Gurnard’s Head Forage & Feast [Zennor, Cornwall]
Type of cuisine
Locally sourced to the nearest degree possible, the Gurnard’s Head have always been on my radar as serving foraged ingredients, as well as local produce. They were serving samphire years before it got trendy.
In a word
Situated on the breathtaking (literally) coast path between St. Ives and Penzance, the Gurnard’s Head is as busy with locals as it is tourists. Appealing to families, couples and business people, it is a great location for anyone interested in where their food comes from. Since this was a foraging walk as well as eating at the Gurnard’s Head, I should let interested people know that the walk is a little hardgoing at times. It’s a walk anyone can do, but wear good footwear, and take water. Caroline was on a fairly tight schedule, and the less fit among us (myself included) possibly needed an additional stop or two for breath!
I first heard about the Gurnard’s Head when I moved down to Falmouth from my home town of Boscastle. Even back in the early noughties it had a reputation for serving locally foraged ingredients and local fish. Acquired by the Inkins, it also has rooms which either face the Atlantic or the dramatic moors and tors of Zennor.
Sparse and bleak in places, the moorland surrounding Zennor has always drawn creative people, and this resonated within me as we drove through. Burnt bracken and small stone houses are scattered around; stepping back in time. There are still lots of Methodists living in the hills, and there was another-worldly charm. I love that somewhere just 45 minutes drive from home can seem so far away.
Conversely the Gurnard’s Head couldn’t be more contemporary, in its support of local craft ales, foraged food, and modern cooking techniques. That said, the food harks back to our ancestors’ traditional recipes: prioritising provenance in a way that is not possible for other restaurants. And they have always done. It’s just that everyone else is catching up to this style of eating.
When I went to eat there, I first went on a foraging walk with Caroline Davey who runs the Fat Hen Cookery School. Late as usual, I arrived as people were sitting around drinking their coffees, and instantly met a lovely couple from the East Coast – Essex or Norfolk. Luckily for me, three cyclists joined our group even later than I had. But to be fair to them, they had just arrived by bikes from over near Falmouth, on the Lizard peninsula.
Whilst people finished their coffees, Caroline passed a basket of commonly found foraged items. These ranged from seaweeds, which we would not be harvesting today, to my new favourite ingredient: black mustard. Looking a bit like rapeseed, its flowers are bright and yellow, like brassicas that have already opened out. But woooohooo. When you taste it, it’s kick ass like wasabi. This stuff grows in disrupted soil, and since Caroline taught me about it, I have been cooking with it and included it in salads.
Prior to one of the best meals I have had recently, we went on a 2 hour circular walk from the Inn to the tip of the actual Gurnard’s Head. This is a rock on the cliff path, from where incredible views over towards St. Ives and round the corner to Porthmeor Cove can be seen. Having walked this path ten years ago, I knew there were some sharp intakes of breath on the uphill. And my current unfitness was certainly evident, as I lagged at the back with a lovely couple around my parents’ age!
Plants and their uses
Caroline stopped at times to show us different hedgerow herbs, such as sorrel and nettles, which I forage fairly regularly, and she had interesting anecdotes about the medicinal and herbal properties of each herb. For example, nettles are good for hayfever, as they are antihistamine, despite their sting producing a histamine response. She also told us about Japanese Knotweed, which is often known as an invasive plant, and how it tastes of rhubarb. The soil in Japan is very different, which means it does not strangle the other plants as it can in the UK. As such, its Japanese name is itadori, which means The Strong One. This plant contains Resveratrol, which is an important medicine that protects the body from cancer.
Interestingly, Caroline also told us about the laws surrounding foraging, which mean that it’s fine to take any aerial part of a plant from land belonging to other people. Of course you may be trespassing, which is illegal, but if you pick something which hangs over the neighbour’s garden, you are within rights, so long as you’re not digging up roots or anything. I can remember scrumping apples when I was young, and someone telling me it was legal, but couldn’t remember the actual law, so this is valuable.
The information I gleaned from the walk was really helpful, as I am keen on making the most of the Cornish countryside. For me, it had very practical uses, even though I am familiar with some of the plants.
Despite having arrived back at the Gurnard’s Head a little after schedule, we had a wonderful feast awaiting us.
With a largely foraged and local menu, I was very excited to sit down and enjoy the meal. By this point, we had bonded as a group, and conversation was easy and interesting with Wilf, a chef from The Gurnard’s Head’s sister restaurant The Old Coastguard, an ex-pharmaceuticals manufacturer who had travelled the world, and Caroline.
This menu had been created for those of us on the forage and feast walk, and it is also reflective of the produce normally on the menu at The Gurnard’s Head. With nettle and wild garlic soup to start, decorated with the mustard flower, we could tell we were in for a treat. This soup was served cold, which worked, since it was a warm day.
This menu couldn’t have been any better if it was actually written for me! We had heritage tomatoes with goat’s cheese and wood sorrel to come. Served with a home made cracker, this really looked the part, and was a stylish and delicious dish. Very accomplished flavours really worked together, as the wood sorrel added acidity, and the goat’s cheese gave a creaminess.
After the delicious sweet, sharp and creamy tomato dish, our next main was a celebration of the sea. Newlyn is one of the UK’s biggest fishing ports, and the first one to offer access 24/7 for fishermen, and it is just across the moor from The Gurnard’s Head. As such, the hake we ate for lunch had been landed that morning, and tasted fresh. It was served with new potatoes and sea vegetables, which included Samphire and Sea Greens. Sea Greens are an algae I often collect, and these ones had a piquant saltiness, enhanced by the bisque.
Despite my photo not really doing it justice, this was tasty, and the fish was well cooked, making it soft and melty. The bisque was a lip smacker as well. Seriously good food.
Getting my mint on
One of the things I like about set menus is that they force me to eat outside of my comfort zone. I often opt for a chocolate dish, due to my obsession with the stuff. If I had, then I would have missed out on one of the best desserts I’ve had. Mint pannacotta, white chocolate mousse and milk couldn’t sound further from something I’d choose if it tried. And yet what came out was a work of art.
The milk was powdered milk skin, which added a snowy effect to the dish, and the minty flavour of the pannacotta was contrasted with the creaminess of the white chocolate. Wood sorrel gave the whole thing a tang, and there was a tuille made from minted sugar.
The Gurnard’s Head serves fresh, intelligent food in a way that demonstrates skill and passion. It’s a must visit for anyone coming to Cornwall with its stunning gardens, local craft ales, and passion for provenance. Caroline Davey from the Fat Hen Cookery School is knowledgeable, interesting and qualified to deliver courses and gourmet weekends as a cook in her own right.
To book a stay or table at The Gurnard’s Head visit their site at www.gurnardshead.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org
To join a Wild Food Walk, there is another circular walk at the Eat Drink Sleep sister inn The Old Coastguard in Mousehole on the 18th July. Charles Inkin and Caroline Davey will take participants on another circular foraging walk starting at The Old Coastguard ending with a light lunch at Caroline’s cookery school using foraged ingredients. and costs £40 per head.
The Gurnards Head,
Details of the Fat Hen Cookery School are over on their site at www.fathen.org