The GBK Cookbook
The British Food Trust
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by Helen Gaffney
The county of Cornwall is the origin of many speciality foods and dishes. Cornwall is situated at the far south-western end of England, the last stopping off place before Ireland and the New World.
Because the county is far from England’s capital and is almost an island, being divided from the neighbouring county of Devon by the River Tamar which springs up about 4 miles from the northern coast and then runs south, many unique food experiences are to be found there. The modern county town is the city of Truro, but in former times, Bodmin was the administrative centre.
Much of this lush, moist land enjoys the mildest climate in England. Every year early daffodils from Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly herald the coming spring while the rest of the country remains locked in winter. The many visitors in the summer can be forgiven for thinking that the county, jutting into the Gulf-warm waters of the Atlantic, is little short of paradise.
Meat and Meat Dishes
The countryside is less hospitable than the neighbouring counties of Devon and Somerset, so there is less of a tradition of livestock rearing. In the past the Cornish people relied mainly on the hardy goat for meat. Nowadays the county produces early lambs which are said to have a superb flavour.
There is a wide variety of wild game to be found on the moors of Cornwall, including rabbit and duck. Poultry is also kept, Cornish Caudle Chicken Pie is a good example of its use.
Probably one of the most famous dishes is the Cornish Pasty, a portable tin miners’ and farmers’ lunch which now appears in many formats all over the world. Tin mining was a major industry in the western part of the county in the nineteenth century, especially around Redruth and Camborne. Until very recently there was still a working mine, the last one closed in 1997. The recipe varies, but one of the most important things is that it should have chunks of meat, not minced meat. Potatoes and onions are also standard. Some people add a little diced swede as well. The pastry is traditionally shortcrust, but modern manufactured pasties frequently have puff pastry as well. Sometimes pasties don’t live up to these high ideals - there is even a legend that the Devil refused to cross the Tamar into Cornwall because he had heard that the Cornish would put anything into their pasties!
Fish and shellfish in abundance
Cornwall’s long coastline faces two seas and consequently the fleets bring home a wide variety of fine-quality fish. Pilchards were formally the biggest catch, but mysteriously disappeared earlier this century and have now been replaced by huge hauls of mackerel. Pilchards still are caught occasionally but in unpredictable quantities. They were traditionally used to make the delightfully named Stargazey pie, in which the heads of the fish are left poking out through the pastry crust to gaze at the stars.
Newlyn and Falmouth are the big ports in Cornwall, where monkfish, sole, hake, skate and many other varieties are landed. A great deal of this fish is exported or sent up to London. But some is sold fresh locally, and more finds its way into West Country smokeries, which produce smoked mackerel, kippers and bloaters. Most mackerel is hot-smoked so it can be eaten cold as it is. It can also be made into a soufflé. Cold smoked mackerel can also be found which has to be cooked or cut into wafer thin slices. A delicious recipe for fresh mackerel is Baked Mackerel with Gooseberry Sauce. Grey mullet is another fish delicacy found off the Cornish coast and is particularly good cooked in lemon and red wine.
Dairying in Cornwall
Although dairy cattle are not kept in such large numbers as other West Country counties, one of Cornwall’s most famous dairy products is clotted cream. No visit to Cornwall would be complete without a traditional cream tea - a plate heaped high with fresh scones or Cornish splits, lavishly spread with strawberry jam and, of course, clotted cream. This type of cream both keeps and travels well, it is often bought or posted home as a souvenir by the tourists who throng to this part of the country every summer. A handful of farms still make it by the traditional method, but most producers use automatic separators and more up-to-date equipment.
The basic idea is simple: double cream is heated, held at a high temperature for up to 40 minutes, and then cooled. The clotted cream that forms has a yellowish colour, wrinkled appearance, distinctive flavour and a very thick texture. Cream, clotted or otherwise features in many recipes from the region such as Pork Fillet in Mustard Cream Sauce. Luscious ice creams are another dairy product that is widely made.
As far as cheese is concerned, Cornwall does not produce as much as her neighbours. The best known cheese from the county is Cornish Yarg. It is a cow’s milk cheese which is full-flavoured and creamy. It’s most distinctive feature is its coating of nettle leaves. Some tasty goat and sheep cheeses are also manufactured now.
More-ish bakes and cakes
Lots of lovely cakes come from the region, including fruit cakes and honey cakes. The flowers of the countryside provide the perfect feeding ground for bees. One of the monks at Buckfast Abbey maintains over 300 colonies in Devon and Cornwall, and sells the honey in the Abbey shop. The colour and texture of the honey differ according to where bees have gathered the nectar.
Ginger and spice feature strongly among the flavourings used in baked goods. They used to arrive at the ports from various foreign places, and were pounced on by local cooks to add interest to their recipes. Saffron was a popular if expensive flavouring and colouring ingredient, most famously found in Cornish Saffron buns, an Easter delicacy. Cornish fairings are also baked, they are a type of biscuit. Another well known cake from the area is the Cornish split, a light bun split almost in half and filled with jam and cream.
A delightful dessert is the Helston Pudding, made especially for the Floral Dance or Furry Dance day held in Helston in May. It is a fruity steamed pudding which is quite light and delicious.
Early fruits and vegetables
The warm climate of Cornwall is due to the influence of the Gulf stream. This means that crops are ripe well before those grown further north. Farmers can begin planting potatoes in February, a month earlier than most other places. The very first crop is ready by May and these young early potatoes and other vegetables, such as peas and broad beans, have a tenderness and delicacy of flavour that is unbeatable. New Potato Salad is an excellent use for these early potatoes.
Early strawberries from the Tamar valley are another great delicacy and Cornwall also grows gooseberries, no doubt in order to cook one of the county’s best traditional dishes, Baked Mackerel with Gooseberry Sauce.
Wine-making in Cornwall
Wine-making is a growing venture in the West Country, even though the climate is not quite as suitable as it is in drier parts of the country. There are commercial vineyards in Cornwall, generally producing white wines.