I have a real soft spot for North Cornwall. It’s rugged and handsome. Where the south of the county is a refined collection of postcard perfect towns and villages which require sunshine, the north is a thing of beauty all year round. I prefer it in winter, all windswept and daring, when the sea is vivacious and the sun occasionally beats through the clouds and transcends the vast beaches from a dull yellow to golden. It’s less busy. I can walk on the beach without crowds. I can get a table at the places I want to eat at more easily. Both of these things are important to me.
One of the places I have been keen to eat at is Fifteen Cornwall, a social enterprise from Jamie Olivier. It’s easy to bash Olivier, others do frequently and I have in the past, yet the fact remains that his cooking has inspired a generation of home cooks, myself included once again. I own several of his cookbooks; his onion gravy recipe is now mine. And the restaurant serves to help those less advantage. If it sounds like I am trying to justify eating at one of his restaurants, it’s because I did. The reality is that we could have had lunch at Paul Ainsworth’s No. 6 restaurant for less, yet here we are, putting our empty stomachs in the hands of apprentices.
Those apprentices and this program are doing great. At it’s best Fifteen Cornwall stands up with some of the finer Italian cooking found anywhere on this Isle. Antipasto lives and dies and the quality of the produce and obvious care has been taken in this department. High quality ‘Nduja thickly spread on toast is all fire and spice, arancini is an earthy mixture of al dente rice and spongey mushroom. We go a little bit crazy over the soft Cotechino sausage with salsa verde, less so over the metallic strips of charred pepper which end up an accessory to the other dishes. A bread basket has good sourdough and an outstanding focaccia which tastes like aerated olive oil.
Cream laden burrata is the centre point for scoops of roasted squash that are just about holding their shape. There is a comfort about the plate, underpinned by warming leafs of crispy sage. It’s simplistic, maybe overly so, but then the best things in life are.
Buccatini are fat ramen-noodle-like tangles of pasta, coated in a fiery tomato sauce. The sauce was deep and rich, with plenty of chilli heat and something more sinister lurking behind (vodka, I think?! I’ve been wrong before). Densely packed beef meatballs complete the generous portion, though these are too heavy to finish. Compared to this a dish of pork belly is refined, the skin finely scored to fine strips of taught crackling. The meat is unctuous and tender, the braised lentils underneath just cooked. My scepticism towards a vivid green anchovy and herb dressing is short lived; it is clean, vibrant, and salty – the perfect foil for the fatty cut of pig.
Desserts give us less to get excited over. A pear cake has lost the essence of the fruit in amongst the heady spices, and ricotta donuts are a little stodgy in texture. Both have redeeming features; the cake’s toffee sauce and the donuts chocolate dipping pot are decadent to the point of being plain naughty. The high point is a brick of tiramisu, doused in amaretto and restrained in sweetness. It is a grown up dessert, elegant and well balanced.
Unfortunately, if the kitchen came out with there guns blazing, front of house must have ran out of bullets. Service was poor, bordering on abysmal at times. We were abandoned by one server, another eventually taking over and completely forgetting to bring the wine which I specifically ordered for the pork. I can forgive most things but please, I beg you, do not come between me and fermented grapes. Other than that, it was bloody lovely. Like, seriously bloody lovely. Proper Italian, cooked with care and attention. We need one in Birmingham, where the Italian food is generic crap and I struggle to find a carbonara that doesn’t have cream in it. Plus we have plenty of less advantaged youngsters who would kill (not literally. Bad choice of word.) for this type of training. Come to Birmingham and I promise to eat there once a month. I’ll even forgive the forgotten glass of wine. C’mon, Jamie, I can’t say fairer than that.