Dan Cox reflects on the paths up to acclaimed farm and restaurant Crocadon
Michelin introduced the Green Star in 2020, aiming to highlight trailblazers in sustainability, or environmental consideration. Within just months of its opening, one was awarded to Crocadon, a new restaurant and farm in Cornwall, reimagining food from below ground up. The imagining is that of Dan Cox, kitchen veteran.
To begin at the beginning, how and why did Crocadon come to be?
So, I built the growing operations up at L’Enclume while still cooking, and then we opened a restaurant, Fera, at Claridge’s Hotel, and operated that for three years – they’re quite big, like 120 covers, seven days a week. Very intensive. My thinking was, I’m gonna do my time here, but the next step is getting onto a farm.
We used to get produce down from our farm in the Lake District once a week, but we also used a company called Good Earth Growers, who were located down here in Cornwall. We shared the same values. We were, in fact, their second biggest customer. I used to come down here three or four times a year, look at things in the ground, have real conversations on how things grow, cook together, all that good stuff. We developed a strong relationship with Sean from Good Earth Growers. It was Sean that came across the idea of Crocadon; it was a property – actually on Rightmove – and the wider lease was for sale. So, we got in touch. Sean and I came down and visited the farm and immediately saw the beauty and magic, especially the courtyard of buildings.
Cornwall is a particularly beautiful part of the UK, but as you’re a London boy, it’s a very different environment…
I lived in the mountains in Spain for a bit; I lived in the mountains of Switzerland; I lived up in the Lake District, and I felt, well, where is the next place? It needed to match that level of beauty and harmony. This place fit the bill. Especially tagged on with the fact that all of our fish and shellfish came from Cornwall.
How is the restaurant wedded to the surrounding farm?
When it comes to writing the menu and creating the food, it’s a direct representation of what we have at that particular moment. We don’t have to go far to understand what it is we should be doing, but most of that comes in the planning and the deciding. So, the biggest freedom is the ability to be able to choose what you grow and when you grow it. And, most importantly, how it’s grown.
I don’t like the word sustainable, it’s so overused, but you’re actually talking the talk and walking the walk – so how are you doing things differently?
I would say agroecological… that’s probably a good word for me; also we are very soil focused, or soil first. I mean, everything from the very beginning at the farm with Simon was like – we’re a two-Michelin-star restaurant, we need our veg to be the same standard. Well, how do you grow the very best veg? It turns out that you need to focus on soil health and making sure that the soil food web is intact and fully functioning. That was my biggest learning, coming here. I’d taken on a 120-acre farm, you know, there’s plenty of pasture, a lot of land…
Was that intimidating?
It was crazy. I had someone grazing under license for the first six months. Although organic, because it was a remote operation for them, it very much was: put the cows in the field, wait until it’s all gone, then move them onto the next field, which is called set stocking.
I’d refer to it as chewing the field out. Basically removing all plant matter and then letting it struggle to come back again. Even within those first few months, I could see that that wasn’t how things were supposed to be. I didn’t have any pasture knowledge or grazing knowledge then, but I could see that if you chewed out the field with the cows and it was a 20-, 25-, even 30-degree heat, the whole field would just sort of burn out.
I started delving into wider reading on the subject and understanding that if a plant is allowed to grow to its normal height, it’s healthy. If it’s continually brought down to nothing, then it’s obviously highly stressed, and that stressed plant won’t grow very high, ever.
Yeah, exactly that. In turn, without that plant matter on top, there’s no root system below, any root system is only as big as the plant or tree upon it. You start to shed roots and it operates in a very shallow way, which leads to soil health degradation. Basically, you just don’t have a healthy, functioning soil system.
But understanding this, you can put animals through it in a much shorter fashion, breaking fields into smaller paddocks – a four-acre field into four individual acres – putting the animals in and letting them take just the top of the plant; with ruminants there’s something in their saliva that produces a growth response when the plants are grazed.
That’s so interesting…
The two evolved together – grasses and pasture plants actually evolved with ruminants, the two do go together. These are domesticated animals; they’re not grazing wild, but it’s trying to bring some of the mentality of their historic, migratory roaming around, and trying to replicate that. Basically: just leave some behind. Have a nibble! Say, take a third, trample a third and leave a third.
