The Stein’s at Home steak menu box (£65) says ‘Love from Cornwall’: it is not for people who live in Cornwall. It is, rather, a cardboard mirror of Padstow, Rick Stein’s slate-covered, teal-painted, monstrous Cornish Center Parcs for upper-middle-class holiday-makers, and it has its own whimsical map of Rick Stein outlets in case you stray too far from the Rick Stein path, like Dorothy heading to her death. I went to Padstow during the first lockdown and heard guilty testimony: some natives enjoyed pandemic because Padstow was almost real again. But that is over now, and here comes the counter-revolution to reassert itself in cardboard. People will follow later.
Cornish people know that this version of Cornwall (bright lobsters, pale cheeses) is not designed for them because they cannot afford it — they work harder and for less money than almost anyone in England — and because it is stupid. The box is not subtle in reminding us of this, probably because it feels it has no need to be. There is a practised argument that any trade is better than none, but I don’t believe it. I reported on the food banks of west Penwith at Christmas; the child poverty rate in St Ives is 36 per cent and in Padstow it is 32 per cent. Even so, Stein is hardly the first artist — the completeness of his teal and slate hell vision makes him an artist, even if I hate the art — to weave myths about Cornwall so convincing few look past them to the truth.
Rick Stein has six restaurants in Cornwall; and, for some reason, one in Barnes. In pandemic he sells various food boxes, whose online pictures convince me that his lobsters have their own lighting director. There is a hake menu (£55.95 with wine); coq au Riesling menu (£42.50); a lobster menu (£100); a luxury breakfast box (£72.50, again with wine). The steak menu contains part of a loaf of sourdough bread, which feels mean (though you could spin it as a service for people who cannot be bothered to cut their loaf in half and should not have to); smoked mackerel pâté; a bag of salad leaves; two sirloin steaks (I ordered rib-eye but received sirloin); new potatoes with butter in a bag; peppercorn sauce; sticky toffee pudding and clotted cream; kale.
It was OK until the steak. I have written about cooking steak on the Aga. The Aga is too cool for steak; the Aga needs time. (The Aga is a heating system disguised as an evil cooker.) Now my husband cooks steak on the boiling plate. The house fills with smoke and the smoke alarm screams. But it usually tastes wonderful — charred and blue. Not these steaks. They are thin and tough, and the flavour is — what to say? It tastes of lobster.
I wonder what would be inside an authentic Cornish food box. Speed and Doritos? A dead dolphin? Granite? I know that people spend more because they think it makes them worthy of themselves — before lockdown, mocking them was my pleasure — but this is absurd. At the St Buryan Farm Shop, whose grass-fed cows graze the Lamorna valley, you can buy two steaks for £14 (stburyanfarmshop.co.uk). At W. Harvey & Sons of Newlyn you get two lobsters, 12 oysters, crawfish meat and prosecco for £75 (crabmeat.co.uk). Surely the sensible would take this instead and buy, or glean, their own potatoes, if they wanted to go full Hackney? (Gleaning does happen. I have seen it.) It’s a lot of money for adequate food in a box that says ‘Love from Cornwall’ with the implicit, yet unspoken, epilogue — whatever Cornwall is.