Eleanor Gaskarth joins apprentices from Fifteen Cornwall on a food sourcing trip.
Not so long ago, we might not have assumed our chefs would be able to tell us where the ingredients on our plates were from. Now, in any eatery worth its salt, there is an expectation that they will know the story of the line-caught day-boat mackerel, the corn-fed free-ranging chicken or the community-grown cabbage.
It is a wonderful thing, this zeal for provenance, this desire to understand the journey from farmer to supplier to cook to customer. OK, it can go a bit far sometimes, and nobody wants a lecture every time they pick up a menu, but surely it is better to be engaged than indifferent when it comes to our food?
So when I was invited along on a sourcing trip with the newest Fifteen Cornwall apprentices, the wellies were donned in a flash. First stop for the students, who are six months in on the course for disadvantaged young people, was small-scale fruit and vegetable growers Buttervilla, who have been supplying Fifteen since it opened its doors at Watergate Bay seven years ago.
Owner Robert Hocking and his family have grown produce from their farm on the Port Eliot Estate for the past 23 years, but are now upping sticks after purchasing 10 acres near Trematon in the fertile soils of the Tamar Valley. The new site will give them more space to cultivate their fruit and vegetables and also add new lines such as artichokes, cherries and peaches.
Buttervilla are probably best known for their range of heritage tomatoes which, aside from Fifteen Cornwall, they supply to River Cottage Plymouth, Nathan Outlaw, the Scarlet and Bedruthan Steps hotels and Nick Barclay's Blue Plate restaurant.
Heritage tomatoes – known as "heirlooms" in the US – are open pollinated and vary hugely in colour, shape, flavour and size. Robert and his son Harry save seeds from their best tomatoes each year so that they become used to the Cornish microclimate. They also search the world for new varieties to test grow, most of which fail to make the grade due to differing climates. With perseverance, however, each year they add a couple of new varieties to their list, which features wonderful names like Cherokee Chocolate, Brandywine Black and Green Zebra.
Unlike most modern hybrid varieties grown for supermarkets, uniformity and a long shelf life are not the target here. Robert said: "We let the fruit fully ripen before we pick and then we deliver as quickly as possible. Commercial growing methods put longevity over taste, but our techniques create beautifully clean, lingering flavours. People's reactions when they try them are amazing."
After a wander round the vines, Robert slices up a range of their heritages for the apprentices to sample. They do taste incredible – rich, deep, complex flavours – and are visually so much more interesting than the standard homogenous offering.
Just down the road, the next stop for the apprentices is to Sean O'Neill at The Modern Salad Grower. A co-founder of Buttervilla Growers, Sean and his team produce salad leaves, micro leaves, microgreens, edible flowers, herbs and salad vegetables. The plants are grown in home-made organic compost, fed on specially designed seaweed and nettle tea feeds and watered with pure Cornish spring water.
Sean, who has also been supplying Fifteen from its earliest stages, said: "For me, the sourcing trips are a celebration. We all get together and cook a lovely lunch, with each party contributing ingredients. I'm very keen on people who work together eating together, and I'm sure in this case they don't get the opportunity very often. I really think Fifteen is the real thing – they are taking care of and developing these people and it's nice to be involved in that, to inspire them and keep them inspired."
With Robert's tomatoes and potatoes, Sean's leaves, and bread and meat from Fifteen, the apprentices put their developing skills into action to whip up a beautiful, rustic and intimate feast. One of them, 21-year-old Joanna Valdez, from Newquay, told me: "We do a lot of sourcing trips and I really enjoy them. Before I started the course I was really only into making cakes and stuff, but the longer you do it the more into everything you get. You learn so much so quickly."
Karl Jones, Fifteen's training and development chef, said: "Every year we have a new batch of guys, bringing with them a new batch of challenges. It's a unique, fast-track one-to-one training course and these sourcing trips are vital. To get them to the level we want them within a year, to create the passion for their dishes, to develop the respect for the produce and the producers – it's a huge part of that process."
Enjoy three courses at Fifteen for £21, Monday to Friday only, from now until October 18.To book, call 01637 861000 or visit fifteencornwall.co.uk For more information visit: Buttervillagrowers.co.uk and Themodernsaladgrower.co.uk.