The idle life

10 Nov 2017
7 min read
When grey city life is getting the better of you this winter, think of this: being woken by gentle, lapping waves; fresh seaside air; seafood galore; and relaxation in welcoming, effortless luxury. You can have all this and more in Cornwall, the westernmost part of England. Its Mediterranean feel in summer is well-loved but what the Cornish winter has to offer might surprise you.

I arrive in Truro and lo and behold, it’s time for tea. Not any old tea: English tea. Tea grown in Cornwall! It turns out that one English family in the Cornish countryside was particularly keen on the fragrant leaf infusions and thought they might as well grow it themselves. Having had a passion for collecting plants from all over the world, the family carefully started to grow the delicate plants. People were sceptical at first. Surely it must be impossible, otherwise, why hasn’t anyone done it before? Cornwall has a very special climate condition which does indeed make it possible. The first few years were tricky. Plants died for no discerniblereason but those that survived turned out to be quite happy with the warm and wet conditions. The plant in question is the Camellia, which can grow to 100 years old if cared for. Tregothnan, which is the name of the estate, started planting the first leaves in 1999 and has been producing tea for retail since 2005. The yield is still low and all tea is blended with leaves from China, but Tregothnan is expanding, so who knows? Maybe England will be drinking all-English tea before too long.

I am staying at The Idle Rocks, an idyllic boutique hotel on the Harbourside of St Mawes. Perched perfectly on the rocks, it feels like a home from home with unique and charming interior design and a personal touch throughout the entire hotel. Owned by David and Karen Richards, each of the 19 rooms are furnished in their own unique style and it feels like every object was placed there by designer Karen with a lot of thought for the well-being of each guest.

I spend the evening at the St Mawes Hotel for dinner. Also owned by the Richards’, the St Mawes is a lot smaller, equally tastefully decorated, and also boasts breathtaking sea views. This is where the locals, the fishermen and sailors gather for a spot of food and drink. But today I’m here for the hotel’s special Cinema Events, food and a movie at the private, brand new luxury cinema which seats 25 people. Following an out-of-this-world seafood platter containing everything from oysters, crabs, langoustine, scallops, mussels, cockles and prawns, not to forget the exceptional sauces, I fall into the comfortable cinema seats with a deliciously crisp glass of Knightor sparkling wine, some fresh popcorn and settle myself in for a movie night in style.

In the morning, the sun is shining across the harbour and the rowers, sailors and surfers brave the fresh breeze. As I take breakfast, the light keeps streaming through the windows and into the restaurant of The Idle Rocks and I start to plan my day ahead. First up, I meet James Brown, fisherman for 30-odd years, also known as “Oyster Man”. What he does is unique in England: he doesn’t farm oysters, instead he continues the traditional way of going out to the fishery on an old sail boat that was built in 1886 to dredge for the Wild Native Oyster, an oyster that has grown naturally on the seabed of the River Fal in Cornwall for centuries.

The work of James Brown and his Wild Oyster Company is unique, in fact it is the only fishery in the world that is done for six months on the same row boat.

While most oysters these days are Pacific oysters that have been farmed, these are wild oysters. They attach themselves to other oysters, shells, stones or other shellfish and therefore don’t have a perfect shape like farmed oysters that are kept in a cage and turned regularly, but a shape that they have grown into naturally. Within in the steep banks of the Fal estuary, the salty tidal waters of the Atlantic Ocean merge with the mineral-rich Cornish rivers, giving the oysters their distinctive sweet, but slightly metallic taste. The fishery is protected by strict laws, which only allow the gathering of oysters within certain hours, between October and March. James’ sail fishing boat has got an engine but he can only use it to get to work and back again. He explains: “Once we actually start fishing, we have to switch the engine off. It’s the laws of the fishery and it’s been kept the same. That’s the reason why wild oysters are growing. If the boats were motorised, oystermen would use bigger and bigger dredges. Many fisheries around the country are absolutely finished. They had to shut them down because they overfished them. In those places they have introduced the Pacific Oysters, the farmed ones. These are the Native Wild Oysters and they are really rare now. There might be a place in Scotland where you can get wild native oysters, but everywhere else they are farmed now.”

Everything is done by hand. Relying on a fair wind and tide, the dredges are dropped over the side, harnessing the power of nature to harvest the shellfish, and muscle power to pull the dredges back up. James explains: “The process is inefficient as the dredges are metal with a metal blade scraping along the bottom. You have to pull them and so you cannot scrape too much. It’s hard work and I don’t know if it’s going to survive for much longer. It’s harsh and cold, but I quite enjoy it,” James says.

Back on shore, James carefully grades the oysters by hand, purifies them in special tanks with UV light, before packing them for delivery. He supplies The Idle Rocks among a handful of restaurants in the area.

