Douglas Blyde visits the medieval family home of the Earls of Lonsdale in Cumbria. There he explores the country houses and its “incredible cellar”, containing the likes of Cos d’Estournel 1893 and Lafite 1994, and samples head chef Richard Swale’s locally-sourced menu, including red deer tartare with truffle egg yolk.
“The medieval family home of the Earls of Lonsdale offers authentic country house living in stately surroundings,” wrote Helen Pickles in The Telegraph of Cumbria’s 13th century Askham Hall, which became a restaurant with rooms in 2013. She added: “You don’t get much closer to the landed gentry lifestyle than a medieval pele tower with hefty walls, battlemented parapets, leaded windows, stone griffins at the entrance and topiary in the gardens.” There is also a grade I listed rosewood loo fit for royalty.
His motto being “be kind”, current scion and oenophile Charles Lowther is the custodian, with his sister, Marie-Louisa Raeburn, and wife, Juno, both of the hall and its incredible cellar. Assisting with the latte is Loire-born maître de maison Nico Chieze and assistant maître de maison/house manager Joshua Mullock. “My late father had a decent cellar of claret, which gave us a good start to the collection,” says Lowther. “My grandfather on my mother’s side also started a cellar for me which I am very grateful for. But the entire Burgundy section is of our own creation, born out of Nico’s burning and infectious passion for investment wines, most notably the late great Henri Jayer.”
Presented in a hand-made tome designed by Lowther’s wife, the list includes an incredible library of older Bordeaux, including: Cos d’Estournel 1893, described as an “exceptional vintage from the Yellow Earl era!”; Margaux 1939, “a good vintage disrupted by the onset of World War II”; Mouton 1962 from “the coldest winter vintage within the last 150 years in Cumbria”; Grand-Puy-Lacoste from 1969, the year “Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon”; and Lafite 1994, from when “the Channel Tunnel opened, finally linking the UK to our neighbours in Bordeaux”. From Burgundy, standout producers, represented through multiple vintages, include: Comte Liger Belair, Coche-Dury, René Engel, Henri Gouges, Henri Jayer, Leroy, Romanée- Conti (including its Marc) and Armand Rousseau; and from the Rhône, Jean- Louis Chave. From Italy, there are line- ups of Aldo Conterno, Ornellaia, Sassicaia and Solaia; and from Spain, Muga, Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva to 1947 and Vega-Sicilia. This is also the place for Port, such as 1961 Fonseca by the glass. Such Europeans are offset by “a nice balance of New World interest”, says Lowther, including Beaulieu Vineyard 1964 and Penfolds Grange, including 1982. Meanwhile, if you like an amber spirit with a cigar, try a shot of Bas Armagnac Castarede 1893, or a sip of a sought-after first release from The Lakes distillery 30 miles west.
The 30-cover Allium restaurant overlooks a formal cherry tree and box hedge “parterre”, says Lowther, replete with woodland and the river Lowther as the backdrop. “Askham Hall is a very relaxing space where one’s focus is channelled to the evening ahead of you,” he adds. “We call it a restaurant with rooms, so people subconsciously are thinking about the evening meal as the main reason for being there.”
Here, dishes by head chef Richard Swale make good use of the extensive local larder, including Lowther Estate red deer tartare with truffle egg yolk. Lowther has paired this with Clos de la Roche 2002 by Dominique Laurent. “A classic pairing which elevates both food and wine to a level greater than the sum total of its parts.”
A keen forager, Lowther is something of an athlete in conventional fitness as well as wine tasting. “I love to suffer through hard exercise in harsh weather for some reason; it is eminently invigorating and is my offset for imbibing fine wine!”