Consuming Cornwall

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I don’t pretend to be a proper gourmet but like all sensible foodies worth their fleur de sel I have never seen the sense in allowing funding, or more precisely the lack of it, to prevent a potentially profligate pig-out.

Armed with that sort of logic and memories of insipid British seafood, I took to the back roads of Cornwall on England’s southwestern tip to see if the culinary reputation of the county’s northern “Gourmet Coast” was justified.

Beginning at the farthest edge, I stumbled around the rocky promontory of Land’s End, dodging rabbit holes and busloads of tourists, just so I could say I’d been there and then drove east along the north coast with growling and growing hunger pangs.

I diverged from the A30 to check out pretty St Ives. Wandering around the lovely old harbour precinct with its small, clean sandy beach I watched as tots dipped little white toes in the shallow water and squealed with delight, abandoned by mums and dads sprawling across rented deck chairs in the 24°C spring sunshine.

Others sipped Cornish ale at the outdoor tables of the 800-year-old Sloop Inn next door to the much younger Smock Shop selling fishing and sailing smocks as well as nautical gifts and pirate bits, whatever they were. I didn’t stop to find out.

But I did stop at the Cornish Bakehouse down the road for one of their traditional, award-winning, greasy but strangely delectable, Cornish pasties filled with beef, turnips and stinky Stilton cheese.

I was becoming quite adept at gunning the little Vauxhall Corsa around those scarily narrow, blind country lanes that pose as roads in rural England, squeaking between hedgerows and oncoming Range Rovers with all the newborn skill of an ageing Michael Schumacher scoring just one minor scratch from a protruding blackberry branch.

I stayed close to the coast, a scenic smorgasbord of tight little farming communities, seal colonies and cornfields that swept up to 40-metre-high cliffs, their bases washed by crashing surf.

Long sandy beaches, tiny secluded coves and wheeling, squealing seabirds were sights that greeted me again and again and once again as I descended the precipitous road that led into Watergate Bay, just east of Newquay.

Apart from a three-kilometre-long sandy beach and a lovely beachfront Victorian mansion now a luxury hotel, there wasn’t much else at Watergate Bay except one of Britain’s most sought after restaurants.

Fifteen Cornwall is one of the thought bubbles of celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, offering fine dining and the opportunity for disadvantaged youngsters to gain professional training for “an independent, inspired and productive life”.

Right on the beach, the light breezy restaurant which boasts Prince William and Keira Knightley as fans and where a meal can cost £170 was buzzing as I studied the outside menu.

Of five starters, “St Enodoc asparagus wrapped in Prosciutto di San Daniele, poached Clarence Court duck egg and Parmagiano Reggiano shot to the top of my list, despite some suspiciously foreign-sounding sources.

At the entrance I was greeted by friendly, formerly disadvantaged young staffers now dressed smartly in black and white.

“Table for one?” I asked.

“Do you have a reservation, sir?” grinned a pimply-faced youth handing me a menu.

“No.”

“One moment please sir.”

I was making a mental note of the pan fried, line-caught sea bass, warm salad of char-grilled fennel, Cornish earlies (new potatoes), sweet red onions, St Enodoc asparagus with Amalfi lemon dressing and “loads of herbs” (£26) when he reappeared.

“I’m sorry sir, we’re completely booked. You could come back for breakfast tomorrow, though, and it’s first in, first served, so you don’t need to book,” he offered helpfully. I withdrew feeling disadvantaged and pressed on to Padstow.

A dazzling old fishing town, Padstow was bathed in sunshine when I entered the harbour car park past a sign announcing “car park full” and immediately found a parking spot, fed the ravenous pay and display monster, glanced across the road and there it was, the famed Holy Grail of Cornwall’s foodie trail, Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant.

I had read online that they accepted reservations months in advance and that Stein also ran a bistro, a delicatessen, a patisserie and a fish and chip shop in what has become known as Padstein but it was 2.30pm and “the grail” was right there.

“Table for one?” I asked. “One moment please sir,” she smiled sweetly, peered into the inner sanctum and grabbed a menu. “This way sir.”

The Seafood Restaurant was bright, airy and casual with tables set around a large circular bar, gleaming white walls adorned with contemporary art.

Stein was well established here long before his television fame. He launched the movement to utilise fresh local ingredients that has been adopted by an increasing number of Cornish chefs to the delight of local producers.

