There has always been something in the water in Cornwall. Take a wrong turn on the right kind of day in the Lost Gardens of Heligan and it is easy to succumb to the Arthurian tales suffused with pagan magic: trees seem taller, leaves wider, greens deeper than their equivalents elsewhere. Once upon a time they grew pineapples here; peaches, too. It is the sort of miraculous microclimate that bewitches even the most cynical of city folk.
My own conversion happened a couple summers ago, at Coombeshead Farm. For months, people in foodie circles had been murmuring about the extraordinary things happening at the secluded five-bedroom B&B near Lewannick, a small village sandwiched between Bodmin and Dartmoor – about the warm lardy cakes that greeted guests on arrival, the multi-course menu served in a converted barn, the life-changing breakfast of Mangalitsa sausages and thick-cut bacon that awaited the next morning.
It was, it turned out, even better than I had hoped it would be. As a food writer you are occasionally faced with a dish that defies your attempts to describe it – that tastes so purely of itself that everything you want to say feels redundant. At Coombeshead, I found myself thinking that the butter had a more buttery flavour than any butter I’d ever eaten; that the cream was creamy in a way I had never realised it could be; that those sausages left me feeling almost bereft at having lived all these years without encountering sausages like them before. It was food so elementally perfect that it briefly recalibrated everything I thought I was looking for in life. Would it be so ridiculous, my wife and I wondered out loud, to pack in our jobs, sell our place in Islington, put a five-hour drive between us and our families and move here for good?
We wouldn’t have been the first. Coombeshead is the product of exactly this sort of pipe-dream-turned-reality: in 2016, Tom Adams left his Soho barbecue spot Pitt Cue to open the farm with his girlfriend Lottie Mew and April Bloomfield, the Brit behind The Breslin in NYC. And the chef who presided over my culinary awakening here, Tim Spedding, was another London transfer – tired of grinding it out in the Michelin-starred kitchens of The Clove Club and The Ledbury, he headed west the following year.
For Spedding, the switch was a no-brainer: ‘The realisation that working in a successful restaurant didn’t have to involve being yelled at and never seeing daylight or customers has now gone one step further. Here you can have a thriving business that allows you the freedom to do things you enjoy, be outside half the day, grow your own produce and work less. Plus,’ he adds, ‘it’s just really beautiful.’
Coombeshead and everything it represents would become a blueprint for future transplants including Dan Cox, who quit Michelin-starred Fera at Claridge’s in 2017 to go back to source, joining Sean O’Neill of Good Earth Growers at Crocadon Farm. He now supplies his organic ingredients to chef-favourite app Natoora, as well as rearing the happiest pasture-fed sheep around. When Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim and David Gingell – the duo behind a trio of adored North London neighbourhood spots – launched their fourth restaurant, Fitzroy, not in N1 but the picturesque estuary town of Fowey, last year, it was a sign that critical mass was starting to form.
Openings such as these mean the direction of travel between Cornwall and the capital is no longer one way. For years, some of the best restaurants in London have been benefiting from the bounty overseen by Cornish producers, from celebrated butcher Philip Warren to dayboat fishing operations such as Kernow Sashimi and Pesky Fish. For longer still, chefs have been fixated on provenance, on ensuring the best possible ingredients. In moving to the country, they are able to collapse the distance, getting even closer to the land and sea, building relationships with the people who get their hands dirty so their plates can sing. It’s impossible to hear Spedding wax lyrical about the bloke who sells crabs and lobsters fresh from the water off Port Isaac, or the family farm between Bude and Okehampton that makes raw milk and cream, without sensing that there is something special about being at the centre of such a thriving food ecosystem.
Certainly, the proximity to such prime produce is reflected in the
style of cooking at this new clutch of restaurants in Cornwall. If the early days of Cornish cooking were characterised by Rick Stein turning out old-school classics such as whole Dover sole for his Padstow pilgrims, and the second wave saw big names including Paul Ainsworth and Nathan Outlaw courting Michelin inspectors in destination set-ups, then these younger guns feel, fittingly, more down to earth, as likely to cater to hungry surfers and the local lunchtime crowd as they are to international gastro bores and moneyed second-homers. (Tellingly, Outlaw recently closed his two-starred flagship and plans to reopen it as a more casual concept.)
As someone who grew up holidaying in the West Country – when the height of gastronomy was the stuffy, unstintingly French-imitation haute cuisine of hotel restaurants – the Cornwall I encountered on recent visits was practically unrecognisable. Natural wines and unfiltered ciders took pride of place on drinks lists; there was a noticeable lack of unnecessary formality – an understated confidence in excellent produce handled sensitively. And food was frequently fantastic, whatever the price point: a spot-on bouillabaisse of local mullet, mussels and gurnard; clotted cream on – or in – everything from butter to ice cream; an immaculately fried crab bonbon humming with herbs and lemon zest, devoured with singed fingertips just yards from the riverside shack that sold them. It was not just the quality but the range of delicious things on offer – the local gin scene has exploded; farm shops are stuffed with excellent cheeses and supreme homemade pasties; and, as many chefs would testify, the meat truly is up there with the greatest in the world.
During my conversations with kitchen staff who work in the area, it became clear this is just the beginning – there is a whole host of upcoming projects which have taken root in the county’s fertile soil, from Neetfield Market Garden in Bude, led by an alumnus of Soho’s Quo Vadis, to Re-Growth, a pioneering business that aims to use restaurant food waste as fertiliser to cultivate vegetables such as oyster mushrooms. Cornwall’s future as a dining destination on a par with the Basque Country or Emilia-Romagna, it seems, is all but assured. After all, as the imposing landscape of Heligan shows, it really doesn’t take that long for green shoots to become a towering forest.
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