Travel & Leisure: England's Next Foodie Destination
by Jeff Chu
Cornwall has always been a place apart from the rest of England—a proud and fertile province where the pasture meets the sea. But now the old traditions are giving way to something new, as the next generation of chefs, farmers, and fishermen transform their pastoral corner into a culinary eden.
One day last summer the chefs Tom Adams and April Bloomfield splashed through a stream and then crossed a field behind Coombeshead Farm, their 18th-century Cornish farmhouse. Adams, of London’s celebrated Pitt Cue, and Bloomfield, a British native best known for her New York City restaurants the Spotted Pig and the Breslin, have turned the property, which is set on 66 acres of gently rolling hills near the village of Lewannick, into a five-room inn and restaurant. They were expecting a dozen dinner guests that evening, and the afternoon’s mission was to forage ingredients—wild sorrel, blackberries—for the meal.
We stopped under an oak tree reputed to be well over 600 years old. “I wonder what this tree has seen since day one,” Adams said. Consider: it would have been 150 years old when Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne, nearly 400 when the American colonies broke free from Great Britain. Adams shook his head. “How insignificant am I?”
The land doubles as a buffet, if you know what to look for. I didn’t, so Adams narrated. We passed wild watercress, common hogweed (whose seeds taste of citrus—more orangey than lemony), and pineapple weed, which Adams plucked, rubbed between his fingers, and held to my nose. It offered an instant olfactory trip to the tropics. The sorrel we gathered would go with pig’s-head rillettes. Blackberries were destined for an arranged marriage with Cornish cream. “Such abundance,” Bloomfield said.
Returning to the farmstead, we skirted a streamside forest. Suddenly, Adams and Bloomfield unleashed a litany of expletives more typically heard in the heat of professional kitchens than the cool of the Cornish shade: “Holy sh**. Oh my god.”
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-red oven’s char, the fragrance of thyme and garlic, and the glow of golden Cornish butter. It was an expression of Cornwall itself—unexpected, unfussy, and gorgeous.
Bloomfield and Adams aren’t the only outsiders to realize the fertile promise of Cornwall. Some of Britain’s most inventive young chefs and entrepreneurs are settling here and finding inspiration in the region’s traditions. Together with the Cornish farmers and fishermen who trace their roots back generations, they are sparking a profound, renewed confidence in the bounty of this land. What’s old is new again—and it tastes phenomenal.
Before meeting Bloomfield and Adams, my husband, Tristan, and I spent three days hiking 30 miles of Cornwall’s South West Coast Path, from Boscastle to Padstow. The poet John Betjeman, who spent much of his life in Cornwall, described Boscastle as being set in “half a mile of winding, gloomy chasm where overwhelming cliffs of shale and slate are parted by tidal water a stone’s throw across.” In the sunshine, the fishing village sparkled. When it rains, the terrain can be tragic; in 2004, a flash flood washed away much of the village.
From Boscastle, 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, now Cornwall’s patron saint, 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.
It’s easy to see why outsiders still come to this fat finger of land, which points from Britain’s southwestern-most corner across the Atlantic. Though Cornwall is England’s poorest county, it may be its richest 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 14th-century chapel dedicated to Saint Piran that had languished as a farm outbuilding until its restoration in the 1940s. In Tintagel, we clambered amid the cliff-top remnants of what’s said to be King Arthur’s castle—a history buff’s dream, a health-and-safety officer’s horror. In several places, we marveled at gravity-defying seaside towers of slate, souvenirs of Cornwall’s quarrying days.
Even our primary sustenance as we walked—savory hand pies, called pasties, that we had bought in each town—spoke of Cornwall’s past. 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. Their wives and mothers would carve the miners’ initials on a corner of the crust for identification purposes. The crimped, curved edge of thick dough served as a handle, so the rest of the pasty was spared contamination from the filth on the miners’ hands. Corner and crust also doubled as an insurance policy: once discarded, the remnants were said to be scavenged by knockers, el ike creatures believed to inhabit the mines. Amid danger—say, a gas leak—the knockers would know, by those initials, to rescue the miners who’d fed them. (For a lesson on Cornwall’s mining past and shots of its dramatic cliffs, watch the series Poldark.)
