Windermere, Cumbria, England — Situated in one of the most beautiful areas in England's Lake district, the Miller Howe Inn serves superb food, but it is the happy, warm, generous spirit of John Tovey, whose home and hearth it is, that makes this an exceptional place.
It is not the place to go with a preconcieved idea of what you want to eat, because the food, although delicious, will be quite different.
There are no choices for the main course, but the starter will not be shrimp cocktail or pate maison but more likely a cheese and peach savory.
The second course will be equally novel -- a soup made of apricot and marrow or coriander and carrot or pear and watercress. The next course might well be grilled fresh river trout with hazelnuts.
There are lots of vegetables, always at least four; but usually six accompany the main course. This may sound like a lot, but it isn't. Each vegetable is cooked to perfection and arranged handsomely on the plates.
There is a grand selection of desserts, but by the time it arrives you almost wish John Tovey had also made this choice for you. There were nine the night I was there, all beautiful and rich, but six of which were with fresh fruit.
It is Mr. Tovey's contentin that since he serves just one meal a day it must be perfect. And he demands a standard of perfection in both preparation and service.
"It's harder to achieve the same success with an a la carte menu," he says, "and it probably would not have been possible to achieve perfection any other way with my limited resources when I started."
Dinner at 8:30 is served in a split-level dining room with one wall of scenic beauty over- looking Lake Windermere and the five mountain ranges beyond. Late arrivals are not served. The regimentation is worth it. The food is inspired by its simplicity, and the view is magnificent.
Everyone eats the same thing at the same time, and dining room lights are dimmed with appropriate theatricality as dinner guests arrive.
The menu, which Tovey plans himself, is a congenial blend of sophisticated and simple country dishes, a style of cooking that is English but also personal.
For centuries the British countryside has offered hearty, plain food with no suggestion of gastronomic pretensions. But a new kind of country restaurant has evolved recently.
Mostly with an owner-chef who has developed a refreshing style, these inns are innovative, not emulating the French or any other particular style, but one that specializes in the very best of British cooking.
John Tovey is one of this new breed of country inn owner-chefs. He is practical and has developed a unique style. Despite the showmanship from his earlier theatrical background, his approach to cooking is unpretentious and completely engaging.
His great strength is in his ability to create original dishes, sometimes from seemingly incompatible elements. Often his cooks, too, create their own recipes.
His favorite recipes from childhood dishes are used as frequently as his newer dishes. Many dinners are based on the wonderful local Lakeland foods.
There is game in Season, salmon from the lake or just over the Scottish border, the famous Lakeland lamb, Lancashire cheese, thick farm cream, gooseberry puree, Windermere Char With Horseradish Cream, Fresh Fish With Watercress Sauce, Turkey Breast With Cumberland Sauce, and Cold Leeks With Sour Cream.
When he first opened Miller Howe, Tovey's innovative ideas raised a few eyebrows, but he has since won many awards and honors. His influence was felt among young chefs who were attracted by the freshness and novelty of his cooking.
In his earlier career he worked in Africa in the British Colonial Service and he was in repertory theater in the Lake District for 10 years. He acquired Miller Howe in 1971.
He is completely involved in writing, television and other cookery activities in England. His book "Entertaining with John tovey, How to Star in Your Own Kitchen" (Macdonald & Jane's, London) is lighthearted and practical.
The afternoon I arrived at Windermere the owner was in the kitchen conducting one of his cooking classes. The kitchen is small and compact, most things, at arm's reach for three or four staff on cooking duty.
The team of dedicated young waiters and waitresses is under the supervision of wolf- gang, the restaurant manager. Mr. Tovey amply rewards them, taking them on holidays so they can eat in the fine restaurants as part of their training.
One year they went to the Continent. Another time there was a six-week trip to South Africa for a festival of country house cooking. Chef Tovey also visits the United States and has given his country house dinners and English breakfasts at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston and the Plaza and Pierre Hotels in New York City.
Although no lunch is served at Miller Howe, there is an alternative -- the Miller howe packed lunch. I had one of these fabulous lunches for the train ride back to London, and it was the most beautiful box lunch you could imagine.
There were ham and salad rolls, cold lamb, Stilton cheese, sliced cocumbers, shortbread, peaches, apples, chocolate, home- made cakes, a tiny dish of grapefruit mousse, and delicious surprises, all packed in an especially made carton that held everything carefully and was easy to carry.
Back at the inn, not only are china and silver of highest quality, but every bedroom has its share of antiques, paintings, books, and even binoculars for the view and the birds, a hair dryer and pants presser, several handsome cooking books, and a Scrable set.
The reigning sage of the Lake District is Leonard Fitzjames, who at 80, knows every cairn, cataract, and mountain trail in this country, which seems to be permeated with the spirit of Wordsworth.
He took us on a quick tour to see Wordsworth's sister's cottage; a beautiful 1676 mattadale; a stone church; the little village of Troutbeck; John Peel country, along the hilltop on one side of the valley from Windermere to Kirskstone Pass; and other scenic areas.
Here are some of the vegetable recipes from Chef Tovey's cookbook. Glazed Carrots With Caraway and Lemon 1 pound (450 g) carrots 1 teaspoon seasalt 2 ounces (50 g) butter 1 teaspoon caraway seed, finely ground in pestle and mortar 1 small lemon, juice and rind
Peel carrots and cut into equal-size pieces slightly larger than julienne. Add salt to a pan of boiling cold water, bring to a boil, and add carrots. When water boils again, cook for only 4 minutes. Strain and rinse with cold water.
Wipe out the saucepan and reheat carrots in it, scattering over them the butter, ground caraway seed and lemon. Grated Zucchini With Fresh Lime 1 pound (450 g) zucchini (courgettes) 2 limes or lemon 2 onces (50 g) butter
An unusual method to serve at a dinner party. Wipe vegetables, top and tail them, and grate finely on a grater or in a food processor. Mix with the grated rind and juice of limes and leave for most of the day.
When you wish to serve them, all you do is toss them in heated butter for about 4 minutes.