I can't help thinking about the Beach Boys': 'Wouldn't it be nice if we were older? Then we wouldn't have to wait so long…' Lockdown does feel a bit endless and foreign travel to sunny climes a dream, but here is a series to lift the heart and possibly inspire a 2021 staycation. Rick Stein criss-crosses Cornwall, a county he has made his own ever since the 1970s, when he opened a discotheque in Padstow (closed quite smartly owing to public nuisance) and went on to create more dignified venues such as the Seafood Restaurant plus other eateries and a cookery school in the town he now calls home.
This BBC 15-part half-hour series is a new venture with Shine TV and Rick Stein Productions, giving Stein the opportunity to focus more on the individuals he meets and talks with, to explore not only how we feed ourselves but also how we nourish our souls with other aspects of life: the creative arts.
Originally, an Italian series was planned, but the pandemic made filming abroad an impossibility, and here instead is a very different kind of travel-cum-cooking programme, hosted by a chef, now in his 70s, whose interests have always been wider than the kitchen. For anyone who has seen, for instance, Rick's Weekends
, you will know how he frequently quotes local authors, or bits of poetry, always with a slightly embarrassed smile, as if to say, 'I know you thought this was a cooking programme, but taste this too'.
Among those who Stein visited late last summer for Rick Stein's Cornwall
was the writer Patrick Gale, who lives overlooking the sea, practically at the end of the county, and who has set some of his novels in Cornwall. Gale comments: 'I think he was given freedom to pursue his other cultural interests beside food. The production team was scrupulous about social distancing, so it was all quite unthreatening after months of careful isolation on the farm. We spoke about what Cornwall means to writers and artists, its peculiar appeal, its traditions and so on. The timing could not have been bettered as a lot of viewers clearly treated the daily half-hour episodes as mini-holidays for the mind in the middle of Covid-cornered January'.
Early on in 2020, a very different kind of documentary was made by the presenter Simon Reeves to explore another side of the Duchy of Cornwall, the one of poverty and deprivation, in a county that is one of the poorest areas in the UK. Perhaps the most moving part of that visit was the food bank visit and interview, a place that Rick Stein also felt should be included in his own exploration, and he cited Reeves's series as exemplary in peeling back some of the gloss often coated over Cornwall.
The series Rick Stein's Cornwall
focuses on the positives and possibilities, on the creativity of those who work in Cornwall and how significant it is for them to live there. He begins, of course, with what Cornwall means to him, from childhood visits to now being an employer of some importance to the community, as well as his restaurants being tourist destinations for food-lovers from around the world. Down narrow country lanes in his large 4X4 – inland, away from the usual destinations – Stein makes discoveries and chats comfortably with a variety of makers.
Among the successful food producers he visits: the head gardener at Tresillian House, who nurtures an apple orchard of old Cornish varieties (this results in an apple charlotte cooked in the open air); the Fish Grill & More in Mevagissey (scallops like 'sweeties'); the Padstow Kitchen Garden (supplies the restaurants); Porthilly Shellfish (recipe for oysters); fishing for mackerel with Flea Thompson (an easily grilled mackerel recipe); Warren's butchers in Launceston (steaks on the grill outside in a field, surrounded by curious cattle); Nathan Outlaw in Port Isaac (trained by Stein, and delighted to make up a lobster risotto for their lunch). The recipes are not complex and focus on fresh local produce.
In each conversation, Rick Stein asks 'what does Cornwall mean to you?', and listens to answers from these dedicated men and women who work extremely hard to support themselves while pursuing a dream. Sitting in the sun on a windowsill, Stein chats with a potter about ceramics; out on the cliffs he talks about the light and the coastline with painter Kurt Jackson; archaeological sites are included; perhaps one of the most entertaining encounters is with his old friend Barry Humphries, who describes vividly how he was rescued off a cliff ledge, years ago, but really he wants Stein to comment on his fish cake recipe, as they eat them and gossip in the churchyard of St Enodoc, by the grave of John Betjeman. From St Ives to Bodmin Moor, Rick Stein is a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel of Cornwall: you find him here, you find him there, everywhere an adventure.
Rick Stein has the enthusiasm of someone half his age, and another intrepid cook and traveller is just that: Nadiya Hussain is 35 and rapidly becoming the nation's sweetheart baker, winner of the 2015 Great British Bake Off
and author of cookery books for adults and children, with her own television cookery series. Her two-part BBC documentary in 2020, Nadiya's American Adventure
, is an interesting counterpoint to Stein's Cornish travels. Both chefs bring to their encounters with hard-working people in the industry an open curiosity and desire to learn about food culture wherever they find it. They both love to laugh and don't mind getting food on their faces.
Hussain visits Louisiana and California, seeking out how the immigrant population has influenced local cooking and how they have become integrated into a different country and its society. This, of course, is very much her own experience, as the child of immigrants to Britain. Stein, in a way, is an immigrant to Cornwall (from Devon), and has experienced some push-back in his time. The enrichment of integration creates advantages, both economic and cultural.
Some day one will be able to experience Cajun cooking or Guatemalan street food in the US, but for now in all probability Rick Stein's Cornwall
will act as a magnet for visitors to this county that considers itself almost another country. How do people in Cornwall feel about that? It can be a mixed blessing, something Scotland also experiences. Visit Cornwall (the tourism office) reported that last year's growth of the staycation was a huge benefit, after a terrible spring. Tourism is the biggest sector for employment in the county, but greater variety of work is needed to boost the local economy.
Rick Stein – and Nadiya Hussain – discover people with grit and determination, sometimes local and very often outsiders, who bring innovation and enterprise that fuse with local specialities, a bit like cooking. Speaking of fusion, perhaps the BBC could commission something along the lines of Rick and Nadiya Hit the Highlands and Islands
. In the meantime, one can enjoy the scenery of Cornwall and try out the recipes. The days are growing longer.