Travels with Chefs, a postcard from Cornwall

Published on BespokeRSVP on 5th March 2012:

My trips to Cornwall have always been about seaside escapades. Everything from kiting in St Ives to surfing in Newquay where the days are filled with blissful freedom and glorious sun – fabulous escapism from London life. So I was rather surprised to learn that you can stalk wild deer in this Southern-most county. But stalking is exactly what I did on my most recent trip to Cornwall.

Red Hunter wellies in Cornwall

The journey down was certainly not in the usual Bespoke fashion – a slow trundle in a Grumpie’s Pie van that had recently carried crates of fresh fish. But let us assume for a moment, however, that it was all for reasons of authenticity. After all, I was visiting the “Cornwall in your kitchen” producers with Matt Chatfield who supplied some of London’s best restaurants, including The Ledbury and Roganic. Meeting Charlotte and I in Cornwall were the Chefs (James Lowe, Young Turks; Tom Adams, Pittcue Co; Carl Clarke, Hix Restaurants; Jack Stein, Rick Stein Restaurants etc) all looking to push boundaries.

Arriving very fashionably late at around 3am, I was most disappointed to find that the chef crew had all gone to bed. I thought they were known for their hardcore partying antics though I suppose having to be up barely an hour later to go stalking is a fairly good excuse for an early night. And almost as soon as my head hit the pillow, it was back up against the headrest of the car – we were on our way to shoot Bambi.

Venison sausage breakfast in Cornwall

Turns out, sitting on top of a tree, encapsulated in five layers of thermals and still being chilled to the core, is not that fun. Especially when there’s no deer in sight, despite perfect conditions, and the gun merrily working its tease. In fact, trudging through a field at breaking dawn and trying not to get knocked over by a gun of equal height was about as exciting as it got. Well, except perhaps when I was scaling the great heights of my tree perch and thinking that I was going to fall out and die.

Did I mention I have a bad case of vertigo?

This, it seems, was the nature of the cull – unpredictable. But venison was found at last in the huntsman’s breakfast. Freshly cooked sausages, made by our shoot host and mystery man Deer Jon of Cornish Game, sandwiched in white loaf and doused with ketchup was sublime antidote to the freeze. I could’ve killed for an Earl Grey to go with it.

It was enough sustenance to for us reach Keveral Organic Farm where our guide Sean O’Neil led us round the plots and polytunnels. February in the UK is not known for its particular warmth and the land wasn’t exactly forthcoming with its emerald sheen. But somehow, amongst what looked like plots of bramble and barren polytunnels, O’Neil uncovered shoots of green, leaves with pink sheen and even edible flowers. Endlessly, he exuded knowledge about the plants that he nurtured and asked us to taste where mini taste-bud explosions ensued. A foraged box was plundered.

Andy Atkinson of Cornish Orchard Cider in Cornwall

In the final hours of the sunlight, we were back on the Cornish hills to catch a glimpse of those wild beasts. A stiff drink in a solitary stone build and gentle musings over notable international restaurants later, hunger lured us back to civilisation. But not before, at last, spotting the first roes and then the stags. Six ethereal creatures making a slow amble across the plane, stopping, occasionally, to graze. Too far to shoot but too close not to be in awe, it left us empty handed with a sense of achievement.Our afternoon was then rewarded with a visit to Westnorth Manor Farm (owned by the Duchy of Cornwall) where we met Cornish Orchards’ cider-maker Andy Atkinson. Still sweet, still dry, sparkling sweet, sparkling dry and a few fruity ones – Cornish Orchards Cider made them all using a blend of English apples. And honey and cider vinegar too. A swift tour and tasting around the cider press left us with yet more tantalising goodies.

Hung venison in Cornwall

Back in the kitchens of Deer Jon, all the pieces fell into place. While he demonstrated the butchery of a roe that he had already culled and hung in his workshop outside, inside was a hive of activity. Filleted fish and live lobster had arrived from Fish for Thought, even more vegetables came from Keveral Farm, honey from Cornish Orchards Cider was on the table and of course venison was being carved out. With more than a handful of chefs at the AGA and a few bottles of vino, a feast came together slowly, organically, but surely. I imagine this would be what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall got up to in the early years of River Cottage.

After the briefest of visits to Philip Warren and Son to peruse their meat and grab a cheeky pasty the following morning, it was back in the kitchens for a fry up before the journey back to London. Watching the supermarket bought “bacon” fizzle and foam in the pan as if sprinkled with sherbet, the point of provenance becomes poignantly clear.

