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It’s little wonder that some of the finest chefs, as well as holidaymakers, are beating a path to Cornwall these days. Often called the UK’s food capital, four in every five people who visit Cornwall say the food and drink is one of the reasons they choose to go there.
What’s Cornwall’s secret? First, it produces among the richest variety of top quality fresh produce from land and sea available anywhere in the country. Second, there’s an eclectic mix of heritage and contemporary flair that allows iconic Cornish pasties and clotted cream to sit happily alongside some of the best modern British cuisine and new products such as world-class cheeses, wines and spirits.
Here are the best things to eat on your foodie pilgrimage to the UK’s wild and beautiful southwest:
Pretty much every town and village in Cornwall has a baker or butcher selling Cornish pasties fresh from the oven and at 10 o’clock in the morning – when manual workers traditionally down tools for crib time (crib being the Cornish word for a bite to eat). In 2011, the genuine Cornish pasty was recognised with PGI status. This means that any pasty sold using the name Cornish pasty must be made in Cornwall in the recognised way, using only beef, potato, onion and swede as the filling. These ingredients all go into the pastry case uncooked, and the pasty is then crimped to one side and baked in the oven long and slow to allow all the delicious juices of the filling to combine. Pasties are at their best about half-an-hour after they come out of the oven and taste just lovely eaten straight out of the paper bag.
Whip up a batch at home using our recipe for lighter Cornish pasties.
Clotted cream tea
Dairy dominates Cornish farming. Plenty of warm rain and clean air helps the grass grow lush and green, which is just what the cows need to produce rich creamy milk. Clotted cream is really a cooked cream, traditionally heated gently either in a warm oven or on the stove top. When cooled, the distinctive golden crust forms across the top.
To create the perfect Cornish cream tea, you first need to break a scone in half gently with your hands, or do the same with a split. (Splits are little yeasted buns that take a little longer to make than scones but which many claim are the true component of a Cornish clotted cream tea.) Then, dollop a spoonful of strawberry or Kea plum jam (a Cornish speciality) on top, then finish with a generous spoonful of Cornish clotted cream. In Cornwall, the cream always goes on top of the jam, some say because it’s the crowning glory.
Try making your own classic scones with our 5-star recipe.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. More precious by weight than gold, the amber-coloured spice has a distinct and delicate flavour and adds a golden colour and a slightly bitter, hay-like fragrance to food. Saffron is the dried stigmas from the flower crocus sativus. The arrival of saffron on the Cornish coast is thought to date back to the Phoenician traders who sailed there to exchange spices and other goods for tin from Cornish mines. Unusual for saffron, in Cornwall the spice is used in sweet bakery, and golden fruited saffron buns were an important part of the many feast days and festivals held up and down the county. Some say a saffron bun, or a slice of saffron cake should be eaten just as it comes, but others like it with lashings of Cornish butter or even clotted cream.
A Cornish beach on a warm summer evening has got to be one of the best barbecue backdrops in the world. Build up an appetite in the water, soak up the dying rays and unwind with friends and family as a tasty supper sizzles on the hot coals. For purists, ocean-side grilling means only one thing – freshly caught fish. Not all fish stand up to this treatment, but for bright, shiny mackerel it’s perfect. Gutted and cooked whole, the oiliness of the skin keeps the fish moist and the smoke imparts that unmistakable open-air flavour. This is beach barbecuing simplicity at its best.
If you can't make it to Cornwall, get into the garden with our ultimate barbecue collection.
This is Cornwall’s newest cheese – and what a cheese it is. Matured for 15 months, its flavour and texture are reminiscent of a comté but with strong hints of a mature gouda. Kern is the stable mate of the famous nettle-wrapped Yarg and is already winning major awards. If Kern is difficult to find, another new and delicious Cornish cheese to look out for is Cornish Jack. Made in the emmental style, this is another cheese with alpine characteristics and it, too, is winning awards – most recently a gold in the modern British cheese category at the British Cheese Awards.
For every gin maker it’s all about the botanicals and, for the enterprising young Tarquin Leadbetter, the all-important ingredient is violets. His small-batch, copper pot distilled gin was the first Cornish variety to be created in recent history and, while the original Tarquin’s has become a best-seller, his Seadog navy-strength gin has taken centre stage after being awarded the title of World’s Best Gin 2017 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Tarquin also creates a series of seasonal special edition lines, the latest release being his blackberry gin – the first batch sold out in four days.
It was the head gardener at Tregothnan Estate, Jonathon Jones, who surmised that since ornamental camellias thrive in Cornwall, it should be perfectly possible to grow tea (which is made from the dried leaves of a particular strain of camellia) in the county, too. Fast-forward 15 years and Tregothnan not only produces the only English-grown tea but also exports it to China. A whole host of herbal teas has also been added to their list, which includes a tea for just about any occasion or time of day.
Perhaps because of his location in northeast Cornwall, surrounded on either side by Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor, Philip Warren and his son, Ian, are among the few butchers who recognise the quality and value of moorland livestock. Warren’s Butchers prefer the suckled native breeds from the moors, fed by the mother for eight months then reared slowly on heather and gorse, yielding glorious ruby red meat laced with fat the colour of Cornish clotted cream. Warren & Son supplies around 20 Michelin-starred restaurants including top London names, but still offers the very same top quality beef at their own shops and online.
Shellfish and crustaceans still dominate fishing in Cornwall which is done in time-honoured fashion by fishermen who often work alone, laying and collecting their pots every day. By extension the crab sandwich is a holiday staple for many visitors to the area. What can be better than sitting at a beachside café watching the waves break while munching on a sandwich, generously filled with freshly picked crabmeat? Purists say it should never contain mayo, and brown bread is also widely regarded as the best to balance the subtle fish flavour.
Twenty-five years ago, who would have thought that some of the best wine in the world would come from the far southwest peninsula of England? The best-known Cornish vineyard, Camel Valley, is a regular winner of some of the top awards in the industry, testament to the vast improvements that have taken place in wine-growing and the development of grape varieties that perform well in our climate. Sparkling is where English wines really excel and Cornish wines are no exception. Alongside Camel Valley, a number of other vineyards are blazing a trail for Cornish fizz; Knightor, Polgoon and Trevibban Mill are among the names to look out for.
A visit to Cornwall at any time of year can be foodie heaven, but one special time to catch the best of Cornish food and drink talent is the end of September, when the Great Cornish Food Festival takes place on Lemon Quay in Truro, bringing together some 60 regional producers, a host of Cornwall’s top chefs, and 40,000 visitors. And the best part? Entrance and access to all the demos and masterclasses is completely free of charge. In 2017, it runs 22-24 September, headlined by two-Michelin starred chef, Nathan Outlaw.
Ruth Huxley is owner of the Great Cornish Food Store in Truro, where every bit of food and drink sold is local. Ruth has also written/edited two books on Cornish food – the Great Cornish Food Book and the Great Cornish Fish Book – and is founder of Cornwall Food & Drink, the network organisation for Cornwall’s food industry.
If you enjoyed this taste of the southwest, try our guide to what to eat on the Isle of Wight.
Visit our travel section for more tasty inspiration.
Image credits: Kate Whitaker, Mike Searle, Store, Sean Gee, Beth Druce