The eco-friendly culinary delights of Cornwall

Reader's Digest Editors

In Cornwall, old traditions give way to something new as chefs, farmers and fishermen transform their pastoral corner into a culinary Eden

On an August day, Tom Adams and April Bloomfield splashed through a stream and then crossed a field behind Coombeshead Farm, their 18th-century Cornish farmhouse. The two chefs—he in London and she in New York—had turned their property, located near Lewannick, into an inn and restaurant. They were expecting dinner guests that evening, and the afternoon’s mission was to forage ingredients—wild sorrel, blackberries—for the meal.

We passed wild watercress, common hogweed (whose seeds taste of citrus) and pineapple weed, which offered an instant olfactory trip to the tropics. The sorrel we gathered would go with pig’s-head rillettes. The blackberries were destined to accompany some traditional Cornish cream. “Such abundance,” April said.

We skirted a streamside forest. Suddenly, the two unleashed a litany of expletives. The object of their awe was in a tree: a Chicken of the Woods mushroom about the size of a human head. Within hours, it would be transformed into the best version of itself, bearing the wood-fired oven’s char, the fragrance of thyme and garlic, and the glow of Cornish butter. It was an expression of Cornwall itself—unexpected, unfussy and gorgeous.

Tom and April aren’t the only outsiders to realise the fertile promise of Cornwall. Some of our country’s most inventive young chefs and entrepreneurs are settling here 
and finding inspiration in the region’s traditions.

Together with Cornish farmers and fishermen, they are sparking a profound, renewed confidence in the bounty of this land. What’s old is new again—and it tastes phenomenal.

 

Before arriving at Coombeshead Farm,

my husband, Tristan, and I spent three days hiking 25 miles of Cornwall’s South West Coast Path, from Boscastle to Padstow. The path traverses slope after seaside slope, some so steep that we ascended and descended by earthen staircase. Gulls squawked but kept their distance, much as the locals did.

Everywhere we went, they were welcoming but reserved, embodying the ambivalence that the Cornish have about outsiders. Legend has it that when Saint Piran, one of Cornwall’s patron saints, arrived, having floated on a millstone across the Irish Sea, his first converts weren’t people—they were a badger, a fox and a boar.

The picturesque fishing village of Port Isaac dates to the 14th century

It’s easy to see why outsiders still come to this fat finger of land, which points from our southwestern-most corner across the Atlantic. Though Cornwall contains some of England’s poorest neighbourhoods, it’s rich in heritage and beauty. Every hill on our hike brought new vistas, every bend a different field—this one framed by an ancient stone wall, that one filled with golden rapeseed blossoms.

Just as abundant: the stories, stretching back centuries. In Trethevy, we sat for a few silent minutes in a medieval chapel dedicated to Saint Piran. In Tintagel, we clambered amid the cliff-top remnants of what legend has dubbed King Arthur’s Castle. In several places, we marveled at gravity-defying seaside towers, souvenirs of Cornwall’s quarrying days.

For sustenance as we walked, we bought savoury pasties in each town. Once, the miners took these thick pastries, filled with beef, potatoes, and onions, down into the tin and copper mines as a practical, all-in-one meal. Discarded remnants of crusts were reputedly scavenged by knockers, elf-like creatures believed to inhabit the mines.

A few miles past Trebarwith Strand, we passed a flock of sheep grazing in a cliff-top pasture. I confessed to my husband I was thinking about mutton stew and lamb chops. He chided me. “What are you thinking about?” I asked him. He smiled sheepishly and replied: “Sweaters. And sheepskin-covered seating.”

 

We ended our hike in Padstow,

a foodie destination, which owes its culinary stardom to celebrity chef Rick Stein, who opened his first seafood restaurant in Cornwall in 1975. One evening, we dined at his casual restaurant Stein’s Fish & Chips. The lemon sole in a perfectly crisp batter was heavenly—the fact that we had to pay one pound for tartar sauce, less so.

The establishment is one of ten Padstow businesses owned by Stein, including four restaurants, a café, delicatessen, bar, patisserie, fishery and gift shop. Stein’s success has downsides, as does Cornwall’s emergence as a gastronomic destination. The complaints? Crowds in Padstow, whose population swells from about 2,500 to 5,500 during peak season. Commercialisation, too: Stein’s empire can feel corporate and over-branded.

Chef Adams forages ingredients

The upsides of success? Hundreds of jobs, as well as a magnetism that attracts tourists and culinary talent. Nathan Outlaw, who originally came to cook in one of Stein’s restaurants, now has five of his own—two in Port Isaac, one in Rock, and two outside of Cornwall—and they have four Michelin stars among them. When I asked what rejuvenates him, he thought for a moment. “Callum, 
one of my fishermen, who does all the crabs and lobsters,” he said. “From the restaurant, I can watch him get his pots, day in and day out, rough weather—whatever. That’s an inspiration.”

