Visit the lost gardens near St Austell as you’ve never seen them before and hear tales of the plants and flowers; how they arrived here, what people did with them, what they represent. Then sit down among strangers to share a delicious meal made with Cornish ingredients. And leave with new found friends and a warm glow in your tummy from all the good food. Feast and discover with the Woodfired Canteen at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.
I was lucky enough to get my hands on a pair of tickets for the second date of feast nights with the Woodfired Canteen. Having followed them religiously for weeks on Instagram and reading up on their first feast night in February, I was incredibly excited to experience the Lost Stories of Heligan. The evening brings together storytelling throughout the evening from members of the Heligan team and a menu presented by Ben and Sam Quinn of Woodfired Canteen. Saturday's event was SOLD OUT and it's fairly self explanatory why.
Saturday’s theme was MAGNOLIA. Supposedly, the blooming of Cornish magnolias marks the first day of spring so what a lovely theme for the March event, especially with the weather warming up a little bit in the last week. Spring is definitely on the way.
We were welcomed at the car park and ushered through to have our names checked and then directed into the gardens. As it was an evening event, the dark gave our walk along the paths an atmospheric feeling. Lit by lanterns and fairylights, the trek to our first location in the garden built up our anticipation of what was going to happen. Coming to a bend in the path, we were greeted by a glass of warm rum and cider. The perfect antidote to the slight chill and pattering of rain on our heads. I wrapped my cold fingers round the glass to warm up my hands and the sweet liquid warmed me from the inside out.
We had come to a clearing filled with people. On the edge stood two grills surrounded by eager explorers. As everyone cleared, we realised that the grills were home to tacos. Two choices of Heligan rare breed pork tacos or Heligan smoked mushroom tacos kicked the night off and set the bar very high. Guests were welcome to go back to try both options as much as we liked, much to the happiness of our stomachs. You could see the staff were enjoying the evening just as much as the guests. It made the perfect environment for socialising, people waiting for their next taco were chatting, staff were chatting to people about the food and the garden. Such a social atmosphere considering we were all strangers to one another.
Then suddenly the whole group fell quiet as the first storyteller began. At this moment I realised we were stood under a huge magnolia tree. Lit from underneath with pink lights, the branches and blooms leaning over us as we heard about how the trees came to the UK and the forgotten tales of discovery hidden among the leaves.
After the story, we quickly grabbed another taco for the road and followed the fairylights back the way we came. The group were led into what is known in the day time as the Heligan kitchen. For the evening it had been rearranged into rows for a social evening of sharing food and stories. We were encouraged to find a seat and head to the bar before our second story of the night was introduced.
Leaving my other half making new friends on our table, I made my way to the bar where I had a chat about the interesting beverages on offer. Heligan parsnip vodka was my personal favourite and something that I’d love to try. I also managed a sneak peak of some of the food ready to be taken out and glimpsed head chef Ben briefing his team. I’ve never met a team so on the ball. Every single person was engaged and excited about what was going on that evening. Clearly Ben and Sam’s passion rubs off on to all who know them well.
Our next storyteller then introduced herself and gifted us with an introduction to the Rhododendron, it’s place in the garden and the story of their loss from many country gardens due to their association with the lower classes. All eyes were on the speaker, everyone was engaged. After a pause and a round of applause she returned to her seat and Ben introduced the menu.
The Canteen team like to use fresh local produce as much as possible. Most of the menu had been grown, bred, reared and picked in and around the gardens. Using the limited winter ingredients of the garden would have been a challenge for even the best chefs but Ben sails on through, delivering a magnificent Mexican inspired menu because some magnolias are indigenous to Mexico. A fairly tenuous link that I wasn’t sure I believed until I looked it up myself. But I’m certainly not going to question that link if it means we were served this:
Each dish was served on a huge plate in the middle of a group. The idea being that sharing food makes you connect with others. You begin talking about the dish, then you discuss the evening, then you ask where they’ve come from. Before you know it it’s like meeting an old friend. Chatting to new people is good for the soul and in a fast-paced technology-led world we forget to slow down and actually look at the people and places around us.
The Woodfired Canteen feast at the Lost Gardens of Heligan brings together storytelling, meeting new people, appreciating time with friends and discovering new things. All of this is wrapped up with the theme of the evening, giving a reason for the food and the tales you’re introduced to. With one date every month, this is a rarity that you won’t find anywhere else in Cornwall. Promise.