Wild Garlic Cornish Yarg photos courtesy of Lynher Dairies
There are some meals you are destined always to remember – whether because of the chef, the quality of the food and culinary skill (good, or bad), location, a significant event or right of passage – and perhaps most of all, the company of your fellow diners.
I remember the first time I tasted Cornish Yarg for all of these reasons. It was circa 1985 at the Riverside in Cornwall, a restaurant with rooms in a cluster of whitewashed cottages overlooking the idyllic Helford River, then owned by the maverick and legendary chef and restaurateur, the late George Perry-Smith (now The Riverside Helford luxury self-catering accommodation).
Perry-Smith never became a household name. Almost entirely self-taught in the kitchen, he didn’t write a single cookery book or record one interview, and only ever had one restaurant at a time. The notion of chef celebrity and reality TV with its attendant advertising deal, pots, pans and gadgets bearing his name would have been anathema to him. With his bohemian beard-and-sandals image and self-deprecating manner, he was more mad Cambridge professor than global brand. Yet despite this somewhat unorthodox profile, he is widely regarded as the father of post-war cooking in Britain, creating a new wave of cooking which influenced several generations of chefs to come.
Drawing inspiration both from his love of French cuisine and the principles of Elizabeth David, combined with his own passion for honest, undisguised flavours, effortless good taste and understanding of locale, he was able to break through the rigid, traditional conceptualisation of restaurants in 1950s Britain, and lay down a blueprint for what they could become. Crucially, he regarded eating and drinking as a natural pleasure that should be accessible to all, rather than the stuffy, straitjacketed preserve of an exclusive elite.
Perry-Smith’s uncompromising respect for raw ingredients, understanding of real hospitality and pursuit of excellence were such that his earlier restaurant, Bath-based The Hole in the Wall which he opened in 1952 and ran for 20 years (it still exists as a restaurant to this day – see here), had a deserved reputation as the most innovative restaurant outside London. The 1968 edition of The Good Food Guide described him as ‘one of very few restaurateurs in this country to whom the word genius can be applied without flattery’, and The Hole as ‘highly individual…We have here what is as common in France as it is rare here: a town which is a jewel which contains a restaurant which is a jewel.’
One can only imagine how mind-blowing it must have been to have dined at The Hole in the 50s and 60s, with radically different and unthinkably eclectic menus that were breathtaking both in their range and scale – an array of soups including Scotch broth, game soup and proper consommé, homemade pâtés, terrines and charcuterie, different hors d’oeuvre and salads, a dozen fish dishes, curries, risottos, ‘Continental and American specialities’ such as coulibiac (a Russian dish of pastry-baked fish), Hungarian goulash, chicken Maryland and Country Captain’s Stew (from Quebec), St Emilion au chocolat (a rich mousse finished with macaroons) and a huge selection of cheeses – each dish freshly prepared on the premises that day.
At the Riverside – Perry-Smith’s final restaurant – my fellow diner was Rachael, as always in those days. Our mission: to hunt down the best places to eat in Cornwall, which we began while at school even before I’d passed my driving test and continued for several years, during our gap year and subsequent holidays until we’d both left university. I didn’t know it then, but this was to be the first of a lifetime of *tasting tasting menus*, and while at the time we may not have fully appreciated the importance of Perry-Smith’s legacy to the UK restaurant scene, the exquisite quality and variety of our meal and its relaxed, unfussy elegance made it an experience I will never forget.
After untold courses – culminating in an elegant little presentation of cheeses, of which nettle-covered Yarg was one – and inevitably the most expensive tab we’d ever picked up, we could barely find our way back up the hill to the car for laughing, as much at our rotundity as the fact that the Helford, in all its unspoilt serenity, was completely and utterly pitch black.
So while creamy-crumbly Cornish Yarg with its lacy wild nettle leaf rind and delicate mushroomy taste is an old friend, I didn’t make acquaintance with its less famous younger cousin Wild Garlic Cornish Yarg Cheese until recently. I have clearly been in the Home Counties too long.
Lynher Dairies’ Wild Garlic Yarg is made to the same Caerphilly-style recipe, but has a creamier, more luxurious texture, while the wild garlic leaf rind delivers the subtlest flavour that’s very different from bulb garlic. Unlike other varieties of garlic cheese, it doesn’t so much shout garlic, as whisper it softly.
Handmade on Pengreep Farm near Ponsanooth in West Cornwall, Yarg takes its name from its original makers Alan and Jenny Gray (being their name spelt backwards) who first produced it in Withiel near Liskeard, on the edge of Bodmin Moor. In 1984 the recipe was sold to Michael and Margaret Horrell who also farmed near Bodmin and who steadily grew the business, and in 1995 the Horrells collaborated with current owner Catherine Mead until their retirement in 2006. Lynher Dairies is now one of the UK’s most successful and award-winning artisan cheese makers, processing 2 million litres of milk a year and over 200 tonnes of cheese. While this may sound like a lot, by industry standards it’s positively bijoux, which is just how Lynher Dairies like it.
Both varieties of Yarg are made in open vats using milk from the Pengreep herd of Ayrshire, Jersey and Friesian cross cows, and herds from neighbouring farms. Like the nettles, the wild garlic leaves are harvested from the woods on the farm. Come spring, when the hedges and woodlands are bursting with its vibrant greenery and pungent aroma, no less than one tonne of leaves are painstakingly picked by hand.
Once the soft white rounds of cheese have been dried, after being brined overnight, the wild garlic leaves are ‘painted’ onto the surface in concentric circles, to encourage the maturation process as well as delicately infusing the cheese. As garlic leaves are more pungent than nettles and contain more moisture, they require more time for the moulds to grow, resulting in a slightly more mature cheese which tastes as glorious as it looks.
Each variety of Yarg is quite different, so both merit a place on your cheeseboard. But if I must choose, it has to be Wild Garlic. It is just so deliciously moreish, especially in summer. Just one bite and I’m transported back to early spring days in Cornwall, and further back still to George Perry-Smith’s unique cottage restaurant.
A 900g truckle of Cornish Yarg (Wild Garlic or Traditional) costs £16.95 (including p&p) from Lynher Dairies Cheese by post and is also available from selected cheese counters. If you want to say it with cheese (certainly the best way to my heart), an exquisite heart-shaped version of Cornish Yarg is also available for £25.95. Both varieties of Yarg are suitable for vegetarians.