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 (sorry, not sorry) and then replied: “Sweaters. And sheepskin-covered seating.”
Though tourists throng Port Isaac, the setting for the TV show Doc Martin, and Padstow, a foodie destination, we encountered other hikers only occasionally. As we descended into one narrow valley, an elderly couple negotiated the opposite slope. Upon drawing closer, I noticed a pattern: the man would bound down 10 or 12 steps. Then, he’d turn and wait expectantly for the woman. She had two walking sticks, one in each hand, and took care with each step, never rushing. When she approached him, she held both sticks in one hand. He reached out to her, she grasped his hand, and they walked together for a few steps before he sped his way down again.
As we passed the couple, we greeted them. When we were safely out of earshot, I said to Tristan: “Is that going to be us someday?”
“I hope so,” he replied.
We ended our hike in Padstow, which owes its culinary stardom to celebrity chef Rick Stein, who moved to Cornwall in the 1970s. 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 eight Padstow businesses bearing the Stein name, including four restaurants, two gift shops, a fish market, and a bakery. (He also runs a hotel and rents cottages and rooms above the restaurants.) Stein’s success has downsides, as does Cornwall’s emergence as a gastronomic destination. The Cornish never fail to point them out. “There’s a Cornish saying,” said Mark Hellyar, a native whose family raises lambs and grows barley on 400 acres outside Padstow. “Give a Cornishman a pot of gold, and he’ll complain that he doesn’t like the pot.” The complaints? Crowds in Padstow, whose population swells from about 2,500 to 5,000 during peak season. Commercialization, too: Stein’s empire can feel corporate and over-branded. When I asked our server for the fish-and-chip shop’s Wi-Fi password, she looked surprised and replied, “rickstein.”
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. He never expected inspiration from the place or its people. 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.”
The more recent cohort of non-native entrepreneurs includes Tarquin Leadbetter, proprietor of the five-year-old Southwestern Distillery. Reared in neighboring 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.
Leadbetter now lives that dream on Constantine Bay Beach, a crescent of golden sand. Though Tarquin’s Gin and Tarquin’s Pastis have quickly accumulated prizes since their 2012 debut, nothing else happens fast at the distillery. Everything is made in small batches, mostly in a still named Tamara, after the river Tamar, which divides Devon and Cornwall. Tamara is made of hand-hammered copper, a nod to Cornwall’s history; in the early 19th century, the county was by far the world’s leading producer of the metal. For his gin, Leadbetter grows violets in his garden. For his pastis, he forages for wild gorse flowers, which lend the liqueur an unexpected hint of coconut. Both are made with naturally sweet Cornish water. “We’re the first bit of land that the rain clouds hit after the Atlantic,” he explained. “It’s the freshest water to fall on England, having traveled for thousands of miles across the ocean.”
Leadbetter admits his water talk may be overwrought, but it does speak to Cornish patience. “You know how the Spanish always say ‘mañana’— tomorrow? Here, it’s ‘dreckly,’ ” which can mean “soon” or “eventually, but I can’t tell you when.”
Such patience can be misinterpreted. People elsewhere in Britain often condescend to the Cornish. “They think down here everyone walks around with a bit of straw in our mouths,” said Saul Astrinsky, a native Cornishman who owns the Wild Harbour Fish Co. with his wife, Abi. “They think we’re all thick and should learn from people up the line.”
Astrinsky’s six-year-old company sells seafood to some of London’s top restaurants. 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. Astrinsky sees conservation of Cornwall’s natural balance as a key metric of success: “We’ve got to be careful not to ruin this.”
His landlubbing counterpart might be master butcher Philip Warren, whose namesake butchery has been carving up cows from Bodmin Moor since the 1880s. This is Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall. Though often stereotyped as bleak and moody, the moor is a vibrant ecosystem of granite and peat, hill and marsh. Over the millennia, moor and cattle have become symbiotic. The grasses growing in the moor’s acidic soil tend toward sourness, which is tempered by the slightly salty rainwater that storms in from the sea. The cattle that Warren’s suppliers raise are accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the soil and the grasses. “The moor is a living, breathing organism. It’s our best conserver of water. The peat is like a sponge, and the best conserver of carbon dioxide,” Warren said. “The cattle are looking after the moor, and the moor is looking after the cattle. If you didn’t have the cattle, in five years, you couldn’t walk the moor anymore. It would be overgrown with bracken.”
