Wednesday, 18 November 2015
Cheese and Biscuits on Tour: Cornwall 2015 (part 1)
Have you ever wondered why there are so many great places to eat in Cornwall? Perhaps you haven't, if you don't obsess over these things to quite the same worrying degree I do. But take it from me, there are loads, from crab huts and oyster bars to multi-Michelin-star fine dining, to any number of exciting, seasonal gastropubs in between, this is a part of the world that geuinely hosts a mature restaurant scene as opposed to the "couple of ludicrously expensive fine dining restaurants and nothing else" that seems to pass as a restaurant culture in most other parts of the country.
So again, why Cornwall? The most obvious answer is that's where the ingredients are, and it's certainly the case that the area can boast a staggering range of producers and masses of fantastic seafood. But then so do many parts of the south, north west and east coasts and the most you'll find there is a fish & chip shop and a Pizza Express. Clearly something special happened in Cornwall. But what?
Skip back to 1975, and after the police are called one too many times to his Great Western Nightclub (those fishermen can get a bit fighty with a few pints in them) a young Rick Stein and his wife Jill have been told in no uncertain terms that they need to find another way of making money on the site. Reluctantly, and with no professional culinary background, the Steins open the Seafood Restaurant, cooking - it hardly seems possible now - frozen prawns and monkfish (labelled simply "white fish" on the menu; in 1974 nobody knew what a monkfish was) to some vaguely-remembered recipes of his mother's. It was a restaurant born of necessity, in a fishing village where tons of fresh crab, lobster, oysters and sardines were landed every day yards from their front door, packed onto refrigerated lorries and sent to Spain and France where people were willing to pay for them.
At some point, the penny dropped. Why on earth were they selling frozen fish at great expense in a fishing village where the stuff is being hauled in from the sea fresh every day? So they got talking to fisherman, who sold them some of their catch to sell in the restaurant. And, quite understandably, given the choice between fresh fish or something chipped out of the freezer for a few quid less, customers chose the former. Cutting a very long story very short, the Steins had created their own nascent market for local seafood, and the seeds of a Cornish food revolution were born.
And so, in 2015 we end up with somewhere as lovely as St Petroc's bistro (bought by the Steins in 1988 but a very different beast now to how it was then), where people do lovely things to lovely ingredients in a bright, friendly old townhouse up a quaint old street, in a way that couldn't exist anywhere but Cornwall. The menu is the platonic ideal of what a great local bistro should be; namely, local ingredients wherever possible, nothing too fussy or overworked but still making intelligent use of modern techniques where appropriate (they have a Big Green Egg and aren't afraid to use it).
This isn't a normal review so I won't go into the usual exhausting detail on all the dishes, but it's worth pointing out a few highlights. Firstly, two vegetable dishes caught the eye - a plate of very odd-looking "padron" peppers, and something else called "flower sprouts". Both are from a local producer called Ross Geach who is the man in charge (well, along with his dad) of Padstow Kitchen Gardens just out of town. At this point we knew very little about Ross and his farm; but we did know that the padrons served at St Petroc, some weird little gnarly things the size of a 10p piece, some much bigger and looking more like a green bell pepper, had far more flavour and certainly far more chilli burn, than anything in a pack from Brindisa.
Secondly, the flower sprouts. Again, by this point we didn't know where they came from, but were told only they were a bio-engineered cross between kale and Brussels sprouts. The frills of the miniature "kale" leaves soaked up all the lovely butter they were cooked in, whilst the "sprout" element adds those earthy, brassica notes. And on top of all that, they look really pretty, like miniature heads of kale.
The rest of the menu was no less newsworthy. Local Cornish charcuterie could genuinely hold its own next to anything from France or Italy; I don't know why I should still be surprised when British charcuterie turns out to be brilliant - we're very good at this kind of thing now - but even so these were very impressive. Sardines wrapped in vine leaves were the star of the proper starters, cooked tenderly in the Big Green Egg and full of meaty, oily flavour. And the onglet steak, gently smoky from the charcoal and beautifully rare, was further proof that Hereford may be Britain's finest eating cattle.
The point is, it was all good, and not just because there were chefs in the kitchen that knew how to cook (though there were) and front of house staff who know how to serve (though that was also the case). It was good because this was a Cornish restaurant, confident in its ability to showcase the best local produce without it feeling forced or gimmicky, comfortable in its setting and place in the grand scheme of things, and able to do all this without feeling like a London-cool or Parisian-style bistro transplanted to the West Country. St Petroc's Bistro couldn't exist anywhere but here, and is a perfect gleaming example of why Cornwall, and Padstow in particular, is a world-class food destination.
With all that in mind, there are two events coming up in the next few weeks - both sponsored by GWR which not uncoicidentally is your best way of getting to the West Country in the first place - that will shine an even brighter light on this extraordinary part of the world. The first, on Saturday 28th November at Watergate bay, is the Fifteen Cornwall Winter Fayre. Ross Geach from the aforementioned Padstow Kitchen Garden (which you'll hear more about on my next post) and Fifteen Cornwall chef Jack Bristow are doing cooking demos, and there'll be all sorts of food producer stalls as well as the Southwestern Distillery on hand with samples of their gin and pastis. Yes, that's Cornish Pastis. Geddit?
Anyway, all the details are here; it's free to attend so you don't have to worry about getting tickets, just getting yourself down there for the day.
The second - and higher profile - event is the Padstow Christmas Festival, which takes over most of the center of Padstow for the period of Thursday 3rd to Sunday 6th December, and brings together almost every top chef working in Cornwall today as well as a good number from further afield. It sounds like an absolute riot - demos from Rick and Jack Stein, Angela Hartnett, Paul Ainsworth, Mark Hix, Mitch Tonks, James Knappett, Nathan Outlaw, Ashley Palmer Watts, Michael Caines and (barring divine intervention) James Martin, and an even greater number of producers and stalls spread out around the harbour. I know a lot of foodie people from London who are travelling over for it (though don't let that put you off) and I'd be there too if I'd organised myself a bit sooner. Still, there's always next year.
Meantime, next time somebody sneers about "Padstein" or celebrity chefs consider how far we've come since the dark days of frozen chips and chicken in a basket, and how wonderful it is we now get to eat most of the fantastic seafood our fishermen bring in instead of it all being shipped off to France or Spain. And for that we have to thank not just the Steins but anyone producing, consuming or appreciating the finest local, seasonal food and drink, not just in Cornwall but up and down the country. It took a long, long time to get here, and in many areas we've got a long, long way to go. But if you need inspiration, just look West.
GWR is a sponsor of both the Fifteen Cornwall Winter Fayre and Padstow Christmas Festival. Meals at St Petroc's Bistro kindly provided by Rick Stein co.