The Drunken Duck Inn, near Ambleside, Cumbria

Eating out

We thought we might be staying longer at The Drunken Duck, by default.

The night had been cold, and the previous day’s showers had frozen over the lying snow.

We checked out and set off down the country lane to the side of the Inn, the car wheels skidding on black ice.

I was beginning to wonder if going anywhere was a good idea when an oncoming driver got a bit overenthusiastic with the brakes, his car lurching and swerving across the narrow road, shuddering to a crunching halt in a flurry of displaced snow, horizontal across the road, a couple of metres from our front bumper.

After much shoving, digging and spinning of wheels, we were on our way, but quickly turned back, passing the Inn to try a different direction, which proved even more treacherous.  We were soon back at the Inn again, only escaping its pull on the third attempt.

This all serves to prove the point that The Drunken Duck Inn is gloriously isolated, an old coaching inn sat high in the hills over Ambleside, surrounded by snow-topped fells and steep, deep valleys, a country pub in the middle of some of England’s finest countryside.

The Inn consists of a bar, made from a huge slab of slate from the surrounding hills, a restaurant, and a small hotel.

We drank coffee and ate scones in front of a wood burning stove in a quiet and calm lounge, the Inn’s cat darting around our legs, looking for a spot close to the stove.  The scones were warm from the oven, the jam runny and the cream thick enough to stand a spoon in.

For dinner in the cosy restaurant, I had a steak tartare – raw fillet beef, minced and mixed with diced cornichons and heavily seasoned, a raw egg yolk sitting proudly on top.  It was as good as any version I’ve eaten in France.  Jenny had a seafood tortellini, a massive pasta parcel of seafood with a mushroom sauce – far too big for a starter, and slightly bland.

My main course of pan-fried duck breast came with a punchy apricot stuffing, Savoy cabbage, confit potato and a redcurrant sauce. The duck was cooked pink, rare in the centre and all the better for it.  The redcurrant sauce added tartness to the rich meat.

Jenny’s roasted fillet of beef was cooked perfectly.  Medium pink in the middle, her knife fell through it with ease. The fillet was served on a gently roasted Portabello mushroom, a suitably meaty accompaniment, I think.

Desserts were a chocolate and almond torte, rich, dark and dense, with crunchy nuts hidden inside, with a generous scoop of a similarly dark and quite excellent chocolate ice-cream on top.  Too much chocolate, and too intense – the torte would have been better paired with a vanilla ice-cream.

My pear tatin was served with a scoop of gingerbread ice cream.  The pear was soft and tender and the pastry underneath had stayed crisp and crunchy.  The ice-cream was delicious.  I could easily have gone for the cheeseboard, which offered a range of eight or nine cheeses, each described in detail.

Coffee came with petit fours, always a chance for a kitchen to show off, which they duly did, with remarkable results.

Breakfast the next morning was equally good.  Herby sausages, crisp bacon, proper black pudding, warm smoked haddock with a poached egg broken over the top.

The standard of cooking at The Drunken Duck is very good indeed.  That may be an understatement, on reflection – we ate some superb food, accomplished dishes cooked with care and finesse and a good deal of technical skill.

The first thing that struck us on arriving at The Duck was the quality of the service.  As we checked in, the hotel manager discovered a box of books about local walks under the counter, dropped off by a local author.

“We should put these in the rooms.  Did they cost anything?”.

“Yes”, replied the receptionist.

“Well, we should put them in the rooms anywhere.  Here, go for a walk”, he said, passing me a book.

The lady who checked us in was friendly and efficient, explaining the peculiarities of the water supply (private, perfectly safe, but often a little peaty.  An acquired taste, she said, but actually quite nice to drink).  She asked where we’d parked, and on telling her that we’d basically abandoned the car in a snow drift, she immediately told us not to worry, there would be plenty of chefs on hand in the morning to push and dig us out.  They were getting used to it, now, she added.

This level of service and friendliness turned out to be a constant theme, from the reception staff, from the bar tender who was more than happy to describe their beers to me in detail, through to the waiting staff and right up to the manager.

Everyone we dealt with was friendly and welcoming, and that feeling seeped through the entire building.  Add that to a talented kitchen turning out some superb food, and you’re not likely to go wrong.

To top it all, they brew their own beer on site, and it’s very good indeed.

Could things get better?

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