All that getting up early and sitting out in the cold, all the hard work, experience forged knowledge and passion of these producers, it all goes towards the quality of the final product. And in the end, whether it’s a rustic feast knocked together on a whim or a fine fare at the tables of London’s best restaurants, the food is only as good as the quality of the ingredients that goes into it, irrespective of skill. And that’s something often overlooked when you chow down on your scrupulously intricate plate of food in cosy warmth.

Surf’s Up, Dude

Published on The Arbuturian on 26th August 2011:

In a recent interview with Simon Hulstone of the Michelin-starred Elephant Restaurant, I learnt that he takes his children to Cornwall for holidays because they love “the adventure and the sea and rocks”. Indeed, it’s at this time of the year that parents all over the country bring their mini-me offspring on escapades around this southerly county, but there’s also a whole hoard of young adults and old-but-young-at-hearts who flock to Cornwall every year too for adventure; the thrill they seek, is that of the surf.

Sea view at Watergate Bay, Cornwall

After braving the bashing waves in Lagos, Portugal, last year, I know just how they feel. Having attempted kitesurfing over the last few years, and failing quite miserably due to lack of skill and lack of wind I decided, almost on a whim, to tag a surfing trip on the end of a week’s kitesurfing in Tarifa, Spain. As a complete beginner, the online community tells me that Lagos has some of the best waves for learners as there were plenty of white water breaks to start with and bigger swells to progress to.

So there I was wading back and forth between the beach and the waves, swallowing my share of the briny liquid and being forced by my board to do underwater somersaults when, out of nowhere, I was riding a wave. That first moment when you realise that you haven’t “wiped out”, the wave hasn’t passed you by and you’re just sailing smoothly towards the beach with the wind in your hair is really quite incredible. It’s a bit surreal. Ok, the wind in your hair part is surreal. The reality is more like strands of wet hair matted to my face but the feeling and the great sense of achievement is the same.

Of course after that one success I was hooked. Watching surf docu-films like Bustin’ Down the Door only affirmed the addiction to the whole experience. Unfortunately, living in London and following a bee-hive schedule means that surf trips are more like the occasional glance at old photos and the odd indulgence in Youtube videos. Luckily Cornwall, as a no-fly option, has some of the best surf beaches in the world, including the surfing mecca Newquay. With the arrival of warmer weather, it was definitely time to tear away and hit the waves.

Qin Xie heading out to surf

Tedium from the five-hour journey, punctuated by a visit to Little Chef, Popham (of Heston fame), was soon forgotten when the stunning seascape revealed itself. The Hotel at Watergate Bay, my haven for a night, boasts even more spectacular sights from its sea-view rooms. From here, it is possible to see the perfect waves and the surfers who are attempting to conquer it. A short walk down is Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, offering my first Cornish meal – a five course Italian.

After a restful night to the lull of the rolling waves, I am woken early by the gulls outside. Already, at 8am, there are surfers paddling out determined not to miss a single wave. The morning’s plan had been to attempt some kitesurfing with the Extreme Academy based at the hotel, but after breakfast and a quick call to the instructor, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen – no wind. So it was time to move on.

The next stop is Mawgan Porth where the Bedruthan Steps is located. This family-orientated hotel sprawls across the sea view hills sharing access with its sister hotel, the eco-friendly Scarlet, to a semi-private beach. Although the surfing conditions are perfect, I decide to use the day to explore the other parts of Cornwall a little – a stroll around Padstow, some relaxation in the hotel’s HydroSpa, then some dinner at the Ferry Boat Inn in Falmouth.

After a day of cultural adjustment, I was more than ready for some adrenaline pumping wave riding. Well, the adrenaline pumping part would only apply if I was any good or if I was terribly bad and out of my depth. Luckily the latter was unlikely – I had a lesson lined up with The Surf Club, run by pro-surfer Nick Tiscoe, catering almost exclusively to guests of the Bedruthan Steps and The Scarlet. All the instructors are qualified British Surfing Association coaches as well as beach lifeguards – a reassuring fact. It’s also reassuring to find that the groups are small enough, two in my case, for that to mean something.

I meet Johnny, my coach for the day, outside the surf shack at the bottom of the Bedruthan garden. The weather’s not looking great, in fact, rain seemed almost certain. Recently crowned champion at the Saltrock Open, Johnny is a pro-surfer, which makes me feel rather privileged. And also embarrassed about imminently displaying my lack of skills.

