BY CHRISTINE MUHLKE
Cornwall, you have to get lost—desperate and borderline panicky, ready to give up and go home—to let the food magic find you. You also have to cast aside your notions of what a restaurant should be. Because in this ocean-flanked southwestern tip of England, hiking trails, parking lots, and beachside snack bars often conceal places of no small magic. That is, if you can find them.
After decades of visiting London, I realized that with the exception of a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon some 25 years ago, I’d never been anywhere else in England. On recent visits I’d noticed that the menus at the capital’s best restaurants almost always listed Cornish suppliers, from the monkfish at the River Café and Clove Club to the lamb at Lyle’s and Fera at Claridge’s to the cheeses at Neal’s Yard Dairy. So I decided to go to the source, booking my ticket to Cornwall, a humble agricultural region-cum-tourist destination. The fact that the surfing and art scenes in Cornish towns like Penzance had been popping up in fancy magazines like Condé Nast Traveller (UK) and Tatler—oh, and that Spotted Pig chef April Bloomfield had recently opened a bed-and-breakfast there—made the decision that much simpler.
Not that my first stop revealed the area’s promise. On a high-season August Sunday in the town of Padstow, the streets were so packed with sunburned tourists it was hard to move. June, July, and September are really the months to go; August is insanity, as seemingly half the country’s families point their wagons south toward the otherwise quiet peninsula. With a population of just over 540,000, Cornwall receives close to 5 million visitors a year—mostly British, and half of whom seemed to be in line at Stein’s Fish & Chips. It is one of ten local restaurants opened by Rick Stein, the chef who put the region on the culinary map in the ’80s. And it was so joyless and rote, I could hardly appreciate the picture-book prettiness of the town.
Luckily, an editor friend who escapes to Cornwall on weekends had connected me with Beth Druce, a food photographer who came from London with her boyfriend when he opened George’s Surf School in Polzeath. She reassured me that Cornwall was a worthy destination: “It’s here, but you have to tap beneath the surface,” she told me. To prove it, she had me follow her to the town of Rock—the Hamptons of the area—to check out Treverra Farm Cottage, a gorgeous rental house with a private chef on request that well-heeled students book for culinary surf vacations. Druce gave me a list of places to visit during the next five days and, perhaps most important, taught me how to program my car’s GPS—or satnav, as it’s called in the UK—in these tiny towns by entering the destination’s postal code, not the full address. Without this tip, I would have been even more lost on the unmarked lanes, which were frequently so narrow they required a mastery of driving in reverse when I came face-to-face with another car.
Even with the satnav assist, I was convinced that the continent was going to end before I found my next stop, the Gurnard’s Head inn. In less than an hour, I’d traveled from the tidy, mirror-grazing hedgerows and picturesque fishing cottages of Padstow to a no-cell-reception landscape as desolate and breathtaking as the moon, if the moon had the occasional Holstein. I gave up and turned off into a “village” consisting only of a Game of Thrones–esque chapel and a pub. Nope. I stopped a few kilometers farther and stood on the rental car’s hood, hoping to see the marigold-yellow building that I’d seen online with “The Gurnard’s Head” painted on the roof. Not yet. I drove on. Good thing: Minutes later I was waiting at the hotel’s firelit bar for the bartender to hand me the key to my room. As the sun set, I strolled toward the cliffs on a dirt road, picking blackberries among wildflowers and noticing footpath signs for those who’d rather see Cornwall at a 19th-century pace.
Arriving at an inn like the Gurnard’s Head for dinner after a day’s walk would be a very civilized idea indeed. The food there was hearty, fresh, and unselfconsciously worldly, in the way that English food has absorbed parts of Indian, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. There was mushroom and tarragon soup for starters, but also the Turkish eggplant dish imam bayildi served with baba ghanoush and fresh goat’s curd. Grilled plaice (a flatfish in the flounder family), topped with butter-cupping clams and served with a ceramic bowl of minted new potatoes, was just right with a bottle of local Polgoon cider, its Champagne-like fizz finer than that of any American cider I’d tasted. A sign outside the hotel asks farmers to sell them their produce. Who knows whether this was just for show, but it helped cement the feeling that I was eating Cornwall, in Cornwall.
