learn from this was one of prejudging based on fame. I would recommend a visit, but don’t walk in with the bar set too high, and you will have a very enjoyable meal.
* Yes, technically, fruit, but don’t put one in the fruit salad