Those plants on top are like solar panels, they capture energy that then goes down into the roots and actually creates soil, and feeds the wider life below. Once the soil’s healthy, the animals are healthy too. That’s always been my main thing – it’s the health of the animal, because the healthy animal is going to be a tastier animal. It’s always been coming from the chef angle of trying to produce the best, best meat possible.
What’s being grown at the moment? What would you like to grow in future?
We’ve got lemon pepper trees, Sichuan, lemongrass. Been experimenting with ginger – that hasn’t really worked out.
In terms of the pairing it with dishes?
No, in terms of actually getting it going and growing. A big focus has always been herbs: anise is a big part of what we do… Mexican marigold – it’s like a marigold plant that grows six feet tall, but it’s got an apple, tropical fruit flavour.
It’s really cool. And it’s allelopathic, so it can smother things out of the roots in terms of perennial weeds. We’ve got bi-colour shiso, green shiso, both really interesting flavours.
All the normal things in between: we grow a lot of fennel, we grow a lot of parsley, which is, I feel, very overlooked. Everyone’s always looking for the weird and the wonderful, but parsley grown in good organic soil is just as incredible. Some things we just grow for fun. I like to grow a lot of sunflowers, ’cause they’re a good soil improver. They look great. They make you feel happy.
Then there’s the rest of it. The immature flower heads, you can cook them like artichokes, they’re really cool. You can let them go to seed and harvest the seeds – I mean, that is a little trickier, ’cause the birds tend to peck them out before you can even get to them.
The unexpected joy, and I suppose terror, of seasonal cooking in the way that you are doing it, is that you are completely guided by and led by the weather and chance and life itself. Why do you enjoy cooking this way?
I think it cuts both ways. Before I got into farming, or even growing, as a chef it was just supplier lists. Some of that stuff was coming from a little bit further afield; you’d get tomatoes earlier than you would if you were here in the UK. You’d get cucumbers earlier. Although you would still feel the seasons, you would never feel like you were truly connected. When things are actually growing right in front of you, it’s the only option. You’re actually living it.
Asparagus is a good example because even chefs… they think that that date when asparagus first becomes available is when asparagus is actually in season. It’s not – it’s being forced in greenhouses and polytunnels, and, you know, 99 per cent of the time, is covered in weedkiller.
We’ve talked about seasonality guiding you, but what else are you looking for when you’re building a plate, or the wider menu?
Because we’re running a tasting menu it needs to be varied, it needs to have its ebbs and flows and be interesting and exciting, or reflect the time of year. If it’s winter, some sort of brothy element that is going to warm you up. There’s never a strong set formula, again, it’s about what is available at that particular moment and how it presents itself. We always have the meat element because the sheep are so important to us. We have worked with other bits and pieces, like someone’s got a pig locally, or there’s an old suckler cow perhaps, but generally it’s going to be the sheep and it’s going to be that as the focus.
In terms of everything else, it’s just trying to utilise everything that we have. It’s not just the things that we have in front of us that are available, there’s things that we put away and harvested the year before or misos that we’ve made.
On that note, how are you able to change the longevity of ingredients and draw them out?
Beans are a very good example. They grow well, they’re good for the soil, but the great thing is that they’re mostly coming all at once. We can cook them fresh, but we can also store them, and use them for misos.
We’ve got a bean called a lazy bean that’s an incredible variety, like really round and juicy and succulent – they actually freeze very well so you can freeze them fresh and then use them through the winter. The same applies to making a miso. You don’t have to make the miso that day, you can freeze those beans and then cook them when you’re ready to put the miso on. A frozen bean versus a dried bean is actually far superior. We’re experimenting this year with growing some black soybeans to make a true soy sauce. Zach, our pastry chef, he got the seeds. He’d seen the plant in Korea and wanted to try growing them. We’ve just done a small crop, and are growing them, and trying to make a very small amount of soy sauce with that.
It’s so refreshing to hear that your pastry chef is suggesting these things, and the kitchen is open to this.
