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Noel Corston and the North Devon renaissance

Noel Corston and the North Devon renaissance

by Ella Timney 18 August 2017

Restaurant Noel Corston in Woolacombe, North Devon, is one of the county's most exciting hidden gems. Great British Chefs paid a visit to the ebullient chef to talk all things Devon, incredible local produce and his passion for Mexico.

When people stop off in Devon (all too frequently on their way to glitzier Cornwall) they rarely make it far north. The well-to-do, pretty villages dotted around Dartmoor and the lure of the ‘English Riviera’ down south so often pull in the crowds that the north coast can often be left feeling a little lonely.

Growing up in the area and popping down to Bude (traitor, yes, it’s in Cornwall), the feeling of gazing out at the actual Atlantic Ocean was an incredible feeling. None of your English Channel tininess; just pure, massive sea. The coastline is rugged, often topped with a toupee of gorse bushes, and you can (on a clear day) stare out at Lundy island, that puffin-topped craggy rock out at sea.

When we started researching our trip to Devon, one chef was more excited, gregarious and downright passionate than all the others – Noel Corston, a local in Woolacombe since the age of fifteen (though anyone who’s from Devon will say you’re not a true local until you’re a few generations in the area).

Now, if you’re familiar with Woolacombe, you might find it hard to believe that there’s a chef there running a ten-seat, counter-eating, open-kitchened, seven-course tasting menu, dinner-only type of place, at what many would most definitely call ‘London prices’. But there he is in his kitchen, four nights a week. This kind of a concept would be hard to pull off in central London, but he’s smashing it in this sleepy seaside village, more known for its award-winning beach and hoards of seasonal surfers than its fine dining scene.

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Noel Corston next to his menu for the day, a simple list of key ingredients that he cooks for select guests in his ten-seater restaurant.
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The courtyard of the restaurant has a slightly more urban feel, another Woolacombe surprise.

Noel is an effervescent man – he barely stops moving long enough for you to take a photo (I managed about two out of thirty plus shots without blurred limbs flying about). As we stopped for a chat in his restaurant, he flung bags of produce around for us to have a look at.

‘This isn’t staged I promise – this couple came up from Bishops Tawton near Barnstaple on Saturday night to have dinner. I come in on Sunday mornings to do the bins, and this is all sitting there outside the door! When people talk about seasonal and local, this is it. Turns out they've got two allotments, and left bags of stuff with all these little notes’.

Before we knew it we’d sampled the sweetest, fattest redcurrants we’d ever had, marvelled at beautifully plump and muddy spring onions, early potatoes and huge stalks of rhubarb. Another hyper-local treat came in the form of a slice of exceptionally sheepy Campscott cheese from ‘about a mile down the road’.

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Noel cooks alone in his kitchen each night, with his wife Nora taking care of welcoming guests.
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Orkney scallops are served with a smattering of local flavours.

Noticing a selection of colourful jars with scribbled labels, I had to ask what was in them. Alongside dried gorse flowers – probably the most Devonian flower around – which incredibly had a gentle scent of coconut, there was a sweetly fragrant hay from near Okehampton, an ‘about a year old’ sauerkraut that packed a real stinky punch (‘I’m not sure what to do with that yet’) and some beautiful jars of hibiscus flowers.

Hang on, hibiscus?

This is where the biggest twist of Restaurant Noel Corston comes in – a secret thread of Mexican ingredients and techniques that Noel expertly weaves through his menu. 'I first went to Mexico in April 1999, when I was working at The Canteen in Chelsea. I loved it so much that I went back again in October when I left the restaurant. That was when I met my wife Nora, in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca. I've had a love affair with the place ever since!'

