Local larders: Cornwall

Local larders: Cornwall

Local larders: Cornwall

by Esme Curtis31 July 2023

Cornwall is one of the UK’s most popular destinations for food lovers. We speak to some of Cornwall’s best chefs about what the county means to them, and how they make the most of the rich bounty Cornwall has to offer.

Local larders: Cornwall

Cornwall is one of the UK’s most popular destinations for food lovers. We speak to some of Cornwall’s best chefs about what the county means to them, and how they make the most of the rich bounty Cornwall has to offer.

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Local Larders

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Cornwall is known for being home to an immense number of traditional foods, from cheese like Cornish cheddar, Cornish yarg and Cornish blue to pilchards, clotted cream and, of course, pasties. Pretty much every town in Cornwall has its own pasty shop, and although it would be impossible to try them all visitors certainly have a lot of fun giving it a go. Sarah’s Pasty Shop, Chough Bakery, St. Agnes Bakery, St. Ives Bakery and Pengenna Pasties are some of the most well-known locations, but wherever you go you’re sure to find that locals insist their town’s bakery is the best.

One lesser-known local delicacy is saffron buns. Many people don’t realise that saffron is still grown in the UK, and it used to be an even bigger industry. The enduring popularity of Cornish saffron buns is delicious evidence of the delicate spice’s historical popularity.

At the heart of Cornish food however is the region’s amazing seafood (and sea views). Whether you’re tucking into lunch at The Hidden Hut near Truro, or enjoying some ice cream from Moomaids of Zennor on the beach, you’ll soon realise Cornwall’s coast is famous for a reason. Local oysters are a particularly special treat, and Matt Marshall of Porthilly Farm, which is now run by the family’s fifth generation of farmers, spoke to me about how they came to start Porthilly Seafood 28 years ago.

‘My great grandfather happened to buy the foreshore that ran along the estuary, from the crown, to harvest building stone,' he explains. 'Many years later my uncle, Tim Marshall, started growing oysters with a family friend and things have progressed from there.’

Porthilly oysters are known for their quality, but what’s less well-known about the shellfish is its positive impact on the ocean. ‘Not only do bivalves help filter impurities from the water but they also act as a carbon sink in terms of using carbon from the sea to build their shell,’ Matt explained.

However, while shellfish can help purify the ocean, they’re also inevitably sensitive to its changes. ‘Shellfish (particularly oysters) become very fragile in warmer temperatures and will start to spawn. We have seen unseasonably warm water temps in the past couple of years and unusual spawning patterns and increased mortalities in both mussels and oysters.’ Mussels in particular have been badly affected by climate change, he explained. ‘Historically the mussels have been fairly ‘bullet-proof’ but the warmer sea temps have made them more challenging of late.’

‘Creativity through a sense of place’

Many of Cornwall’s most famous chefs – Rick Stein included – were not born there, but, having arrived, simply can’t tear themselves away. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a Cornish beach or dramatic Cornish coastline, it is easy to understand why the land draws people in. However, all of the producers and chefs we spoke to also emphasised that they don’t take Cornwall’s beauty for granted. Instead, each is committed in their own way to taking care of the land they find themselves in, whether they had been born there or not.

Emily Scott, founder of the eponymous restaurant Emily Scott Food, is one of those chefs. She found herself unable to resist Cornwall’s gravitational pull when she moved there at the age of twenty-three. Now the author of two books on Cornish food, Emily said that, despite not being born in Cornwall, her ‘journey in cooking has mainly been in Cornwall. It’s become a true home to me, and my children have obviously grown up here.’

‘It’s a really wonderful place. I naturally have found this creativity through a sense of place and this beautiful county, which feels like its own country actually because you come across the border from Devon into Cornwall and you do feel like you are driving into another country; it’s not just another county.’

Emily’s cooking is strongly influenced by the elements and the land around her – local fish, local honey, local strawberries – and while that is almost taken for granted today as a key feature of fine dining, as Nathan Outlaw of Outlaw’s New Road and Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen pointed out, thirty years ago it was a point of pride for chefs to be able to access the same food all year round. ‘Things have changed so much,' says Natham. 'Back in the 80s and 90s it was a completely different thing. 'It didn’t matter about the seasonality or the sustainability. There were restaurants using asparagus all year. I don’t think a lot of chefs even considered the seasonality of fish.’