There is just so much going on here that tying anyone into any particular role and saying, that’s all you’re gonna do – that just doesn’t work. Zach came here and he wanted to grow some things. Some things worked, some things didn’t. It’s the same for us every single year. It’s just being connected to it and understanding the process and seeing it through from seed to harvest to finished product.
You make ceramics too?
It felt much more grounded to be doing that. We used clay from St. Agnes, and then we used a lot of Cornish China clay as well, which is even closer, in Bodmin.
When I first started ceramics I was using bought glazes that you just add water to, and was just starting to question what was in those glazes and whether any of those elements were toxic. Obviously, lead is the big one. Some glazes are deemed food safe; some are deemed for sculptural stuff.
Why don’t we just create our own glazes? So, we were just delving into anything we could possibly make a glaze from. There are many different rocks in Cornwall that can be ground down to make glazes, but the thing that kept coming back was ashes.
What you’ve done with bones produces such a wonderful patina.
Exactly. It started… we’ve got a huge dock burden here at the farm, so many many docks. We would be going round, cutting these docks out at seeding stage, then piling them up in a corner. Well, why don’t we dry them and burn them to make an ash? That ash initially was following the biodynamic principle – if you burn the plant and then apply it back to the soil, then the soil gets the message that it doesn’t need that plant and your docks will go away. I don’t think that works .
We were making charcoal right at the beginning, using a lot of single species wood. So we ended up with a lot of single species wood ash. We went into it deeper and started to burn every single plant we could possibly find on the farm.
One that stood out from very early on was fig leaf ash. I brought a load of fig trees with me, but there’s a few big ones already here on the farm. Those fig leaves, burning them down, just on their own – drying them out, and then starting the fire with a hot air gun. I mean, burning does seem a little bit like anti the whole trying-to-do-better movement, but actually it’s all part of it.
The only heating that we have in the restaurant is a wood burner. We do plug in electric radiators too, when it gets really cold. But that serves as a furnace; we can put other things in there with the wood. So, that’s when we started to investigate crab ash and lobster ash. At one point we had crab on the menu, saving up all those crab bones after we’d made the stock, drying them out and then yeah, blazing them up.
Lots of kitchens chase Michelin stars. I feel like you’ve done better and won a Green Michelin. That frames you as a model for doing things differently gastronomically; how did it feel after all those years of hard work?
It felt great. It’s only a couple of months after opening the restaurant as well.
So, it was just a huge reflection on all that work that had been put in prior. Yeah, it felt amazing. It meant a hell of a lot in terms of like, being that case study for doing things a slightly different way.
You’ve said in the past that there’s no future for gastronomy, you know, unless real change in the industry occurs. What changes would you like to see adopted?
I think the main change would be real transparency. I put myself onto a farm to investigate and delve into each aspect of growing and farming. I had no idea that, under organic standards, you could still spray sheep with an insecticide, for example – it’s deemed a welfare issue.
We don’t, we use a garlic cider vinegar preparation as a preventative, and just deal with it case by case. Flies are a massive problem. Last week I had a sheep completely covered in maggots from head to toe, you know, and it was very nearly dead. I had to shear it off, and save it, treat it with iodine and hope for the best.
Sorry, I’m digressing a little bit. At most restaurants you might get told that this meat’s come from here, or these vegetables have come from here, but in terms of what’s being used, where’s it come from and how has it been farmed?
One of the biggest things for me is GMOs in the UK. Pork, chicken, eggs, dairy, that isn’t organic – 99% of the time their feed will contain soy, corn that is genetically modified, and nobody really knows. So, what you’re eating, what has it been eating, how is that transferred?
This is your biome in the most ridiculous way. If you just don’t know, how can you make an informed decision?
What excites you about Crocadon’s future and what’s next for this year? Next year?
What really excites me is the ability to reinvent, year on year, in terms of what we can grow and what we want to focus on. Like, the long-term idea is to be able to start milking these sheep at some point. One of the breeds I work with at the moment is Zwartbles, a Dutch milking breed.
Looking into the future as a whole, I feel like I’ve got more to offer than just Crocadon. I feel like there’s further to go with this, not to just be tied down to one particular piece of land.