After pushing and pulling my way into a wetsuit, I struggle down to the beach with surfboard under arm. A big, yellow, foamy kind familiar to anyone who has dabbled in beginner’s surf. En route, I tell him about my flirtation with surfing and how the majority of my surfing days were probably spent lazing in the sun after lunch. He tells me that he’s very strict so there will be no such slacking on his watch. I immediately envisage that some “drop and give me 50” will be involved – I knew I should have gone to the gym more often.

True to his word, I am dispatched to warm up as soon as we get to the beach. A swift run around followed by some stretching begins the lesson. The sun emerges from the dreary cloud cover basking the beach with sudden warmth. This, coupled with the awkwardness of the wetsuit, makes exercise rather difficult. Thankfully the unpleasantness was brief; though as far as I was concerned the walk down to the beach had warmed me up quite enough.

Surfers in Lagos

Johnny got straight to the point: how and when to catch a wave; how, when and where to stand on the board; what to do with your hands. Everything, but brief and concise. Then it was into the water to put it all into practice.

As I’m not strictly speaking a beginner, most of it was recap. That said, out on the water, Johnny gave more specific instructions on how to improve my skill. For my counterpart, though, it made the perfect introduction to the sport. The aim was ultimately the same – to get us standing every time.

Well it wasn’t a perfect score but I certainly managed to ride my board a couple of times as did my novice companion. It’s fantastic to realise that sense of achievement is still the same. More importantly, for my partner in crime who was more or less blackmailed into participating, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. In fact, he tells me that he would consider doing it again; not right away of course.

That’s unsurprising because two hours of attempted wave riding is hard work, even with success as reward. Even more difficult perhaps is the walk back up hill with board once again tucked under arm. That’s rewarded only with a cold water shower to wash away the sand and sea water and the difficult escape from the encapsulating wetsuit. That tight struggle reminded of the reason why I spent so many afternoons reluctant to get back into the water.

As I slog back to my sea view room to sleep off the morning’s exertions, all I can think of is what I could eat to fill my ravenous hunger.

The best time to visit for beginners is September – crowds get thinner, there are powerful autumn swells and the water and air are still warm. The Surf Club runs daily surf lessons at the beach within walking distance to The Bedruthan Steps and The Scarlet. For more information on the lessons visit The Surf Club of Cornwall. For details on accommodation, visit The Scarlet Hotel or The Bedruthan Steps Hotel. The Extreme Academy at Watergate Bay Hotel runs kitesurfing lessons by arrangement and is weather dependent.

Fifteen, Cornwall

Published on Blue Tomato on 16th August 2011:

View out to sea at Fifteen, Cornwall

Although a subsidiary of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Foundation, the Fifteen restaurant in Cornwall is actually owned by the Cornwall Foundation of Promise. This means that while the restaurant is influenced by Oliver’s passion for fresh produce and Italian cuisine, it should have its own identity. Given Oliver’s influence, we expected simple rustic food with a tonne of good quality olive oil and fresh salads.

Fifteen Cornwall, has been blessed with a stunning view that its counterparts could only dream of. We sat on the balcony – front row seats to the keen surfers’ twilight wave-riding, framed by the setting sun shimmering over the bashing waves. Below, dog walkers pat along the beach before it’s engulfed by the incoming tide.

The food on offer was set out on a tasting menu but with room for choice and optional matching wine alongside. Before we got down to the choosing, our waitress explained what the different ingredients were, where they were sourced and how they were cooked. For seasoned diners, this was a little over explained although for the less gastronomically experienced, it proves to be a good insight.

To start was the obligatory nibble of bread with olive oil but also Puglian olives and courgette flowers. As we opted to skip the insalata, the first set of mains to arrive were the raviolo of Lee Carter’s lobster and aged carnaroli risotto. While the fairly small portions were nice, they didn’t do too much to impress. That said, the raviolo seemed more ‘cheffy’ than the usual Oliver style.

What arrived next was the pan fried fillet of John dory and hand dived Cornish scallops. The scallops, though perfectly cooked, didn’t excite our taste buds. At least not like the panzanella which came with the John dory – the perfect tart side to the fish and the hot weather. We certainly wouldn’t object to another portion of those.

An Amedei chocolate cake and the Amalfi lemon tart made a rewarding finish to the meal, whether shared or savoured individually.

It’s interesting to see the fine amalgamation of Cornish and Italian ingredients together on a plate. Though the delicious food wasn’t extraordinary, the quality of the ingredients and the care in preparation was certainly impressive. Added to that mix is the fabulous view and excellent and knowledgeable service. The tasting menu makes it hard to have a simple meal but we would definitely go back when there’s good weather and buoyant appetites.