Back in the hotel I try the Wild Native Oyster alongside the farmed Pacific Oyster. The former is unbelievably fresh and clean in its flavour – it tastes of the sea itself. The latter has the oyster flavour but with a much more creamier finish to it. It’s also generally bigger. Overall, it’s a privilege to try wild oysters, it certainly has an air of romance to it, especially when eaten within view of the sea and thinking about James Brown bringing his catch in each day.

I spend the rest of the day around St Mawes, visiting the castle – a coastal artillery fortress dating back to the 1540s – and the 13th-century church of St Just in Roseland which is an hour’s walk away from St Mawes and which is set in a unique and absolutely stunning waterside semi-tropical garden.

In the evening, The Idle Rocks welcomes three other chefs from South-West England for the culinary event of the season. The highly acclaimed chefs Simon Hulstone of The Elephant in Torquay, Josh Eggleton of The Pony and Trap in Bristol and Jude Kereama of Kota Restaurant in Porthleven join The Idle Rocks head chef Guy Owen for an evening of signature dishes paired with excellent wines:

Brixham crab salad, pea mousse, mango and dashi sorbet, Tellicherry pepper crackers

“The starter I have prepared is a refreshing crab dish. We use white crab and brown crab. The white crab has been bound a little bit with mayonnaise and some chives and seasoning, while the brown crab was seasoned with a little bit of paprika. Alongside we have some pea mousse and we finished it with a mango and dashi sorbet. This dish contains lots of umami flavours, bitterness and sourness and for a bit of crunch we have some Tellicherry, which is a fantastic black pepper, lobster and sea weed cracker.” – Simon Hulstone, The Elephant, Torquay

Spiced monkfish, cauliflower, mussel barigoule

“The spicing for the monkfish is basically a vindaloo spice but we’ve taken all of the chilli out to get a better balance. We cooked the monkfish quite far in advance and rested it really well. It’s well-sautéed to give it an even cook. To go with it we have cauliflower puree on the bottom, which is made of caramelised cauliflower. And what we call a barigoule, which is onions and cauliflower with poached mussels and coriander shoots.” – Josh Haggleton, The Pony and Trap, Bristol

Braised beef short rib, radish, broccoli, honey and soy

“For this dish we went with short rib of beef which has been braised for 15 hours and we’re serving that with radish, some grilled broccoli and a small steamed bun.” – Guy Owen, The Idle Rocks, St Mawes (for one of Owen’s recipes, go …)

Chocolate, miso, ginger and hazelnut

“For this dish we combined chocolate, miso, ginger and hazelnut. We have a triple chocolate tart, which is really soft and gooey. The sawdust alongside is hazelnut chocolate crunch and we serve it with a salted caramel ice cream and some miso-ginger caramel sauce.” – Jude Kereama, Kota Restaurant, Porthleven

On my last day in Cornwall I visit The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Europe’s largest garden restoration project. Lost to the brambles of time since the outbreak of WW1, this sleeping beauty was re-awakened in 1992. Today it is a working example of a kitchen garden of a manor house as it would have been in its heyday. The eight gardeners grow at least 300 different varieties of fruit and vegetables, all varieties that have existed pre-1910. Add to that the cutting flowers, The Jungle, the wildlife and the farm animals and you really can image how these 200 acres of garden could have fed a wealthy family and their guests all year round. Nicola Bradley, Productive Gardens Supervisor, tells me: “Everything we do, we do by hand: it’s hand-weeded and hand-sown and everything is grown from seed. We’re doing it to show people how they grew things back then. At a certain time in history, these kitchen gardens became quite fashionable. They had decorative walkways but were also practical and productive because you could use everything. It was all about providing the plants with an environment they needed to grow. Pineapples are not native and pre-electricity they needed additional heat, so they used vast quantities of fresh horse manure with the heat coming through vents in the walls of the greenhouse.” When I visit, the pineapples are just babies and some of the vegetable patches have been fertilized with fresh seaweed, a natural source of goodness for the soil here in Cornwall. I marvel at the ingenuity of the gardeners then and now and try their produce in the Heligan Kitchen, feasting on seasonal offerings from the garden and estate, including vegetables, herbs and estate-reared meat, giving a whole new meaning to ‘regionally grown’ food.

I also learn that The Idle Rocks has partnered with The Lost Gardens of Heligan, a collaboration that see chef Guy utilizing the unique homegrown produce abundant on the Heligan estate. Many of the heritage fruit and vegetables as well as the rare breed livestock will soon feature throughout the seasonal menu at The Idle Rocks with a trophy ingredient showcased each month. Guy Owen says: “It was Cornish produce that fuelledmy passion for food and this partnership with The Lost Gardens of Heligan reflects both mine and the hotel’s ethos of using only the best ingredients. As a chef, the opportunity to work with the produce from the estate is truly a dream come true. Their attention to detail, the hard work and stunning array of heritage fruit and vegetables is second to none.”