LOST LOVE STORIES OF HELIGAN
Canteen Cornwall, a concept dreamt up by husband and wife duo Ben and Samantha Quinn and The Lost Gardens of Heligan have teamed up for a series of foodie events this year, The Lost Stories of Heligan, an exciting collaboration in which stories of Heligan are shared over a meal cooked by Ben and his team, using some of the abundant produce grown within the garden’s grounds.
We were lucky enough to be invited along to the first in the series, a few days off Valentine’s Day and aptly named The Lost Love Stories of Heligan.
Ben has developed a signature outdoor cooking style, adopting hot coals and open fires as his main cooking method in the aim to create an experience rather than just a plate of food, with a great team of chefs and waiting staff behind him, all sharing the same great ethos and work-ethic.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan is a pretty magical and mysterious place in daylight but a visit in the dark was a completely different experience, and on this particular evening it was food that was higher on the agenda than the plants. The mystery was even further emphasised by the fact the menu wasn’t disclosed before the event, but having worked with Ben and Samantha before, I knew we wouldn’t be disappointed, so arrived with open minds and empty stomachs.
On arrival we were greeted by a few members of staff who directed us down the path to our first checkpoint, a huge tree trunk with beautiful gas lanterns perched on it, providing a meeting place around which a crowd had formed.
After a few minutes of identifying the faces in the dark, a member of staff collected the group and walked us to the next destination, with only the full moon’s glow and a single thread of festoon bulbs lighting the way.
With the senses already in overdrive, we turned down a pathway and arrived in the walled melon garden, where the infamous pineapple pits are sunk into the ground and the tops of the greenhouses fill most of the walled area.
We were handed a glass of mead, made on the premises by the resident bees, with a choice of honey or blackberry flavour.
Neither of us had ever tried mead, and were both pleasantly surprised by the rich, sweet liquid, which didn’t remain in our glasses for very long.
Spying the glint of hot coals through the crowd we made our way over, greeted with our first course of the evening; burnt squash mashed with chilli and garlic, served on slithers of ciabatta; and ‘dirty Dexter’ local beef carpaccio, briefly tossed directly on the coals, rubbed with rosemary salt and sprinkled with horseradish for a barely cooked, melt-in-the-mouth moment.
If this was anything to go by, we were in for a treat.
A glass was tapped with a spoon and we all grew quiet for the first of the promised stories; an anecdotal introduction to Heligan. If you’ve seen the gardens and walked their lengthy trails, you’ll be struck by the fact the whole grounds were once lost, completely concealed beneath a blanket of ivy and brambles.
Before this they were fruitful and productive as they are today, owned by generations of the Tremayne family for over 400 years and tended to meticulously, but after the outbreak of WW1, many of the gardeners and workforce went to fight in the trenches and the 200 acre gardens were left to their own devices, eventually becoming hidden and overgrown. After decades of neglect, the gardens were rediscovered and a dedicated restoration project began, which continues to this day.
It was with this in mind that we wandered back up the same path, with a new appreciation of the toil that had gone into bringing the setting back to life from its temporary slumber, thankful we could spend the evening there eating delicious food.
Our dining room for the evening was the garden’s large café, which had been transformed into an ambient and romantic setting, with two long banquet tables littered with candles and a blazing wood burner providing relief from the exceptionally chilly February evening.
We bought our drinks from the well-stocked bar (a glass of white wine and a bottle of Skinner’s ale), took our seats and were welcomed with the next story of the evening, another snippet of Heligan’s history, which was closely followed by mains.
Rustic enamelware dishes were placed at intervals along each table, piled high with slow-cooked Tamworth pork with sage; cheesy roast cauliflower and leeks; and pearl barley, topped with cider apple salsa verde and accompanied with a dish of garlicky Heligan-grown chard.
There was more than enough food between us and our two neighbours, especially due to the fact we wanted to leave room for the pudding; a mound of soft cheese, topped with rhubarb, sprinkled with candied hazelnuts, with heart-shaped edible leaves delicately placed on top. The dessert was the perfect size for an after dinner sweet treat, and the hazelnuts provided a deliciously sweet crunch amidst the soft cheese and tart rhubarb.
Although it was nearing February 14 and there were hints of Valentine’s Day looming, it was evident that a whole lot of heart and soul had gone into the evening regardless of the date, from the gardeners growing the produce to the chefs cooking it. We’re already eagerly awaiting the announcement of the next dates.*
*The next event will take place on Saturday 11 March 2017. Tickets available here.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan
Pentewan, St Austell, Saint Austell, PL26 6EN
A huge thanks to Canteen Cornwall, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, the gardeners and storytellers that made it such a memorable evening.
Most images by Mat Arney, some by Holly Gear.