Breakfast was a lovely affair in the inn’s bar—homemade yogurt, grainy bread, salmon smoked a few towns over in Newlyn. As I got back into my car, I noticed an honor stand selling rhubarb set back from the sparsely traveled road. How many of the few passersby ever saw it? This was an endearing mystery. Only 12 hours before, I’d been worried that Cornwall hadn’t been worth the journey—a flight from New York, an overnight in London, and an hour-long flight from the dreadful Gatwick into the metal shed of Newquay airport before strapping into a right-side-drive Volvo with all of the insurance boxes checked. Now, as I made the short drive from the Celtic Sea to the English Channel side, following hedgerow-hemmed roads so pretty—so English—my chest tightened with elation, a feeling catalyzed by the sight of a teacup-shaped sign marking a farmhouse tearoom. Before I knew it, I was stopping to photograph the phone numbers of cottage rentals miles past where I’d been convinced the world was sure to end.
And then, it seemed, I went off the restaurant grid. Restaurants, in the traditional sense, gave way to snack bars and picnic blankets. I ate a salad topped with pristine handpicked white crab and dipped into a little tub of clotted-cream ice cream at the Rock Pool café, an infinitely Instagrammable waterside spot accessed through a parking lot in a beachy little harbor called Mousehole (pronounced mow-zul), pop. 697. In the just-this-side-of-twee space, women spoke French in the kitchen, bunting fluttered in the breeze, and a flyer outside announced an upcoming taco night. Next, just to taste, I bought a delicious house-made crab sandwich on brown bread, packaged Automat-style, at Stevenson, a real-deal fishmonger in Newlyn, where I also stopped at the arrestingly cute seafood bar Mackerel Sky. There I dove into grilled mackerel—the fish of choice in Cornwall—minimally plated with orange, chives, and a few dots of ponzu, followed by a half lobster confidently served with a slice of lemon, one pea shoot, and a bib. Each table held yet another manifestation of the briny air, a tub of salt harvested from the nearby sea.
I wanted to get into that water. So, on a windy afternoon, I joined private chef Ben Quinn, his daughter, Evie, and Mark Parr, whose company sells firewood to London’s top restaurants, on a tugboat in the riverside marina at Helford Passage. (Parr, curious about Cornwall after hearing so many chefs talk about its food, had Airbnb’d a house.) Quinn hosts catch-and-cook afternoons during which he casts for mackerel and transforms it into ceviche or sashimi on the spot and drops pots for crab while tooling along the river. The water was too choppy to catch any fish, so we drove to Quinn’s favorite surfing spot at Chapel Porth Beach, where he set up a makeshift rock grill on which to cook the crab we’d caught. We ate standing as the setting sun backlit the wet-suited swimmers. I’ve been to many farm-to-table dinners—even dinners on farms—but I’ve never felt as close to a meal’s ingredients as I did perched on that windy ledge.
(My only regret: Quinn had told me that the beach’s snack bar served something called a Hedgehog cone—vanilla ice cream smothered in clotted cream and rolled in honeyed hazelnuts!—but it had closed just before we arrived. No tears could convince the teen staffers to take off their backpacks and make me one.)
The desire to eat solely off-piste took hold. One afternoon I ditched my car on Lizard Point and hiked a footpath to the Polpeor Cafe, which had a pulse-quickening cliffside view from the UK’s most southerly tip, for a seafood platter—again with the mackerel and crab. An hour later I sat on a harbor wall, using a wooden chip fork to secure the best fish and chips of my life from the take-out counter at the Lifeboat House. The shattering crust (the batter, the cook proudly told me, is simply flour, water, and local ale) and fat-cut fries were worth the 15-minute wait for the made-to-order, 7-pound-50-pence gem.
