Egghead is a vegan. She’s also thoughtful, so she’s a thoughtful vegan: her ideas undergo regular scrutiny, her opinions shift subtly to adjust for new evidence. She is the model of veganism, and discussing the ethical and environmental implications of food with her has helped clarify my own carnivorousness.
Food is important – sometimes too important – to me, and the kind of pleasure that I get through exploring and discussing it is, I think, an elevated one. It is a subject ripe for intellectualisation, ripe for thought and subtly. Food and its consumption flows throughout every layer of society down to an individual moment within the experience of an individual person; so it needs to be treated with importance and cultural recognition, in the sorts of aesthetic and ethical ways we critique art, fashion, thought. Which is an interesting complexity, because it’s also something so innate, so deeply pervasive, atavistic, that we can’t help but find ourselves responding immediately to what’s on our plate. Eating is, in so many cases, a sensual act, devoid of cognition. So where’s the line? When should a meal go from sustenance to sapience?
Egghead’s position begins and ends with suffering: she wishes (rightly so) to minimise it, and, at least a priori, judges that no amount of gastronomic pleasure can outweigh that suffering. That’s a bold claim, and something that I think she is somewhat flexible on. I’ve put to her a few times the standard point: whether an animal with a good, happy life, and a painless or near-painless death, has been treated well enough to justify its slaughter for consumption. By and large, she answers ‘no’.
L’Enclume is an interesting case study here, because nearly all of her arguments don’t apply. Damn-near everything served at the restaurant is grown or reared locally. Dairy cows are given gentle lives and wide pastures; sheep are reared and shorn with great care; all food is seasonal. Local fisherman are assessed for their ethical standards and the quality of the seafood they bring (two things which are so often connected.) For Egghead, the final sticking point (and the point where I believe her position finally fractures) is that the taking of the life is the problem, all else considered. But would you prefer to live a happy life and then be killed prematurely, rather than never having lived at all? And at what cost are we willing to obey an abstract injunction against the taking of a life, the use of a sentient being as an end, not a means?
It’s a sticky wicket for both Egghead and I. But L’Enclume makes me confident that, when done well, there is outsized value to be had by food grown locally and thoughtfully. Seasonality – so often a tired buzzword ejaculated over book covers – finds its spirit in this place, and it sings through everything put on the table.
You’re sat in an old blacksmith workshop, white overcast June light pouring in through a glass conservatory. Tables tastefully decorated. Little touches: an anvil, the restaurant’s logo, stamped on the steak knife; staff synchronised to bring the table’s food out at the same time (once even crossing half the room before quietly retreating when Egghead got up to go to the toilet); napkins carefully folded and replaced whenever necessary. Staff enthusiastic, helpful. Everything you should demand from two Michelin stars, but without the pomposity of more classic places.
A nine-course tasting menu, some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. A vegan option which stood out for its breadth of flavour and texture in a world where so often Egghead is consigned to eating a tomato-based stew. Three beetroot dishes begin, a tea made of its fermented juices, a leaf, carefully caramelised, a bulb smoked by and sat upon charred pines. Pork and eel for me, chickpea wafer for Egghead (something she still apparently dreams about – and I can see why.) Tartare, in both beef and semi-dehydrated heritage tomato form. Lamb and pollock and rhubarb and several clever desserts, all fresh, all light, all flavourful. All it needed is an Alvariño and the smell of asparagus piss and it would have been Spring incarnate.
Wonderful wine pairings and good coffee. A charming little town, Cartmel, though it’s a bit like Padstow – caught under the weight (and the brand) of its most famous son. A drunken kiss and an afternoon doze in a quiet hotel room. A near-perfect meal with a near-perfect companion. Eating locally, when done with the flair and thoughtfulness that Simon Rogan puts into his restaurants, will always prove its utility and importance to food, not just gastronomically, but ethically, environmentally, culturally too. To do things with flair and thoughtfulness: a good mantra, I think.
A good way to describe the work of Simon Rogan, for sure.
A good way to describe her, she who keeps me thinking.