Another recent non-native entrepreneur is Tarquin Leadbetter, proprietor of the six-year-old Southwestern Distillery. Raised in Devon, he spent several years in London before settling here. “I wanted to quit my desk job, go surfing in the morning, and make gin in the afternoon,” he said.

Tarquin now lives that dream on Constantine Bay Beach, a crescent of golden sand. Though his gin and pastis have quickly accumulated prizes, including the title of Best Gin at the 2017 World Spirit Competition, nothing else happens fast at the distillery. Everything is made in small batches, mostly in hand-hammered copper pot stills. For his gin, Tarquin used to grow violets in his garden, and for his pastis, forage for wild gorse flowers, which lent the spirit a hint of coconut.

Cornish patience can be misinterpreted by people elsewhere in Britain. But conservation of Cornwall’s natural balance is a key metric of success, claims Saul Astrinsky, a native Cornishman who owns the Wild Harbour Fish Co. His six-year-old company, which he runs with his wife, Abi, sells seafood to some of London’s top restaurants.

St. Enodoc, Trebetherick, was once almost completely buried in sand

All of his fish are caught by rod, handline, or inshore trawls and pots—the most sustainable methods—and he pays his small-boat suppliers premium prices. “There are lads who pick winkles off the rocks for us, and we’re now doing mussels, lobsters, crabs,” he told me, “We’ve got to be careful not to ruin this.”

His landlubbing counterpart might be master butcher Philip Warren, whose butchery has been offering meat from Bodmin Moor since 1880. Though often stereotyped as bleak and moody, the moor is a vibrant ecosystem of granite and peat, hill and marsh.

The cattle that Philip’s suppliers raise are accustomed to the bitter grasses growing in the moor’s acidic soil. “The cattle are tending the moor, and the moor is tending the cattle,” Philip said. “If you didn’t have the cattle, in five years, the moor would be overgrown.”

Philip and his farming neighbours have found new life by marketing their unique, naturally organic meat to chefs from Cornwall to London. Business has tripled during the past decade, and he now has a long waiting list. He lauds consumers’ shifting preference for grass-fed beef, which is typically richer in flavour. “We live in an imperfect world of farming. And we’re really quite happy about it.”

Really, the entrepreneurship is just a new version of an old story: neighbour caring for neighbour. “All we want,” Warren said, “is for people to keep making a living in this age-old way.”

 

Farming “is hand-to-mouth living” for most Cornish families,

Mark Hellyar told me. His family raises lambs and grows barley on 162 acres outside Padstow. The dairy farms that once dotted the region are mostly gone, including his family’s. The costs were too high, revenues too low.

Today, part of the family land is a caravan park. Over eight weeks each summer, they reap four times as much revenue from trailer fees as they do annually from barley and lamb.

A cliff-top view near the remnants of what legend has dubbed King Arthur’s Castle

Mark also owns vineyards in France and fantasises about planting some grape vines here. He jokingly speculates that the product, like Cornwall’s people, would be robust “and maybe a little salty.”

One reason he’s been able to dream: European Union subsidies.  By holding at least 4.8 hectares, one becomes eligible for yearly subsidies of, in Hellyar’s case, £15,000 per year. Thanks to Brexit—when a strong majority of Cornish voters backed leaving the EU—“that’s all in doubt now,” Mark said.

Farming’s decline has also meant opportunity for enterprising businesspeople like Tom and April. Coombeshead Farm is welcoming, understated, unpretentious. The five bedrooms are simple but comfortable. House manager Lottie Mew, Tom’s girlfriend, makes the soap with home-grown lavender. The point of it all, noted April, is rest. “Everything today is so transient, so fast,” she said. “Let’s slow down a minute.”

Guests are welcome to watch as Tom and his team cook. One afternoon, he sent me to the garden to harvest lettuce for that evening’s salads; the next morning, I went to collect eggs for breakfast. “There’s a charm in something unrefined,” he said. “We want to create a place that not only fills the stomach but also makes guests feel at home.”

Tom and April imagine Coombeshead might become more than an inn. April grew up in Birmingham and fell in love with agriculture during countryside sojourns in her teens. She’s already drafting plans for turning outbuildings into educational facilities for working-class youths, like she once was.

 

It’s unsurprising that April wants others to experience the Cornish countryside.

One morning, I rose with the sun, put on wellies, and walked to a nearby field where a stand of trees stood silhouetted against the pink and orange sky. The grass was wet with dew. As I neared the house, the hens clucked their chirpy greetings.

Tom was alone in the kitchen making granola when I came in, and we chatted about inspiration. “Here we are at the faraway end of the country, and there are so many interesting people doing interesting things. A lot of them don’t even realise how good it is,” he said.

He still commutes to London for two days a week and spends five at Coombeshead—a brutal schedule made possible only by the fresh creative air that reinvigorates him in Cornwall. “It’s this mix of people coming in, learning, and doing something new, and people doing things their family has done for generations. Yet it all feels like it’s just the beginning.”