For Nathan, it was moving to Cornwall – and working with local fishermen – that opened his eyes to the importance of seasonality. ‘Because I opened in a small part of Cornwall, I then discovered how important it was, if I wanted the best ingredients, to really buy seasonally,' he explains. 'I was twenty-four at the time and I realised that if I wanted to get the best food onto my plate, I had to be sustainable and seasonal. If I wanted to do well as a chef, and I wanted to have food on my plate that was different from anybody else's, I needed to use my locality to my advantage. And that was just using the most seasonal and sustainable food.’

Jude Kereama, who opened Kota with his late wife Jane in 2006 and Kota Kai in 2011, also spoke to me about the importance of thinking sustainably and respecting the sea. Jude grew up in New Zealand fishing and foraging with his Māori family. ‘There are many similarities between growing up in New Zealand and Cornwall,' he says. 'The most obvious is our relationship with the sea. As a Māori, we were always taught to forage for Kaimoana (seafood in Māori). Dad would take us to pick mussels, dig for clams, pick sea snails, shuck oysters, catch crabs, and find whatever we could while we were on the beach. It was just about as much fun as playing in the sea and was always a part of going to the beach.’

The menu at Kota – which means ‘shellfish’ in Māori – has been shaped and moulded by Jude’s commitment to using fish sustainably and respectfully. ‘On our menus we use the whole fish. The bones become stocks, we make garum from the innards, tails can be crisped up for a salty snack, skin can be dehydrated, any remaining meat from the fish can be used for fish cakes or a brandade or whatever but nothing is ever wasted. We also tend to use only line-caught fish from day boats or suppliers that have boats that target certain species.’

Eating sustainably doesn’t just mean thinking about how fish are caught, but also means using species of fish that diners might not have heard of before, like weever fish, a sand-coloured fish with a venomous sting. ‘We cure it and slice it thin and use it as a ceviche. The flavour is unbelievable.’

Dan Cox of Crocadon Farm, which was recently awarded a Michelin Green Star, is also highly passionate about sustainability. His restaurant uses organic, regeneratively farmed ingredients grown on Crocadon Farm, and is an ambitious example of truly practicing what you preach. The renowned Coombeshead Farm a few miles away in Lewannick was founded on similarly strong principles of sustainability, and is committed to restoring the sixtu-six acres it’s based on.

Dealing with volatility

But, while Cornish food is shaped by seasonality in its conventional sense, Cornish chefs have also been shaped by the seasons in another sense: ‘on season’ and ‘off season’. Emily Scott explained to me that at one point her tea room only operated for six months of the year.

‘Back in those days – it doesn’t seem that long ago but it is – 1999/2000, Cornwall was that place that you came down to on your holidays and then in the winter there would be no one here. I’d open my tea room in April and then it would be closed in October for six months until Easter came around.’

Big names like Rick Stein, Paul Ainsworth and Nathan Outlaw have put Cornwall on the map as a place to visit even in the depths of winter. ‘It’s a wonderful, wonderful place and it’s not six months on six months off now.’ Emily explained. However, although it’s no longer completely dead in winter, there’s still a dramatic imbalance in the number of visitors.

Nathan Outlaw pointed out to me that there can be a misconception that Cornwall’s photogenic nature and popularity with tourists makes it an easy place to run a business. ‘Sometimes those programs that you see on television paint Cornwall as this place where nothing can go wrong. That’s absolutely far from the truth, it’s actually a very volatile place to have a business. It’s not easy, the winters are very long and the seasonality is one of the toughest things.’

Despite the challenges, Cornwall continues to be a place that inspires chefs. New places are opening all the time, with passionate bakers, chefs and managers at their helm, determined to weather the storms. Wherever you go in Cornwall you're sure to find amazing food and restaurants, whether during the stunning summers or the quiet winters. Through the hard work of its chefs and producers, hopefully it will continue to be the beautiful, bio-diverse place it is now for many generations to come.