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Global Foodservice: The Cornish revolution

England’s Celtic corner offers seafood restaurants that are slowly becoming famous

There is an impressive number of quality seafood restaurants in Cornwall. - Photo courtesy of Tabb’s
By Anthony Fletcher
March 01, 2013

The county of Cornwall, situated on the tip of England’s southwest peninsula, is a beautiful rugged stretch of land that retains a distinctive Celtic identity. In recent years, there has been a concerted attempt to revive the Cornish language, which is closely related to Welsh. This sense of difference is heightened by the region’s relative isolation from the United Kingdom’s main centers of population.

Spectacular scenery, miles of empty coastline and an interesting culture have been drawing tourists to Cornwall for years. More recently, the county has developed a deserved reputation of culinary excellence, a laid-back foodie destination where fantastic dishes can be enjoyed in an unpretentious and friendly setting. 

“Cornwall is a great place to live and work if you are a chef,” says Nigel Tabb, chef patron of Tabb’s in the Cornish town of Truro. “There is now a real chef community here. There is no animosity or anything like that; it’s the sort of place where the Michelin-star guys rub shoulders with chefs at the waterside cafés. We have a laugh, we organize food festivals … ultimately, we all want people to enjoy themselves.” 

There is an impressive number of quality seafood restaurants in the region, some of which have been awarded Michelin stars, such as Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in the town of Rock and Driftwood. Chef Rick Stein, who has appeared on numerous British food programs, has opened four seafood restaurants in the region, and has done as much as anyone to raise the profile of Cornish cuisine. 

The county’s burgeoning restaurant scene has created a mini industry of foodie tours, organized trips that combine coastal walking or cycling with high-end dining. Many of these tours trace the South West Coast Path National Trail, which offers 630 miles of idyllic coastline. In a region where tourism represents about a quarter of the local economy — Cornwall is one of the U.K.’s poorest regions — the culinary revolution has been most welcome.

“Cornwall has changed hugely,” agrees Tabb. “It is now a recognized food destination. After college I went to London, where it was all happening then, but now you have world-class chefs here.” Tabb is Cornish born and bred, and was delighted to have been able to return to his roots. After working in a number of hotels and restaurants, he took the plunge, resigned from his job and set up his own restaurant in the fishing village of Portreath at the age of 26.  

“This is all I ever wanted to do,” he says. “My parents bought a pub and restaurant when I was 6 months old, so it’s all I’ve ever known.” After 14 years in Portreath, Tabb moved to Truro, the only city in Cornwall (population 20,000). His attitude to cooking is simple: If he likes something, he’ll cook it, and if he doesn’t, he won’t. The fish he sources are from the waters around Cornwall, and in keeping with the county’s laid-back attitude, his emphasis is on letting customers have fun.

“It’s not a temple,” he says. “People are coming for a good time. So I’ll play a little blues music, keep things simple.” A typical three-course dinner for two with wine costs around £80 ($127). Appetizers like pan-fried scallops and smoked haddock soup precede entrées like grilled fillet of hake with pumpkin seeds and couscous for £16.75 ($26.70) and seared medallions of monkfish, artichoke purée and duck reduction for £18.50 ($29.50).

“Off the boat at the moment, we’re getting wild bass, hake, gurnard and herring. We’re also getting good mackerel at the moment,” says Tabb. “I’ve found that people are now much more comfortable with fish that would once have been considered unusual, like gurnard. This fish was used as bait when I started, but it now attracts decent money.”

Tabb notes, however, that fish prices are going up. “It certainly doesn’t ‘feel’ cheap anymore,” he says. “Fish has become more of a luxury item.” 

While higher costs will inevitably have an impact on people’s willingness to travel and eat out, the Cornish seafood scene remains robust. Quality restaurants add enormously to the region’s image as an idyllic rural vacation spot (Prime Minster David Cameron makes an annual trip here). The Cornish food revolution continues.

Contributing Editor Anthony Fletcher lives in Brussels

March 2013 - SeaFood Business

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