‘You’ve never tried machaca? You have to try this!’ he said, pulling out a tub filled with delicate threads of dried lamb. ‘This is very Mexican – it’s going to blow your mind. In Monterrey in the north it’s very hot so they make a lot of dried meats. It’s usually done with steak, but this is amazing, it’s like meat chewing gum. At the moment we’re using spring lamb from Dorset, we’ve got a fifteen-year-old sourdough rye ferment that I’ve had since we’ve opened – the pan de la casa – it’s still here, still live and kicking. So we serve that with whipped lamb fat that's got lamb crackling through it and dried lamb on top – it’s just pure umami and sourdough. In Mexico they serve it with scrambled eggs on a good corn tortilla, it’s amazing. They cook it in the ground wrapped in corn leaves, then flake it and dry it. They do it in the sun but I do it in a dehydrator – it is Devon after all.’

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Dried gorse flowers picked last year, ready for some more exciting dishes.
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Mallow flowers line the path to Barricane beach, Woolacombe.

Also gracing the kitchen counter was another Mexican staple – a huge stone tool (kind of like a super-sized pestle and mortar) used for grinding up spice rubs, salsas and moles. ‘You’ve tried Mexican salsa – the secret is this molcajete. This is made from the volcanic stone just outside Mexico City. All these little secrets and layers are all used in the restaurant and people don’t even notice.’

Noel is perhaps right not to advertise Mexican cuisine too heavily on his menu – it could easily be misinterpreted (think headlines of ‘Mexican restaurant in Woolacombe’ and the concept may not be as appealing) but the buzz he manages to generate with this kind of dining is pretty inspiring. The north of the county isn’t exactly known for glitz and glamour, and although he has a steady stream of visitors from Bristol and London, he’s also managed to woo the locals to this form of fine – yet fun – dining.

It struck me that this might be the magical third way for Devon dining – the best quality and precision cooking without an intimidating white tablecloth setting. Noel agrees. ‘Here with the open kitchen, there’s just me and Nora. Nora takes the drinks orders – I stand here and talk through the menu on the board. There’s that interaction.’

He suddenly switches to a whisper: ‘It’s not that I’m doing anything special, right – the one thing we’ve got going for us here is we work with precision and control. We like to do things thoroughly and properly, but what we do have is an innate understanding of where we are. We chalk it up on the board, say this is what we have and this is what we’re cooking. It’s all very mellow.’

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Chamomile flowers cling to the rocks on Barricane beach.
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Noel picks up a strand of sea spaghetti, a surprisingly delicious find.

It's fair to say that the beauty of the restaurant as a concept has fascinated him for a long time. While writing his dissertation at Exeter University (about the creation of Mexican national identity through its cuisine), he hit upon an important concept. ‘The thing that stuck out more than anything is the word restaurant. If you think about it the origin of the word is ‘restore-ant’. During the French revolution they’d have these little stalls in Paris where you’d rock up and have the eighteenth century equivalent of Bovril – it was a restore-ant. These rich broths were full of nutrients. Then obviously homeboy over there was like ‘I’ll put down a chair!’ then another says ‘I’ll put down an umbrella!’ and you end up with Alain Ducasse.’

This desire for a place of nourishment has lived on for Noel. Even though the food is made with care and precision, there’s a desire to connect people with the local surroundings and throw in some far-flung inspiration using techniques and flavours from sunnier climes.

'It's a place to nourish yourself, but I try to do things in the context of the local landscape. I want people to know where they are when they come to the restaurant.'

With that, we jumped in the car, shot up the road and went for a ‘speed forage’, followed by a walk on Putsborough beach and a pint. There Noel continued to tell us tales of Mexico, wild boar shooting and tuna spear fishing, all ensconced in The Kings Arms drinking some delightful local ale. This is most definitely the life.

While in Woolacombe, we stayed at The Beach House, a fantastic spot for surfers, hikers and food-lovers alike. As well as running a guest house, owners Fred and Dom serve up delicious local seafood in a relaxed setting. Be sure to pay them a visit if you're in Woolacombe.

Header image by Matt Austin, kindly provided by Noel Corston.

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