Condé Nast Traveller: Coombeshead Farm, Cornwall: England's Best Farm-to-Fork Restaurant
COOMBESHEAD FARM, CORNWALL: ENGLAND'S BEST FARM-TO-FORK RESTAURANT
Two of the UK's top chefs, April Bloomfield and Tom Adams, have teamed up to create the ultimate Cornish farmhouse feast
by Tom Parker Bowles
Published in Condé Nast Traveller, Monday 12th March 2018
Original article published in Condé Nast Traveller Magazine print edition, February 2018
The ‘feathery slate was black with rain.’ North Cornwall in late December is a long way from Betjeman’s ‘shadowless, unclouded glare’, his ‘golden and unpeopled bays’ with ‘long surf breaking in the mid-day sun’. It’s damp and dim and sullen, the landscape huddled beneath a deeply teasy sky. Yet somehow, Cornwall – in England but not really of it – wears the gloom with insouciant aplomb.
This low light brings out a verdant beauty, the swirling mist clinging to every curve. What would depress a few counties north seems raw and romantic in the land of King Arthur and Tintagel, smugglers and Bodmin beasts, with droll tellers singing tales of buccas and boggets, piskies and the pobel vean. Because here, where the Gulf Stream warms the waters and shields the moors from winter’s excess, is the end of England.
And I’m a foreigner in my own land. Despite growing up in the south-west, the moment I glide across the Tamar, beneath Brunel’s magnificent iron arches, I’m a ‘bleddy emmet’, a hanging incomer from way up north. You’re either Cornish. Born and bred. Or you’re not. And in winter, there’s no time for soft gloaming.
Grey dusk turns brusquely to black night, but Jacqui Green, the loquacious taxi driver from the station, glows with pure, unfiltered Cornish warmth. Like a saffron cake fresh from the oven.
She’s taken people from all over the world, she says, to Coombeshead Farm, a five-bedroom Georgian guesthouse sitting among 66 acres of rolling hills and hidden valleys north-east of Plymouth. It’s booked up for months ahead. Because this is no bog-standard B&B, rather a collaboration between chefs Tom Adams (behind meat-centric London restaurant Pitt Cue) and April Bloomfield (Brummie chef-proprietor of The Spotted Pig and The Breslin in New York). It opened in 2016, an English take on the American field-to-fork movement. They hope, in a few years, to be totally self-sufficient. So no citrus, or olive oil, and only the coffee is imported. Bloomfield has previously said the ultimate goal of the farm is to be in total control of the product. ‘There’s nothing better than grabbing a beet from the ground, gently washing it and throwing it straight in the oven.’
Field to fork is a fine thing. In concept at least. By raising your own cattle and growing your own vegetables, you can guarantee quality and provenance. But like every other food trend, it’s been hijacked by halfwits, who bandy around buzz words such as ‘artisan’, ‘seasonal’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘foraged’ without having the first clue what it’s all about. The moment you walk into Coombeshead, though, with its crackling fires, and record player, and comfy sofas, it feels entirely without pretence. No marketing guff, check-in queues, or slick flim-flammery. Rather a proper home, albeit with an honesty bar, and a great chef as your host.
The only problem is this idea of ‘communal’ everything. As I tentatively creep in, I see other guests chatting to each other in the large sitting room. The horror! We’re English, for goodness sake, and go out of our way, at hotels, to avoid any embarrassing personal contact. A polite nod, and that’s about it. But then Lottie Mew, Tom’s girlfriend, wanders in from the kitchen, smiles and takes me upstairs. To a small but handsome room with good linen, a deep mattress and Turkish-cotton dressing gowns. The soap is home-made, with lard from the farm’s pigs. Adams and Bloomfield sure love their swine: rare-breed Mangalitzas in particular. They keep their own, in the fields. Along with the chickens and the bees.
‘Where’s the bath?’ I moan. ‘I hate showers. And the TV? And the mini-bar?’ But within minutes, these seeming essentials are long forgotten. Because Coombeshead is all about the tiny details. The carafes of rhubarb gin in each room. And two squares of fudge so buttery it would make Willy Wonka shiver with lascivious delight. It’s certainly unlike any farmhouse I knew in my youth. The heating purrs, the hot water flows, draughts are excluded, and there’s ice by the fistful. This is the new luxury, pared-back but discreet.
Any reservations about this communal malarkey soon melt like hand-churned butter on hot toast. I wander downstairs, my face flushed from the shower, to sit by the fire, and talk to my fellow guests, a young couple from Hertfordshire with their cockapoo. Tom comes in, his arms tattooed with a salmon and a pig. He’s modest and softly spoken, bringing in snacks before dinner: ethereal gougères made with Stithians, a Cheddar-style local cheese; a slice of intensely piggy, home-cured Mangalitza loin with obscenely luscious fat. Plus a plump Porthilly oyster, gently saline, atop a pile of elderflower granita. The flavours are pure and clean and invigorating.
By now, I’m quietly enamoured by the place, helped, perhaps, by some Cornish cider and interesting white wines. We all saunter down to the stone-walled bakery where, by day, Ben Glazer makes bread that’s bought by Nathan Outlaw and Nuno Mendes. There’s a vast fire pit, and hops hanging from the rafters and a head chef, Tim Spedding, formerly of London’s Michelin-starred Clove Club. The lighting is low, the air thick with the scent of roasting meat. There’s no need for a menu as everyone is served the same.
The sourdough is, as you’d expect, blissfully chewy. There are pickled adolescent carrots, pert and sharp, and wild-garlic sauerkraut that packs serious allium punch. A pot of creamy terrine is plopped down – its porcine heft tempered by vinegar-soaked nasturtium capers – by some of the most charming front-of-house folk I’ve ever met. Their enthusiasm is infectious, their passion intense. It feels like a family affair. There are chunks of gloriously rustic venison sausage with elderberry ketchup. And crab, still wearing the scent of the sea, with seaweed and Jerusalem artichoke. The flavours are big, but never overwhelming. This is a kitchen that knows when to hold back, and when to let loose.
A pheasant broth, light, lithe and lovely, comes with a charred leg and a Brussels sprout, stuffed with minced meat. Prepared like this, pheasant, so often overlooked and under-appreciated, is every bit the equal of grouse or duck. More wine is drunk, conversation quickens, and the flames die down. On we go, with a great loin of charred Mangalitza, and grilled hispi, and apple to cut through the heft. By now, we’re a bottle down. Or is it two. Could be three. Tales of Bristol raving and on-set shenanigans with our new friends. A tart sea-buckthorn posset and a splendid tarte tatin. Cider brandy, then a few metres’ totter back to the house and up to bed. I sleep like the dead. And awake, to more fog, and the breakfast table heavy with lemon balm and rosemary kombucha, apple juice, granola and yogurt, fresh-baked bread and sticky buns, warm from the oven, and a slab of fine bacon, and sausage, wedged into a rye sandwich and wrapped in brown paper, for my journey home. I bid my adieus, and wish I was staying longer. I didn’t expect this. No way. But Coombeshead Farm is something very special, fuelled by the genuine delight and devotion of Tom, Lottie and all who work here. For this particular jaded writer, the place is a hands-in-the-air revelation. Come the summer, I’ll be back. Wild pigs couldn’t keep me away. As they’d say down here, proper job. Proper job indeed.