Last month I managed to grab a little getaway to one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom – Cornwall. I’ve always loved going there, having wonderful memories of holidaying in places like Newquay and Torquay as a child. It was only when I arrived that I realised that the last time I visited was August 1999, the year of the total eclipse of the Sun – twenty blinking years ago! I felt so old.
This time I visited with my partner, and avoided the obvious holiday places, our headquarters being a picturesque seventeenth century cottage in the lovely little town of Camelford. The nearest place to visit from there is Tintagel with its ancient castle and apparent birthplace of the mythical King Arthur. We also had a nosey round the Boscastle, which is worth visiting for the eerie Museum of Witchcraft and Magic if nothing else. We climbed Exmoor and hiked around the lovely harbour town Fowey (pronounced to rhyme with joy). Padstow was on the itinerary too, where I had the best fish and chips I’ve ever had.
For those of you not familiar with the geography of the UK, Cornwall is a county that takes up the tip of the long peninsula that makes up the very south-west of England. Because it is out on a limb, Cornwall feels different to the rest of England. The is due to the fact that the indigenous people – the Britons – were never conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in the fourth century BCE. As a result they retained their own language, Cornish, just as the other unconquered Britons did such as the Welsh. It really does feel ancient and magical – and this coming from a devout atheist! It has wild and untouched landscapes, beautiful dramatic skies and a real connection with the past. It’s also great for foraging – I spotted wild cabbage, fennel, rock samphire, sea kale and rocket all lurking about the sandy and rocky beaches.
To the east of Cornwall is the county of Devon. The two have a friendly rivalry (I’m sure this wasn’t always the case!) especially when it comes to food, as you will see.
I tried to eat as many Cornish things as possible during our three-night stay, so I thought I would write a quick guide to Cornish food and follow it up with a few regional recipes.
The Cornish pastry is probably Cornwall’s most famous food. It’s a simple affair, containing beef, potato, turnip and onion, all generously seasoned with ground black pepper. On no account must you add carrot to your Cornish pasty, and the meat must be chopped, not minced. They are crimped down one edge; never have your crimp go across the top of the pasty, because what you have there is a Devonshire pastry, and that will never do. There are other pasties – or “oggies” as the are called colloquially, made with apples or jam. There’s also a squab pie which is made from lamb and apples.
One of my most favourite things in the world is a cream tea. It is made of a nice pot of tea, a scone (plain or fruit), jam and clotted cream. Now – this is very important – for a Cornish cream tea you apply the jam first and then the clotted cream, in Devon however, it’s cream first and then jam. Both counties believe that the other’s way is the work of heathens. Clotted cream is a very thick cream made by evaporating double cream over a very low heat, resulting in a cream that is butter-like in consistency and topped with an appetising pale crust. It is also used to make heavenly Cornish ice cream.
I’ve always found it odd that as an Island nation, we British don’t really like fish. Cornwall lands some of the best quality fish and seafood in the world, and yet its most identifies with a meat pasty. Cornwall has particularly fine – and plentiful – crabs, and one of the best things anyone could eat is dressed crab, brown bread, salted butter and fresh lemon. You’ve to look for it to find it, but it is available.
An infamous dish in these parts is stargazy pie a simple dish of sardines baked under a pastry crust. The fishes are boned, but their little heads are left on so that they can peek out the pie’s edge looking up to the heavens.
In Padstow, we visited Rick Stein’s fish and chip shop. Mr Stein (a food hero of mine) gets a hard time from the locals because he has so many businesses there; so much so, they have nicknamed it rather glibly ‘Padstein’. We didn’t get the chance to visit his restaurant, but we were not disappointed with the chip shop – I had the best cod and chips I have ever eaten. Beautifully crisp batter, creamy soft fish and proper made-from-scratch tartare sauce. Delish!
Another sweet treat made up of simply a bun made from a bread dough enriched with sugar, egg and butter, filled with jam and whipped cream. The grandfather to the doughnut, I would imagine.
Very popular – and very regional to the south-west are these delicious little buns. They are very similar to a hot cross bun, except it is a beautiful golden-yellow colour due to the healthy pinch of saffron which is added to the mix.
There are other regional dishes too, such as hog’s pudding – often found on a Cornish fried breakfast instead of black pudding. There is Cornish heavy cake (aka hevva cake), which is similar to a the Chorley cakes one finds in North West England, and the delicious cheese known as Yarg which is similar to the Welsh cheese Caerphilly but is wrapped in nettle leaves.
Apologies if I have missed anything off – if you spot anything, please add to the comments section below. I’ll be back soon with some Cornwall-inspired recipes.