Words by Lucy Cornes
Sensational food is a year-round fact of life on the Cornish coast. Discover what lies in wait this autumn at three celebrated restaurants in St Ives.
It’s a fiercely guarded secret, but autumn is the best time to be in St Ives. September ushers in a slower pace, with more freedom to appreciate the beauty of the picturesque harbour town than the hustle and bustle of summer affords. Blustery beaches and meandering cobbled streets, cosy pub corners and window seats for wave-watching – autumn has a life-affirming languor that suits this artistic, epicurean enclave.
Mick Smith, Creative Director of the Porthminster Collection
For food-lovers especially, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness offers rich pickings, with a new larder of local ingredients gradually revealed. This is certainly the case for visitors to the three restaurants in the Porthminster Collection overseen by Executive Chef and Co-Owner Mick Smith.
Everyone has their favourite, whether it be the exquisite food and jaw-dropping views at Porthminster Beach Café, the quirky cool of harbourside Porthminster Kitchen, or the relaxed Mediterranean vibe of Porthgwidden Beach Café. All three restaurants occupy ocean-facing vantage points and make excellent places to see and be seen. And each has become a St Ives institution beloved of locals and visitors alike (Porthminster Beach Café has been established for more than 25 years), standing the test of time while others have fallen foul of fashion.
Originally from Victoria, Australia, Mick came to Cornwall in search of a great food scene and Britain’s answer to the beach lifestyle; he fell in love with St Ives and has made it his home. He began as Head Chef at the ‘Beach Café’ over 15 years ago (Porthminster featured in a fly-on-the-wall TV series of that name in 2006). Mick now oversees all three restaurants in the group - crafting seasonal menus, refining the winet lists, perfecting the guest experience and driving the professional development of 100-plus staff, which includes a talented band of senior chefs.
Cornwall’s growing attractiveness as a year-round destination – fuelled in part by a buoyant food culture – now allows the Porthminster Collection, along with many others in St Ives, to stay open all year. This marked change provides steady employment and career progression for those working in the sector, but also importantly encourages a deeper connection with the annual food cycle. “When I first started working in St Ives seasonality was a real problem,” explains Mick. “Now we just close for a few weeks in January. From a chef’s point of view, it’s fantastic because we can make the most of the distinct seasons here in the UK.”
This deeper connection with the annual food cycle has encouraged Mick to become a ‘hyperlocal’ food pioneer, growing and foraging food to supplement the produce he orders from local suppliers. Hence the natural larder in the immediate vicinity of St Ives Bay dictates the direction of the menu. Each day one of the chefs embarks on the ‘foraging run’, whilst another gathers the daily harvest from the restaurant’s unique coastal kitchen garden. Mick first started work on this plot a decade ago – it has become a daily source of fresh flavour and inspiration. He now employs an experienced gardener to ensure it remains productive all year round, and every bit of the small space yields something useful – from fruit and vegetables to herbs, leaves and flowers.
Lee Wilson couldn’t resist the pull of St Ives
Lee Wilson is Mick’s right-hand man at this beach-side food oasis. Lee moved to St Ives 16 years ago after falling in love with the amazing produce and inspirational food culture of Cornwall. After spells in London to work with the likes of Jason Atherton, and abroad to serve as personal chef to the Qatari Royal family, he has settled once more in his favourite town as Head Chef of Porthminster Beach Café. Early autumn is one of Lee’s favourite times in the kitchen. That slow shift to earthier flavours, the gentle introduction of richer tastes and textures, and a fresh bounty from land and sea gives this creative chef new impetus after the relentlessness of the summer months.
“At the onset of autumn our cooking turns towards warming, earthy flavours. The garden – as well as our foraging missions along the beach and coast path – play a key role in that seasonal shift,” explains Lee. There’s a rewarding range of staples around for the wild and home-grown food enthusiast, especially berries, nuts and fungi but also things like fennel and alexander seeds. “One of our favourite autumn recipes is pork cheeks braised slowly in local cider and apple juice along with fennel and coriander seeds,” says Lee. “We serve this with a Jerusalem artichoke puree, toasted pine nuts and a splash of truffle oil – those earthy, fruity, nutty, spicy notes are all quintessential autumnal flavours for me.”
