Cornwall: ripe for discovery
The crowds have gone and the harvest is in – so it's the ideal time for a gourmet getaway, says Sarah Baxter
Wednesday 26 October 2011
Even the car was bloated. After two days of Cornish gluttony, not only was I fit to burst, my poor Ford Focus was finding the size-zero country lanes an ever tighter squeeze. Its back seat had become a harvest festival: bottles of cider chinked against spicy chutneys; strawberries and hairy ears of corn nestled next to a squishy mountain of rolls and bloomers. The smell was divine.
We'd popped to Cornwall for a quick autumnal binge and had brought the binge home. But the county won't miss a thing: as I discovered, in the season of mellow fruitfulness, the south-west has plenty to go round.
As nothing embodies autumn like an apple, Healey's Cornish Cyder Farm had seemed a fine starting point. Here, avenues of trees were straining with ripe coppins and fat dunkertons and harvesting was in full flow. Well, as much as it ever is at this small family plantation: there are no mechanical tree-shakers or apple-pickers; just speedy Helen filling wooden crates by hand.
"It's nice to be involved with every bottle," said head brewer, Ryan Sealey, as he led us around the orchard, through the press-house and into the barrel-filled cellar. Though there are standard cider recipes, every year Ryan must tweak the proportions, depending on the new crop's sweetness and tannins. And then there are the odd requests...
"We're always experimenting," Ryan grinned. "Last year the boss returned from Texas, where he'd been watching motor-racing and drinking American 'hard cider'. He wanted to bottle that moment. So he gave me the brief of making a cider that didn't taste like cider... out of cider – with a hint of cars."
The beauty of Healey's boutique proportions is that its staff can get creative, trying small runs of unusual flavours and spin-offs.
Its bespoke copper still, built into an old barn, is generally used to make apple brandy but, this September, Healey's released the first whiskey to be made in Cornwall for 300 years. All 319 bottles sold out in weeks. While we couldn't taste that, we did get to sample some of the farm's other concoctions. The sophisticated Classic Reserve Cyder, matured in barrels for three months, had hints of oak and vanilla, while the Winter Warmer, infused with nutmeg, cinnamon and spices, tasted like Christmas.
Cider alone does not make a satisfactory (nor sensible) lunch, however. So, avoiding the unseasonal temptations of Cornish ice cream from the adjacent Callestick Farm, we drove on to the healthier offerings of Trevaskis "pick-your-own" Farm. Healthier, that is, aside from their café's cake counter, which teetered with vast gateaux, sliced by staff with an utter disregard for profit margins or waistlines.
A walk around Trevaskis's kitchen garden, vegetable patches and tummelberry tunnels did little to work off my raspberry cheesecake, but it was nice to see the seasonal pumpkins huddled in the grass and to pick a few late strawberries, conveniently grown in raised troughs to save an aching back. However, it was the farm shop that most tantalised. Much of its stock boasted food yards rather than miles and didn't give a jot for EU shape regulations.
The warty gourds and uneven courgettes looked pleasingly natural and were reasonably priced, their labels comparing the cost at Trevaskis with that at Tesco.
The fish counter displayed a 90 per cent Cornish catch, bought at market in Newlyn. Martin Clements – Trevaskis's passionate fishmonger – once worked there, so knows what he's looking for. I asked him for some of his tips. "Look for fish that have nice bright eyes and mucusy skin," he enthused, lovingly stroking a silvery bass. "And try different types – I'm always recommending lesser-known ones. Take megrim – a lovely fish but a hard sell. If we called it Cornish sole, I could sell it all day."
There were no oysters on Martin's counter, but my trip coincided with the start of Cornwall's oyster season, which got underway this month. I'm no fan, but appeared to be the only sceptic in Falmouth, where the annual Oyster Festival was in full shanty-singing, mollusc-slurping flow.
Reluctantly, I handed over my £1 in exchange for a knurled shell, its insides a-quiver with sea-goo. A squeeze of lemon and down it went, mixing unpleasantly with my stomach's previous intake of cider and cheesecake.
The next day's culinary challenge was a more appealing prospect. We were heading towards the beautiful Bedruthan Steps hotel for a day's bread-making with BakerTom.
While most of us spent college days eating Pot Noodles, Tom Hazzledine baked his own bread. One day he thought he'd try selling a few loaves; the next, he sold a few more. Five years on, he has a thriving bread business, BakerTom, employing 18 staff and making 1,000 loaves a day. "The key thing with bread-making is the water temperature," Tom explained as, aproned-up in the Bedruthan Steps hotel's kitchen, I delved my inexpert fingers into a bowl of flour, salt, live yeast and warm water. "Too hot, it kills the yeast; too cold, it sends it to sleep."
As I stirred, I feared simply getting the heating right would not an artisan loaf make. Tom was encouraging, but I was awkward. When he mixed and kneaded, the ingredients behaved so well – like using a magnet to move iron filings: almost magic.
When I tried, more gunk stuck to my hands than formed dough; I was moulding not baps, but cowpats.
But it was incredibly satisfying, despite the mess. And to decrease my chances of failure, Tom was not only offering advice at every turn – techniques for stretching glutens, providing structure, forming crusts – he taught me how to make an Atkins-torment of bread products.
Under his excellent guidance I folded bloomers and rolled baguettes, made loaves that looked like hedgehogs and swirled oil into focaccia (with sloppy but spectacular results).
I even concocted a sun-dried tomato and olive cob loaf, my over-zealousness with the extras resulting in bread with boils, the olives oozing through the dough in an apparent bid for freedom.
I left laden with three full boxes (happily, you keep what you bake), plus some "homework": a jar of Tom's own sourdough that I've been tasked to "feed" and turn into an edible substance.
It's currently lurking behind my toaster (don't tell Tom), but I will rise to the challenge. I will use the skills Tom taught me. It was, truly, an inspirational day. I just might have a glass of cider first.
St Michael's Hotel & Spa, Gyllyngvase Beach, Falmouth (01326 312707; stmichaelshotel.co.uk). Doubles start at £78, including breakfast. For half-board, including dinner in the Flying Fish Restaurant, rates start at £134. The hotel also runs foodie breaks.
Healey's Cornish Cyder Farm, Penhallow (01872 573356; thecornishcyderfarm.co.uk). Admission is free, but full guided tours cost £6.50.
Trevaskis Farm, Gwinear (01209 713931; trevaskisfarm.co.uk). Admission free; the farm shop is open 9am-5pm (6pm in summer).
The Bedruthan Steps Hotel, Mawgan Porth (01637 860555; bedruthan.com) hosts bread-making courses with BakerTom: day courses cost £75 per person including lunch; weekend courses cost from £264 per person including two nights' accommodation, lunch and dinner. For more information, see bakertom.co.uk.
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