By dinnertime I was blissfully lost again in Porthcurnick, seeking a beachside shack fittingly named the Hidden Hut, which was hosting one of its sold-out feasts. I parked the car behind a few others, plate and cutlery in hand, per instructions from the young London couple who took over the National Trust shack in 2011, and headed toward what I hoped was the beach. There I found an enchanted sunset scene, as locals gathered on benches and blankets on the hill behind the clapboard building as cooks tended satellite-dish-size paella pans over open fires, churning out five separate rice dishes, plus mackerel pâté.
Most exciting was the part when we got to take whatever baked goods we wanted from the Hidden Hut window. English treats like rocky road bars, shortbread, and raspberry bakewells were arrayed like a fantasy sequence from The Great British Bake Off. I wrapped a bakewell in a napkin for breakfast. Eventually, families gathered their coolers and hot water bottles (balmy Cornwall might be one of the mildest places in England, but it does get nippy at night) and strolled home along a coastal path over a gentle green hill.
That exciting combination of random discovery and homey pastries collided again the next morning, as I eventually, semi-hysterically found Woods Cafe. The satnav had deposited me in someone’s driveway, which, by that point, didn’t seem like an improbable place for a restaurant. The stone cottage anchors a hiking trail off a remote parking lot in the Cardinham Woods, a beacon of tea and scones for the walkers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers who gathered on benches outside to bolster their strength with white chocolate–cranberry flapjacks (think brownie meets granola bar) and a pot of locally harvested Tregothnan tea. I opted for a raisin scone and spent the next five minutes attempting to video the clotted cream: It was so thick that it created a mesmerizing cheese-pull effect when I tried to get it out of the ramekin. The deliciousness of this Cornish ingredient and the loveliness of the only-in-Cornwall experience had me borderline weepy over my tea tray.
Two hours later, I found myself among black-faced sheep as I strolled the moors—like, straight-out-of-Brontë moors—at Coombeshead Farm. A few weeks before, the idyllic former dairy farm had been turned into what must be one of the country’s most food-driven guesthouses by Tom Adams, chef of London’s Pitt Cue, and his friend April Bloomfield. The NYC chef was seeking a rural outlet but couldn’t find the right farm in America. At Coombeshead, Adams told me while twisting sausages into links, the idea is for weekend guests (it’s open Thursday to Sunday) to just putter around the 66 acres between meals.
And what meals. Adams makes nearly everything consumed there, from the chamomile kombucha to the bread and cultured butter, made from five Jersey cows a mile away, to the cured Mangalitsa pork and the pickled nasturtium capers that are used in place of black pepper at the family-style meals (Bloomfield visits a handful of times each year to cook and relax). “We just get kicks out of doing everything from scratch,” he said. “Meals are a farmhouse affair.” The shockingly affordable wine list of bin-ends from cult winemakers is worth the airfare and learning to drive on the left.
Coombeshead’s five cozy bedrooms and 20 seats at dinner were booked for months, so I could only imagine what a delight it would be to just stumble upstairs after a meal of gougères with cauliflower; cod’s roe and liver parfait with duck ham; pork loin with grilled romaine and gooseberries—this being just a portion of a menu that I spied on a counter near the old Aga stove.
Adams first took the ocean-hugging overnight train to Cornwall to visit his favorite pig farmers and cheesemakers. Now his farm is just a few miles from them. Other top London chefs are moving closer to the source too: Dan Cox, former executive chef of Michelin-starred Fera at Claridge’s, told me he’s turning 120 acres in St. Mellion into an organic restaurant/brewery/pottery studio. Tim Spedding, the chef at beloved wine bar P. Franco, recently bought a farm and plans to open a self-sufficient B&B. (“I’ve developed a network of suppliers in Cornwall who, in my opinion, supply the best seafood in the UK,” he told me via email. “Imagine how high the quality will be when there is no courier involved.”) In short, it’s the 21st-century urban chef’s dream. And for the food traveler willing to go the extra 265 miles, London might soon become the footnote to eating vacations.
After five days in Cornwall, the appeal of ditching the city for a life here—or at least a couple of weeks—made sense. Like the food itself, it’s slow, beautiful, affordable, and not trying to be the next anything. Here, it’s about being at the source, no matter how lost you get trying to find it.