There was an eclectic mix of diners; important young business types cuddling mobile phones, elderly folks of excellent breeding, tourists and an affectionate young couple at the next table who had driven all the way from Penzance, I overheard, to celebrate her birthday.

Wild sea trout from the River Towy (£35), monkfish vindaloo (£17), large grilled Padstow lobster (£60), fish and chips fried in dripping with mushy peas (£21).

The restaurant’s newest offering was sashimi of local salmon, scallops, sea bass and mackerel with pickled ginger, shredded white radish, wasabi, Japanese wakame and red tosaka seaweeds (£17). It was superbly fresh, worth every penny and melted in the mouth but what followed could only be described as a revelation.

The char-grilled whole Dover sole with just sea salt, fresh lime and a light butter sauce was as exquisite as it was simple, perfectly cooked not a moment too long, moist, flapping fresh, firm textured yet delicate and brimming with ocean flavours.

I ignored the £37 I had just paid for the dead fish, filed it away in my memory as one of those life experiences I want to see flash before me on my deathbed and headed east to Port Isaac.

How a grumpy doctor with a bizarre aversion to blood could help rescue a tiny fishing village from economic ruin is testimony to the power of television.

Half hidden in a narrow valley, Port Isaac had been a busy fishing village since the Middle Ages until increased competition, declining fish stocks and European Union quotas sent it all into freefall. Then along came ITV.

The British TV network chose Port Isaac as the location for the fictional town of Portwenn in which star Martin Clunes plays curmudgeonly quack, Doc Martin. The program has attracted more 10 million viewers in Britain and was a hit in more than a dozen countries including Australia where it aired on ABC TV.

Filming of the sixth series of the show has just been completed and it premieres in the UK on ITV-1 tonight (September 2). Other dramas have been filmed in and around Port Isaac, including the Poldark TV series and the movie Saving Grace, but the immense popularity of Doc Martin has drawn tourists and second-home owners in droves to spot locations, to be photographed at Fern Cottage (the “surgery”) and to simply enjoy the beauty of this gorgeous Cornish town.

Most of the village centre consists of old pubs, gift shops, restaurants and whitewashed granite cottages roofed with slate, some with bowed walls, most looking much as they would have centuries ago.

I wandered around the steep, ancient opes (lanes), drangs (alleys) and courts like historic Fore Street, Middle Street, Rose Hill and Squeezeebelly Alley, at a mere 45cm (17.7″) wide, it’s reputedly Britain’s narrowest thoroughfare.

A couple of local fishermen were still working on the Platt, a broad pebble beach and boat ramp at the edge of the harbour, bringing their daily catches of fish, crab and lobster ashore, straight from the boats into the restaurants and pubs fringing the shoreline.

At the top of Fore Street near the Post Office, Doc Martin’s fictional schoolhouse in the early series, which was a real school built in 1875, is really the boutique Old School Hotel and Restaurant where chef Jake Pattenden, a Port Isaac resident for most of his life was doing tasty Thai and Moroccan things to the local Cornish seafood.

I followed a bunch of obvious Doc Martin fans tramping up Roscarrock Hill to peer inside the Fern Cottage “surgery”, in reality a private dwelling where a sign outside pleaded, “Please do not look through the windows. This building was used only for exterior shots during filming. Thank you”.

I struggled further up the steep hill past stately old homes, joined the Southwest Coastal Path to the headland and marvelled at the breathtaking Cornish coast and sweeping vista of Port Isaac cradled in its steep green valley.

Strolling around the harbour, I found the old pilchard cellars built at the start of the 1800s. In their heyday they processed up to 1,000 tonnes of pilchards a week. I walked up into the old town past cutesy gift shops such as Fearless, Secrets and Pisky, all on Fore Street and Pride of Place by the Harbour selling chocolates, fudge and ice cream.

Port Isaac, unsurprisingly, was awash with seafood. On the menu at the 16th-century Slipway Hotel and Restaurant on the harbour were bouillabaisse and paella; there were sandwiches at Pebbles Cafe on Fore Street and the Golden Lion Inn offered traditional Cornish pasties and pints of St Austell.

But for a special Doc Martin tribute I went back to the Old School Hotel and Restaurant up on the hill. As I took in the sensational view, tucked into the local Porthilly mussels steamed in cider with leeks and Cornish clotted cream and hooked into a whole roasted sea bass stuffed with crayfish tails, I sensed the magic that keeps luring foodies and film producers to this wildly beautiful and photogenic Cornwall coast.

Story and images Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited).

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