Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Eating our way around West Penwith

I'm not even sure how to begin telling you about our three days in Cornwall, because they were so lovely. Years ago I picked up a Rosamunde Pilcher novel set in the area, and fell in love with it on the page. It sounded wild and green and somehow magical, and I am thrilled to report that all of those things are true.

Cornwall is a jut of land on the southwest corner of the island of Great Britain, bordered in the east by the Tamar River at Plymouth. It possesses a microclimate which allows subtropical plants like palms and succulents to survive outdoors year-round, and is generally very lush and green and a little bit exotic-feeling. It's a large enough area that we determined early in our planning that we wouldn't be able to go all over Cornwall in just three days, so we confined ourselves to the westernmost part of the area, the West Penwith peninsula.

We took the train from London to Penzance, a town that is far more picturesque than Google Earth would suggest. Our B&B hosts were a delightful couple with two small children and a terrific stone row house in the western bit of town, which was still only a 15-minute stroll from the centre. (Not many big towns in Cornwall.) We explored the town and its hilly streets and extensive waterfront promenade on our first afternoon, wandering through the gorgeous Morrab Gardens which reminded me of the Jardim Botanico in Rio, on a much smaller scale.

That evening we dined at the Turk's Head, Penzance's oldest pub whose kitchen is currently manned by a UK MasterChef winner. We arrived just before dinner service began and enjoyed a pint of cider while we waited. In the end, the fish and chips seemed like the right thing to do, and I don't regret a thing. A lovely piece of cod in beer batter, some better-than-average English chips, and a pile of minty but not mushy peas alongside "proper tartar sauce" (as the menu put it) slaked my hunger perfectly.
The next morning started out with a full English breakfast prepared to order by our host Andrew, a cheery Aussie transplanted to Cornwall and happily running a B&B. He and Lindsay, his ex-Londoner wife, provided all sorts of fab advice and suggestions for us, not to mention a kickass plate of food to get us going:

That's actually the "full veggie" with vegetarian sausage (Linda MacCartney's brand, if you don't mind, and they were terrific), poached eggs, fried tomato and mushrooms, and baked beans. A proper pot of tea and some toast sealed the deal, and off we went to attempt driving on the left side for the first time.

THAT was an adventure. The secondary roads in Cornwall are twisty as hell, about 1.5 cars wide, and frequently bordered by high hedges, leading to terrifying encounters around just about every turn. Somehow we made it out to the edge of Porthcurno, on the south side of the peninsula, to check out the spectacular Minack Theatre, carved from a cliff by one incredibly determined woman and her gardener:
Spectacular. One of the most haunting places I've ever been. If you ever get the chance, go and see a play there. We skipped that evening's performance of The Crucible (ugh) but I'm dying to go back and maybe catch a Shakespeare.

After that, on to the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, which we both enjoyed. Porthcurno was once the central hub of telegraph communications in Europe, boasting 14 cables emerging from the nearby sea to a hub just up the beach. Now it's mostly for show, but the history is fascinating, especially the tunnel bunkers dug to protect the equipment and its communications potential during WWII.

Their cafe also does a very fine Cornish pasty, a sort of turnover filled with beef, potato, and turnip. It was invented as a hearty and portable lunch for tin miners in the area - their wives would bake them a pasty and send it down the shaft with them, where they could hold it by the crimped edge so as not to contaminate their food, and then toss the crust when finished. We ate our crusts.

Dinner that evening, which went unphotographed because it was too dark by then, was at the lovely Porthminster Beach Cafe in St. Ives, perched above the beach with a lovely view of the sea and the lighthouse nearby. We watched the sunset as we enjoyed monkfish curry, roasted tomato and eggplant soup, and some tasty but unfortunately exceedingly bony whole grilled mackerel. It was a tasty meal, but I found the service lacklustre and a bit standoffish. The view was worth the hair-raising drive over there from Penzance though.

Our final day in Cornwall, we climbed a small mountain: St. Michael's Mount, just down the road from Penzance. The castle is perched atop a rocky crag out in Mount's Bay, accessible by a stone causeway when the tide is out and by small boats when it's in. We walked the causeway and hiked up to tour the castle, which was delightful. Having worked up an appetite, we wandered back ashore into tiny Marazion village where we picked a restaurant on feel and ended up with another delicious pasty for Chris and a double-stuffed crab sandwich for me. "Newlyn crab," said the menu, and I looked out the window and around the coastline at Newlyn, not more than eight kilometres away, and thought that sounded like a lovely idea. It doesn't look like much, but it was scrumptious.

After a lot more walking, we ended up in Mousehole at the tail end of the afternoon. Pronounced "mowzel," it's a tiny, very picturesque fishing village with a scattering of art galleries and shops, ten minutes from Penzance in the other direction. We wandered the narrow sloping streets until we found Pam's Pantry, recommended on TripAdvisor for cream teas, and ducked inside. It's truly a hole in the wall kind of place, and at that moment the three "tea ladies" were sharing a bottle of champagne. We soon found out that one of them had just become a granny for the first time and this was the celebration.We congratulated her, admired photos of wee Freya, and ordered tea and scones with cream and jam.

If you've never had Cornish clotted cream, your arteries will thank you, but your heart will forever be missing a tiny piece. It was only by dint of the fact that we'd been walking and climbing things for two solid days that we managed to put away two homemade scones each, dolloped with cream and strawberry jam, and it was not a hardship. It's a good thing Mousehole is so far away.

Dinner on our final evening was again sans photos, mostly because it was a late meal and by the time we got our food, we fell upon it like ravenous wolves. It was all very good though - we went to the Cornish Barn in Penzance, which is part of the Artists' Residence boutique hotel, and which advertises itself as a bar and smokehouse, of all things. American-style BBQ in Cornwall!

As it turned out, they had an extensive small plates list and we ordered most of them. Standout dishes were the apricot-soy-green chile chicken wings, the hake with braised runner beans and peas, and the smoked courgette (zucchini) on toast with mint-arugula pesto, which was so damn delicious I've recreated it here at home twice already. (I did the chicken wings too. Fantastic.) They had local cider as well, which we enjoyed greatly.

The next morning we headed back to London on the train, with fantastic packed lunches courtesy of Andrew (and what an awesome service for a B&B to offer. A+, wish everyone would do it.) and with a friendly and quiet sheepdog sharing the train carriage (along with his owners of course).

Suffice it to say we fell in love with Cornwall more than a little bit, and we can't wait to return someday and wander further afield. And eat more scones.

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