During the past decade, Warren and his farmers have found new life by marketing their meat to London chefs and Rick Stein. Business has roughly doubled in that time, and he now has a long waiting list of chefs. Warren lauds consumers’ shifting preference for grass-fed beef, which is typically richer in flavor. “We live in an imperfect world. And we’re really quite happy about it.”
Really, the entrepreneurship that Astrinsky and Warren exemplify is just a new version of an old story: neighbor caring for neighbor. “All we want,” Warren said, “is for people to keep making a living.”
Farming, Hellyar told me, “is hand-to-mouth living” for most Cornish families. 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 Hellyar land—set amid coastal countryside designated by the government as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty—is a caravan park. Over eight weeks each summer, the Hellyars reap four times as much revenue from trailer fees as they do annually from barley and lamb.
Hellyar, who also owns vineyards in France, fantasizes about planting some grape vines. He hasn’t figured out which varieties might work but 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. Each year, the Hellyars get a lump-sum payment that helps cushion them from agriculture’s shifts, part of the $1 billion-plus in EU funds that Cornwall has received over the past decade, mostly for farming and infrastructure. By holding the lease on at least 12 acres, one can be classified as a farmer, eligible for yearly subsidies of at least $100 per acre. Thanks to last year’s Brexit vote, in which a strong majority of Cornish voters backed leaving the EU, “that’s all in doubt now,” Hellyar said. “I guess it’s a part of the old Cornish desire to be a bit independent and rebellious.”
Farming’s decline has also meant opportunity for enterprising businesspeople like Adams and Bloomfield. Coombeshead Farm is the architectural manifestation of their philosophy: welcoming, understated, unpretentious—from the restored slate floors to the cozy, handsome library. The five bedrooms are simple but comfortable, all fluffy duvets and plaid woolen throws, with the hospitable touches of crafty hosts. House manager Lottie Mew, Adams’s girlfriend, makes the soap with home-grown lavender. The point of it all, noted Bloomfield, is rest. “Everything today is so transient, so fast,” she said. “Let’s slow down a minute.”
They haven’t sought to smooth all the rough edges. Nor do they hide the fact that this is a working farm with a working kitchen. Guests are welcome to watch as Adams and his team cook. One afternoon, he sent me to the garden to harvest chards and lettuces for that evening’s salads; the next morning, I went to the henhouse 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 lowers blood pressure and makes guests feel at home. We want this to be wholesome.”
And local. The Coombeshead team produces its own vinegars, kombucha (flavored with foraged pineapple weed and honey from the farm), and a fantastic fermented-tomato jam, made with tomatoes from Marky Souter’s farm down the road. There’s no citrus, not even for the gin and tonics, because it doesn’t grow in England; the delicious alternative is a house-made black-currant-and-nettle cordial, with nettle leaves for garnish. There’s no olive oil, either. One concession: coffee, which obviously doesn’t grow here (the beans come from Origin, a local roastery).
When Adams and Bloomfield bought the farm, rumors flew around the nearby village about the buyers’ identities. A local gossip reported that Adele was moving in; another rumor named Jamie Oliver. The curiosity was understandable. Even Adams and Bloomfield themselves still don’t know what Coombeshead might become, though they imagine more than the existing inn. Bloomfield grew up in inner-city Birmingham and fell in love with food and agriculture during countryside sojourns in her teens. “We’d buy a bag of peas from a farm stand and just eat them raw,” she said. Her dream is to welcome guests beyond the expected demographic of well-to-do Londoners and foreign foodies. She’s already drafting mental plans for turning outbuildings into educational facilities for working-class youths, like she once was.
It’s not surprising that Bloomfield 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 majestically silhouetted against the morphing skies—the lingering nighttime blues giving way to pinks and oranges. The grass was wet with dew, the dawn full of possibility. As I neared the house, the hens clucked their greetings.
Adams 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 realize how good it is,” he said. He still commutes to London, spending two days a week at Pitt Cue and 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. And yet it all feels like it’s just the beginning.”