FFinally, after five years of well-meant faffing, I reached The Dog & Gun Inn in Skelton, a Michelin-starred pub some seven miles northwest of Penrith. The fact that Cumbria now has the highest number of Michelin stars outside London is one of the weirder things I did not see happening in my lifetime, not least because many people couldn’t find its 6,769 square kilometers on a map of the UK and still confused Cardiff with Carlisle.
There’s a huge irony in the fact that a chef such as Ben Queen-Fryer can take on a classic Cumberland country pub, similar to the many thousands around the country that thrived for years before sadly shutting, and whip it into such shape that Michelin came knocking, only for it then to be mostly overlooked in many Best of Cumbria lists because of the local competition. Crucially, though, the Dog & Gun is not at all like L’Enclume in Cartmel, Allium at Askham Hall, Forest Side at Grasmere or any of the Lakes’ other big beasts that serve ornate, multi-course fine dining to gastro-tourists . Rather, it is a charming, relatively unchanged, wholly unpretentious village pub that you might assume served only Cumberland sausage and mash and bags of Scampi Fries.
And it is this utter normality, mixed with the likes of twice-baked Torpenhow cheddar souffle liberally festooned with black truffle, that is so very charming. This breath, cloud-like and pungent, with creamy yet airy innards and a crisp, browned top, is very good, and comes in an iron skillet, piping hot and sitting in a puddle of unctuous, cheddary goo with a truffle mohawk on its head. Before that, we devoured every last morsel of a large bread board laden with glossy, warm rosemary-and-sea-salt focaccia with a dipping ramekin of romesco, fragrant with almonds, garlic and peppers, and a sweet, soft, pillowy brioche with whipped butter topped with toasted yeast. Professional eaters always tell you to skip the bread, because it ruins the following courses, but here that would be an error. Someone in this kitchen can really bake.
Dinner at the Dog & Gun is hearty and heartwarming, rather than a procession of tiny plates and tales of local farmers. In fact, no one here even attempts to tell you the provenance of any ingredient whatsoever, which is absolutely blissful – there’s a menu with all the details on it already, naming the farmer who breeds the Dexter beef and the couple in Allerdale who made the Cheddar. Instead, the front-of-house staff get on with the important things such as pouring pints and putting logs on the fire.
Three courses cooked to this standard for £55 is completely surprising in this day and age, especially when they include the likes of fat, golden-topped scallops with creamed celeriac and toasted hazelnuts or poached pork raviolo with sage and pine nuts. A main of Cartmel Valley venison features not just thick, succulent, pink slices, but also a wobbly suet pudding filled with rich, stewed meat that goes aptly with a bowl of humongous chips.
Another main of halibut comes with a toasted sourdough crumb, but the absolute star of this particular dish is a vermouth butter sauce that’s sweet, boozy and citrussy all at the same time. Sauces are perilously difficult to get right, but when they’re just right, they are the highest point of kitchen excellence.
By this point in dinner, I began fretting that chef Ben might move on from this lovable pub and open one of those places where waggy, well-behaved spaniels aren’t allowed at the bar and dinner lasts way past 11pm. I love the Dog & Gun just as it is, with its tables of local ladies out for something a bit fancy, such as a bowl of cep risotto or hogget done three ways with a hot sauce. The finest dining does not need to be painfully highfalutin.
The best part of dinner was the dessert course, which are words I rarely write (though, now that I mention it, I said the exact same thing last week). Our second breath of the evening, a dreamlike damson one with a frangipane ice-cream, had all the loveliness of a bakewell tart distilled into a small, icy scoop. A dark chocolate millefeuille featured a thick Valrhona ganache between sweet, crumbly, perfect pastry, all topped with a salted caramel and toasted hazelnut ice-cream, and has already won my 2022 Pudding of the Year award, and it’s only mid-November. There is no gong for that, incidentally: just the prize of seeing me emotionally dragging a spoon across an empty bowl and making plans to come back as soon as possible.
The Dog & Gun isn’t really close to anywhere, has only a handful of tables and does a good job of casually pretending it’s not a Michelin-starred establishment at all. But their game is up, because I got there eventually and can tell you for certain that this is the taste of real Cumbria.
The Dog & Gun Inn Skelton, near Penrith, Cumbria, 01768 484301. Open dinner only, Tues-Sat 5.30-11pm. From £55 a head for three courses, plus drinks and service.
The next episode in the fourth series of Grace’s Comfort Eating podcast is released on Tuesday 22 November. Listen to it here.