Stop me if you’ve been here before. We’re eating in a converted barn, its bare-brick walls lined with shelves of homemade pickles. A Brooklyn couple who look like they could be in a Kooples ad talk with a tech entrepreneur from Mumbai, while in the corner opposite, tattooed chefs assemble plates of pickled vegetables and micro-herbs. And someone has just opened a bottle of biodynamic wine. It’s like playing hipster restaurant bingo. And yet we’re not in Williamsburg, or even Shoreditch. We’re not even in town. This is Coombeshead Farm, a five-bedroom, 18th-century guesthouse deep in the Cornish countryside where, for the past two years, chef Tom Adams has been thrilling destination diners, many of whom have made the five-hour drive from London just for dinner and a night’s stay. His big trick? Serving food that’s been almost entirely grown, reared, pickled, plucked, hung, foraged, fermented, harvested or cured on Coombeshead’s 66 acres of land, or close by.
In the process, Adams has put this part of Cornwall, the rural holiday paradise in England’s remote south-west, on the food map. Condé Nast Traveller describes it as “a hands-in-the-air revelation… England’s best farm-to-fork restaurant”. It’s not wrong. And here’s a bigger news-flash: Tom Adams is far from alone. He’s one of a brigade of food heroes who are together turning Cornwall into the country’s most exciting place for a foodie pilgrimage.
So why the buzz, right now? It comes down to the produce, says Adams. That’s what first drew him here. “I was introduced to a butcher who lives down the road,” explains the Hampshire-born chef. At the time, he was running Pitt Cue in London, the modern barbecue joint he launched in 2011, and was seeking a new meat supplier. “I came down to visit him [Philip Warren] and was just blown away by what he was doing with techniques like dry-ageing and various rare, indigenous breeds.” Then came an even bigger realisation. “The more time I spent, the more I realised there were other producers doing incredible things – making cheese, growing vegetables – that most people outside Cornwall didn’t know about.”
Many of London’s best restaurants are cottoning on – Lyle’s, the Ledbury and the Clove Club all buy Philip Warren’s meat – but for Adams, it wasn’t enough just to buy the product, he also wanted to be near it. And so he resolved to start his farm-to-fork project in 2016, to help “tell its story”, as he says.
From the high, windswept moors of Bodmin to the white sands of the Scilly Isles and the granite cliffs at Land’s End, Cornwall is quite unlike anywhere else in England. Once you leave the main roads, it’s easy to get lost in the small country lanes, before you know it chancing upon a sheltered cove or an expanse of rapeseed-filled meadows. Driving around, past signs advertising fresh lobster or crab, locally picked strawberries or a vineyard nearby, the deep connection between the people, the land they live on and the sea that surrounds them is also obvious. Indeed, some of the UK’s best sparkling wine producers are here, including Camel Valley, which is starting to win top industry awards against the best Champagne, and Trevibban Mill, a few miles inland from the north coast (Cornwall is a peninsula you can drive across in an hour).
“If I had a business plan I wouldn’t have done it like this,” laughs Engin Mumcuoglu as we sit in Trevibban’s modern tasting room, part of an onsite winery and award-winning restaurant. Having been a CEO for a global telecoms company, he’d arrived in Cornwall looking for a holiday home. But when he found the perfect place, tucked down a campion-lined Cornish lane, the site next door caught his eye. Not long after he was planting grapes. “It’s not difficult to grow wine here,” he says, “but it’s easier to run a multinational company.”
A decade after Mumcuoglu fulfilled his lifelong ambition to start a vineyard, Trevibban is winning awards, thanks to his winemaker, Manuel Kowalewski. Impressively they don’t just make award-winning sparkling wines but also reds – only one of a handful of English growers to do so. “We can actually make better wines than Kent [the UK’s principal wine hub] because the season is longer,” says Mumcuoglu.
Cornwall’s warm, wet climate with mild winters and a surprising amount of sun, means palm trees flourish, as does an abundance of colourful flora not found elsewhere in the UK. That longer growing season makes Cornwall ideal for farming – and chefs are making use of that age-old expertise. “The farming here is incredible,” says Paul Ainsworth, chef-patron of Number 6 in Padstow, on Cornwall’s north coast. “You have this beautiful sea air blowing across the fields and really lush grass – so the lamb and beef are world-class.”
