It’s no surprise that Rick Stein can make fish pie sound weird (we’ll get to the romantically but somewhat surprisingly named “star pie” in a moment). Or the hard work of harvesting seaweed. Or an unusual kitchen knife made from car parts. But eating outside in the middle of winter? Even that sounds surprisingly appealing when SBS Food talks to the seafood-loving chef.
While catching up with Stein during a recent visit to Australia, we talked to him about a lot of things – the highlights of the new series of Cornwall by Rick Stein, what’s next on her travel wish list, cornwall, this fish pie. And given the events of the past two years, the effects of the pandemic on its restaurants and staff as well.
“It has been difficult, we have lost a few restaurants during this, but luckily there have been enough breaks in the lockdown that we could kind of swap between them. And people really want to get out,” he says, and support local businesses. “Everyone has been very, very good at spending money. [And] also in the UK, sitting in very cold weather. In coats and scarves and hot water bottles, eat outside. It would be really good if it really continued, it was really very friendly!
The COVID-19 pandemic has made filming for the new season of Cornwall by Rick Stein tricky too, but with a few breaks in filming and regular PCR testing they did it, filming from May to September last year and capturing the beautiful beaches and green fields at their best in the warm weather. (A tip for those inspired to travel there one day – Stein says June and September to early October are particularly good to visit; July and August can be busy, he says, and September usually has better weather than August. too).
Like the first season, the show sees Stein traveling around Cornwall, eating, cooking, meeting locals and immersing himself in history. “I wanted to merge good food with the art, literature, history, characters of Cornwall and music too.” He meets local chefs, farmers, food producers and historians; grabs a pint with Cornish actor Ed Rowe, one of the stars of Bait, a film about the impact of tourism on a Cornish fishing village (streaming now on SBS On Demand); goes fishing and foraging, and meets a man who makes knives from the springs of old trucks.
“They’re just beautiful…I have one that I use all the time and he’s figured out how to hold them very easily in his hand. It is magnificent work.
Even for Stein, whose heart was claimed by Cornwall long ago, there were surprises.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of a Cornish specialty, which no one really likes very much, called Stargazey Pie. And the idea of that is a fish pie with sardines or mackerel with their heads poking through the dough, looking up at the sky and watching the stars. But I actually found a recipe, I kind of took loads of original recipes and just tweaked it slightly. It was really very nice. And I’ve had them before and they haven’t been nice. So it was unexpected!
“And one of the things we wanted to do in the second series is to look at the lives of ordinary Cornish people…so we went to stock car races on a Sunday and filmed banger races and stock car races. You get all these families showing up, whole families fixing these cars getting bumped in the races. I’m sitting as a spectator saying “this is so much better than cricket! “I really really enjoyed it.
“And historically, few people know about the concerns of the Barbary pirates. The Cornish south coast was raided in Elizabethan times by pirates from North Africa. And we weren’t attacked for gold or goods, they were attacked for people who were taken into slavery in places like Morocco, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It’s pretty serious…and it’s a bit of history that I’ve never known [much about].”
The series also sees Stein delve into the history of Cornish pie. Although in a sense it’s just a meat and vegetable pie, there really is no ‘right’ in Cornish pie. It’s Cornwall’s most famous food, and it’s literally a delicious piece of history. “It’s even been given protected status, which means a pâté can’t be called Cornish unless it’s been made in Cornwall. And damn it, we make a lot of it – 120 million pastries every year, bringing £300 million to the county,” Stein says on the show. Along with local historian Ben Sumpter, Stein discovers that although many know the pâté as the favorite of miners, this half-moon-shaped pie was first popular with nobility and made with game meat as venison. But the growing popularity of the potato meant that the pâté became a combination of meat and vegetables that fueled the working class.
“The point of the dough was that it was a breakthrough meal because it was a lot of protein and carbs in something you could hold or put in a cotton bag and it was really sustainable and that’s the period. I mean, because it’s really, really vigorous, manual labor being minor, you had to have something to keep going,” Stein says, when asked about his dive into the mushy story.
Sumpter makes an even more fascinating point in the show about the classic crimped edge of a pâté.
“Around the whole side we have the rope or crimp and the story goes that the miners ate the garnish and left the crimp. And the logic with that is that actually in the Cornish mines you had some very dangerous and toxic materials… Arsenic for one and let’s not forget uranium. And if you have particularly dirty hands, you can hold the rope, hold it by the crimp, and throw it away. However, as with any myth, this is not necessarily true. The only right way to eat a pie in Cornwall was end to end, or as we say “east to west”.
Stein adds a few more baking “rules” to the show – never think about putting carrots in your dough and don’t eat them off a plate. “Eat them out of a paper bag. That’s what you should do.”
(Those inspired by it can find Stein’s recipe from the show — “Controversially, I make my pastries using puff pastry,” he says — here.)
Less traditional is a dish made with “sea spaghetti” after Stein joined a local group of seaweed harvesters. “I loved seaweed hunting. They are such dedicated people, you have to collect seaweed at extremely low spring tides, and it’s really very hard manual work, but they were so into it. They’re all in their 20s and very, very fond of that kind of healthy seaweed look and knew their seaweed inside out,” says Stein.
“There’s a kind of seaweed called sea spaghetti that looks a bit like spaghetti, except it’s green. So, I had this Italian dish of pan fried fish fillets with tomato, garlic, chilli, parsley, olive oil. And I incorporated the sea spaghetti with pasta, I think it was like three quarter spaghetti and a quarter sea spaghetti. It worked really well because it’s pretty al dente anyway, and like some sort of green sprigs among the pasta, it looked pretty good. And it was good too. (Get Stein’s recipe for Fish with Sea and Land Spaghetti here).
Obviously, Stein still loves to travel, whether it’s Cornwall, his regular visits to Australia where he has two restaurants, or around the world. The events of the past two years have made him appreciate how lucky he has been to travel so much over the years, he says.
“I don’t know if we’ll go back to easy and relatively cheap travel, but certainly the last two years when we couldn’t go anywhere, it made me realize how lucky I was. I think a lot of other people have done it, and certainly, I noticed that here [in Australia]it’s that it’s really good that people have generally traveled where they can travel and really enjoyed it and really learned more about where they live.
So where would he like to go next?
“I feel a little embarrassed that I never went to South America. I think that would be really high on my list. …and I have to go to Darwin. I found myself landing in Darwin on the way here, but it’s as close as it gets. I came on a Qantas flight that goes through Darwin, and it’s so beautiful there. I mean, it’s good to have seen it, but I can’t wait to go and spend some time there.
In the meantime, there could be more exploration of Cornwall on the cards – there has already been interest in another series, he says, after a great response to Series 2 in the UK.
“Because it came out in January [in the UK], which is a pretty dark time and also because COVID is still here, I think people have seen it as kind of a pretty antidote to the blues. And of course Cornwall looks beautiful and beautiful and sunny and blue and green. So it takes people out of themselves and a little kind of winter depression.
As Australia now heads into the colder months, a gallant around sunny Cornwall, to inspire us to investigate our own backyards, might be just what we need too. Perhaps fueled by homemade Cornish batter!