Hunter Gatherers

Local journalist Rick Barbery finds out if he can capture the simple gastronomic thrills of his childhood in Cornwall and if his grandfather would approve of the food scene in the county today.

At five o’clock on a summer’s morning, there was a dewy stillness in the air and I can remember my grandfather taking me up to the fields along the coast from Fowey. I must have been about seven at the time and there, we would pick wild mushroom the size of my hand and then walk down to the beach and collect winkles from the rock pools. Returning to the town where my grandparents lived, my grandmother would fry the mushrooms for breakfast and then boil the winkles, which we would later painstakingly remove from their shells with a pin. To this day, I still remember the thrill we got in finding our own food and bringing it back for my grandmother to cook and the anticipation of the tasting those mushrooms fried in butter and the winkles drenched in vinegar. However, in these days of homogenized food and eating for fuel rather than pleasure, is it possible to find that ‘hunter gatherer’ spirit again?

Katy Davidson thinks so. She is the founding leader of the Youth Food Movement UK, part of an international organization that aims to put the value - social and anthropological-firmly back into food. The ethos of Slow Food is gastronomy in relation to politics, agriculture and the environment and the organization works to protect, promote and preserve authentic food and biodiversity. Not wishing to get too esoteric, Katy points out that simply knowing where your food comes from, how it’s produced, who produces it, how it’s prepared and cooked and ultimately sharing the experience is the true gastronomic experience. “Cornwall is a fantastic place for following this ideal”, she says, “It’s an perfect environment in which to expose people to Slow Food. There are so many examples of people who are producing excellent, locally sourced food which we can discover and savour and here and we are spoilt for choice when it comes to farm shops and markets, which are making an enormous contribution to the local economy”. Katy is right, all over the county you can come across fresh produce sold from source. Whether it’s the new crop of strawberries sold from a trailer at the farm gate or a busy farm shop selling vegetables and meat supplied by farmers from the surrounding villages, more and more people who live in the county are rediscovering their agricultural roots and there is a real thrill in finding out what’s new on the shelf, what’s in season and what new products are coming through from the county’s innovative food producers.

Cornwall has long been seen as the home of  pasties, cream teas and saffron cake and while these icons of traditional culture are still cherished by those who live here and visitors to the county, the food and drink industry in Cornwall has exploded in the last few years with imaginative and award-winning producers springing up all over the place, and some of those places can be surprising indeed.

In a soft, green valley in mid-Cornwall, a smell of pungent spices hangs in the air, slightly out of sorts with what you would normally expect in the rolling Cornish countryside.  It’s early in the morning and already Louis and Nikki Lewis are busy preparing big saucepans in their gleaming stainless steel kitchen at their rambling farmhouse near Bodmin. The pungent smell is chili, cumin and curry for this is the Little Cornish Curry Company’s headquarters where they turn out hundreds of prepared meals a week supplying over fifty stores, pubs and restaurants. Using ingredients sourced locally, Louis and Nikki are always adding to their range, incorporating seafood caught off the north coast in their latest creations such as Spicy Fresh Crab Cakes and Monkfish Curry with Chickpeas and Baby Spinach. “ It’s important for us to only use suppliers we know and trust and above all are friends with,” insists Louis “That’s a very good ethos to have in Cornwall. If we can help and support each other then it’s good for all of us in the future and it guarantees a sustainable industry in the county”.

Not only are the Lewis’s making surprising inroads on the gastronomic map of Cornwall but other producers are winning awards nationally and internationally with products ranging from air-dried salami and cheese wrapped in stinging nettles to Cornish champagne and heritage beer. Katy has the final word and says, “The more you learn about your food the more it has a provenance and puts the imagination back into eating. Food is part of us all; it’s how we survive and how we first began to socialize…it’s time to start showing it the respect it deserves” Now that’s something my grandfather would be very glad to hear.