Each new season sees a different palette of ingredients carried back to the kitchen
Seasonal wild food is also used to enhance the seafood which is the restaurant’s mainstay (the variety of fish landed is still relatively high at this time of year) but locally-sourced meat plays an increasing role on the menu as winter looms on the horizon. Mick is hoping to take part in a Cornwall Wildlife Trust initiative again this year, using meat from cattle which graze their sites. “We don’t use a lot of beef here at Porthminster, but the aim is that when we do it will have the lowest environmental impact possible,” explains Mick. The Cornwall Wildlife Trust manages 57 nature reserves across the county, many of which are grazed with cattle. The cattle naturally maintain the sites and make them attractive to wildlife. Grass-fed beef is much better for the environment, has a good ratio of omega-3 fatty acids and generally the flavour is believed to be superior.
It’s not just the ingredients that are shifting either, it’s also the cooking methods. “We tend to use more slow cooking techniques at this time of year,” says Lee. “Gradually infusing flavours, for example to get the layers of deeply rich and umami notes of our signature sticky pork dish – these things take time but it’s worth it!”
Meanwhile at Porthminster Kitchen, it’s the arrival of Cornish lemon sole and red mullet from the Lizard Peninsula which Head Chefs Ben Prior and Paul Oliver are looking forward to. Red mullet from Cadgwith Cove on the Lizard is a particular delicacy; caught by the small day boats which fish just off the coast, its sustainability is closely managed. Ben and Paul like to serve theirs poached in coconut milk and accompanied by white crab, compressed cucumber, celery salad, jasmine rice and lime.
It’s the perfect dish to enjoy at a window table at the elevated harbourside restaurant, where the famously clear, rose-tinted light of St Ives makes for a spectacular, constantly shifting vista. Autumnal weather brings the best light conditions, as gentle golden sunshine alternates with dramatic dark blue and grey skies, all reflected in the waters of the bay and watched over by the sentinel form of Godrevy Lighthouse in the distance.
It’s a view which has inspired many generations of artists, including Anthony Frost whose work adorns the walls of Porthminster Kitchen. Creativity and playfulness are also given expression in the food here, where local ingredients are given a refreshing twist - often inspired by Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. Dairy and gluten take a backseat in favour of lighter textures and intriguing, experimental dishes.
Mushrooms, artichokes, celeriac, salsify and leeks are amongst the fresh produce that will be starring alongside autumnal seafood on the menu at Porthminster Kitchen in the coming months. A little later in the season game will be making an appearance at all three restaurants – the timing coinciding nicely with a downturn in the local fishing catch. “When the weather gets rough towards the end of the year the boats can’t get out, so we serve more red meat and game in our regularly changing menus,” explains Ben. “We don’t have to compromise on quality, we just adapt,” adds Paul. “I’m excited about getting some fantastic partridge, pheasant and venison later in the season.”
Expect playful, inventive food at Porthminster Kitchen
Meanwhile at Porthgwidden Beach Café, the seasonal shift sees the return of comfort food, St Ives style. The café, nestled next to ‘The Island’, is a popular stop-off for walkers out enjoying the blustery beach and nearby coast path, and the large picture window and glass-encased heated terrace make for some of the best wave-watching vantage points in town. Shelter from the elements has become an art-form here, where a cosy blanket and a luxurious hot chocolate are never far away.
Porthgwidden is a spectacular spot in all weathers
Visitors to St Ives – having negotiated the twists and turns of ‘Virgin Street’, ‘Salubrious Place’ and ‘Teetotal Street’ – are delighted to discover the small and sheltered bay which is home to the café. Head Chef Robert Michael oversees operations here on a daily basis. Thanks to him, refuelling here - with bowls of hearty chowder packed with Cornish fish, panang curry laced with warming spices, or a bowl of steaming mussels served with chorizo and tomatoes - is bliss. For dessert, a modern take on a traditional apple crumble is the perfect autumnal end to a meal, a lemon and chamomile ice cream acting as accompaniment and palate cleanser. “Autumn is a time for fresh ideas and experimentation at all three restaurants,” says Mick. “We can be ultra-adaptable, concentrating more on daily specials. If a local boat hauls a fantastic catch it can go straight on the menu that evening, or if we harvest a load of pepper dulse we’ll get started on a batch of Cornish Dashi – our take on the Japanese classic which uses local mackerel instead of Bonito flakes combined with the purplish seaweed which grows on nearby rocks.” Incidentally, any excess seaweed is combined with comfrey and used as a fertiliser for the garden.
Autumn is also an opportunity to refine and perfect the signature dishes which appear intermittently on the menu at all three restaurants. Many of these favourites, such as monkfish curry, crab linguine, crispy squid and Porthminster’s famous chocolate brownies, can be found in Porthminster Beach Café, The Cookbook, which offers a taste of St Ives in all seasons.