A pub on the south coast is turning up the heat on seasonal food, made with hyper-local ingredients.
Words by Hannah Tapping
It may not be a particularly original thing to say, but The Packet Inn Smokehouse really is one of Cornwall’s best-kept secrets. You could easily pass by this modest-looking old coaching inn a few miles east of Penzance without even noticing it, safe from the knowledge that you’d just missed some of the most enjoyable food in a region packed with culinary highlights. On the other hand, those who discover it become true disciples – spreading the word, singing its praises to anyone who’ll listen, and bringing friends and family to enjoy their prized find.
Modern pub food is probably the best description of what’s on offer, but it’s the local sourcing policy (the majority of produce is from the surrounding coast and countryside) and the smoky edge to the food here that sets it apart. In fact, connoisseurs of the week’s most sacrosanct meal – Sunday Lunch – rate The Packet Inn Smokehouse amongst the very best, if not the best, in Cornwall. The pub is the second in a small but well-regarded family of food-led pubs, skippered by chef proprietor Ben Tunnicliffe. Ben has played a major role in Cornwall’s meteoric rise as a food destination over the course of his career, which spans three decades. His achievements include gaining Cornwall’s first ever Michelin Star at The Abbey in Penzance back in the 2000s, and launching the food offering at what remains the region’s leading luxury hotel, The Scarlet at Mawgan Porth.
In 2012 Ben opened The Tolcarne Inn in Newlyn Harbour, a humble, maritime pub huddled next to the sea wall in this busy working port. Here, a daily blackboard menu showcases seafood sourced from the nearby fish market, where the daily catch can include almost 50 different species. The Tolcarne has achieved a reputation for consistently excellent food, garnering a steady stream of praise from critics. It remains one of the best places to enjoy fresh fish in the whole of the UK, with a clientele so loyal as to be the envy of its peers.
At The Packet, which Ben took on in 2020, the food offering is very different but still influenced chiefly by its surroundings. Rosudgeon, the little hamlet where the pub is situated, sits between coast and countryside. From here, winding lanes run down to the picturesque and dramatic south coast jewel of Prussia Cove, but to the north, east and west The Packet is surrounded by rich farmland, craggy hills and ancient woodland. Godolphin, which was a hugely productive estate for hundreds of years, is just a mile or two inland.
“At The Packet, we’re surrounded by some of the best farmland in Cornwall,” says Ben. “There’s lots of small growers operating nearby, either specialising in things like strawberries, salads, asparagus or tomatoes for example, or growing a range of produce using organic methods.” These market gardens, community farms and hobby growers are prized by Ben and his team, as they help add colour and goodness to dishes at The Packet all year round.
Smallholders with a penchant for growing tasty fruit and veg, like Elaine from St Hilary, receive a warm welcome at the kitchen door. Her supplies of purple sprouting broccoli, rainbow chard and cavolo nero have been helping to fill the ‘hungry gap’ – the time of year when winter crops are coming to an end, but spring is yet to deliver its bounty. Later in the year, Phil’s famous Rosudgeon strawberries will arrive – an eagerly anticipated seasonal delicacy. Meanwhile, Kitchen Porter Nick has his own beehives, producing honey which is served with mozzarella, pit beets and smoked almonds.
Ben explains: “We wanted to give these local farmers and growers a starring role at The Packet, so you’ll often find them named on our menus. Of course, there’s seafood too – some of which is from Newlyn and some of which is fished by small day boats working to strict sustainability quotas in the small coves here on the south coast.” Then there are the family farms and smallholdings where animals are reared traditionally and non-intensively to produce fantastic quality meat. Ben and his team work with them direct or via local butchers to source grass-fed beef, free range poultry and outdoor-reared pork. The latter comes from award-winning Cornish butchery, Primrose Herd, which has its own herd of traditional breed pigs.
Sunday lunch always features Homage to the Bovine’s grassfed beef, which is from ex-dairy cows given lengthy pasture time, making sure every cow is in the best health and condition and is a long time at rest. All their meat is hung for at least 28 days, quality controlled to ensure a tender and flavoursome end-result. At The Packet, beef topside and brisket are brined, smoked and finally roasted for maximum flavour, before being served with all the trimmings.
One of the things which elevates the food here is there in the name itself; The Packet is a Smokehouse and therefore a significant portion of the cooking is done using ‘live fire,’ i.e. over wood and coals. Charring, smoking, fire roasting and burning (when done by experienced hands!) imparts exceptional flavour, adding another dimension to the food. “The flavours and textures which emerge from under the charcoal grills and wood-fired smokers are our signature touch,” explains Ben. Sometimes the influence is subtle, elsewhere it’s the defining character of the dish, but you can always expect effortlessly interlocking flavours, remaining delicious to the very last mouthful.
Pickling, fermenting and curing is also a big part of the approach to seasonal food at The Packet. “The art of preserving is undervalued,” says Ben, who has used these techniques to help with diversification of the menu at The Tolcarne for a decade. “For seafood, it helps us keep things interesting when the seas are too rough for the boats to go out. At the Packet, it’s more often about preserving a glut of fresh produce that would otherwise go to waste, and using that to add colour and interest to our dishes at leaner times of the year. We also cure our own meats – our house-cured bresaola, salami and pickles is a firm favourite on the menu.”
Ben is honest and open about the struggles facing restaurants and pubs like his in the current climate and, having opened The Packet in the midst of the Covid pandemic, is eagerly awaiting a ‘normal’ year. “Covid, followed by recruitment struggles across the industry, and then the cost-of-living crisis, has made running restaurants a sharp uphill struggle for the past few years,” he says. “We’ve been working hard to adapt, introducing things like early dining deals and set price menus to help people get out and enjoy great food and hospitality, while keeping an eye on their bank balance.”
One of the things Ben has successfully trialled at The Packet is introducing a super-charged burger menu, featuring three signature house burgers and the ‘fish royale’ – crisp pollock served with leek top tartare, gem and nori crisps. “We use all the same locally sourced, premium ingredients in our burgers, and our special smokehouse cooking methods, but it’s something that we can deliver at a great price which is accessible for families or just someone heading home after work and needing a good feed,” explains Ben. “I may be a chef but I’m a publican too, and I will always believe that the best food experiences can be found in the unpretentious surroundings of a humble pub.”