Along with Nathan Outlaw, up the coast in Port Isaac (his restaurant Nathan Outlaw is currently rated the best in the UK by The Good Food Guide) and Chris Eden at the Driftwood Hotel, Ainsworth is flying the flag for Michelin-starred fine dining in Cornwall. Though he is himself a new boy – the Southampton native only arrived in Cornwall in 2006, having worked in London with both Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing – his time here has changed the way he cooks entirely.
You have this beautiful sea air blowing across the fields and really lush grass, so the lamb and beef are world-class
“I’d come from London, where we were used to having anything we wanted, whenever we wanted it,” he says. “It means, as a chef, you don’t need to think about the seasons.” But, he explains, when a global pantry of ingredients is not so readily available, it forces a chef to embrace seasonality.
The kinds of modish trends you see in big city kitchens don’t translate easily here either, he says. Instead, it’s all about simplicity. “Ingredients are so good here, that you really don’t need too much embellishment.” At Number 6 there no fancy tasting menus but rather a simple set menu based around a small number of brilliantly executed items.
Of course, such supreme simplicity is not simple to achieve, as Ainsworth reminds me. “We have one dish, with just three parts, soy glazed Cornish duck, in a clear Peking tea and a small salad. The tea alone takes three days to make. Making ingredients shine takes a lot of work.”
Long before Cornwall earned its current foodie chops, it was already well known because of one man. In 1975, Rick Stein opened his first restaurant in Padstow. Today the pretty, stone-built harbour town with its winding streets is home to four restaurants, a bistro, a cafe, a deli, a patisserie, a gift shop and a cookery school courtesy of the celebrity chef and TV presenter. Over the years, there have been some grumbles from locals about the way Stein’s ubiquitous presence has inflated house prices (the town also enjoys the nickname Padstein) but the queue snaking from his waterfront fish and chip shop is proof of his positive impact on the local economy.
“There’s no doubt that Rick Stein transformed Padstow into a food mecca,” says Ruth Huxley, who founded Cornwall Food and Drink in 2010 to help the county’s food and drink businesses support and promote each other. But he’s done more than just attract tourists. His influence, she explains, has inspired the current generation of chefs. “Over the years, Rick has trained many of the fantastic chefs who are now themselves putting Cornwall on the map. Nathan Outlaw for example. They, in turn, are training the next generation.”
Just 40 minutes up the coast from Padstow, the Port Gaverne Hotel is a charming 17th-century inn that’s also currently the best gastropub in the region. Chef James Lean, a local boy, previously worked at Nathan Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen, five minutes down the road in Port Isaac, and his seafood-heavy menu, much of it caught only hours before it is served, is a paean to locality and simplicity. At Idle Rocks hotel in St Mawes, on the south coast, there’s the same reverence for locality. “All of our fish is caught within a 25km radius” chef Guy Owen tells me, when we eat there in the beach-chic dining room overlooking the Falmouth estuary. Owen is another local hero. He got his first job at 13 in a fish and chip restaurant, before leaving for London to earn his stripes under Gordon Ramsay at the Michelin-starred restaurant in Claridge’s.
That such a talent can now return to Cornwall, instead of staying in the big city, is a telling indication of how much the food scene has developed. The Michelin-baiting menu marries critic-pleasing showmanship with locavore instincts: on the night we ate there was a terrific gilthead seabream with smoked aubergine. “Being able to tell diners the local story behind a dish is fantastic,” he explains. “And something you don’t really get in London.”
Which brings us nicely back to Coombeshead Farm. The opportunity to tell the story of Cornwall’s ingredients is what drew Tom Adams here in the first place. And he’s not the only one. “It’s just so exciting,” he says. “There are several people who are coming down from London now.” Adams mentions Tim Spedding, formerly of London’s Clove Club, who is currently head chef at Coombeshead, but in search of a site for his own venture. “Then there’s Dan Cox, who used to be head chef at Fera, he’s opening a brilliant organic veg farm and restaurant that’s also going to have a microbrewery.” Adams also tells me about the Hidden Hut, the cult-favourite south Cornwall cafe run by Simon Callard, who cut his cooking teeth in New York before opening here, and urges me to try out Nancarrow Farm, near Truro, where Darren Broom, who worked under Michael Caines and Marco Pierre White, has teamed up with local Jackson Bristow. “Two young guys cooking over wood, doing some pretty epic stuff,” is how he describes them. It’s a fitting epithet for what’s going on all over Cornwall right now.