‘Local’ and ‘seasonal’ are probably the most common descriptors on menus here in the South West, where fresh produce from land and sea is unrivalled in quality and diversity. However, at Porthminster Beach Café in St Ives, this strategy is being taken to new levels as Executive Chef Mick Smith and his team pioneer hyperlocal sourcing methods.
Porthminster Beach Café must be one of the most spectacularly located restaurants in the country. From here the view of St Ives harbour is an iconic one, but it doesn’t stop there. The sweeping vista takes in the turquoise waters and sandy beaches of the whole bay, watched over by the sentinel presence of Godrevy Lighthouse in the distance.
During the summer, guests on the sun-drenched terrace sip wine chilled in beach buckets and tuck into plate after plate of exquisite food; the restaurant focuses mainly but not exclusively on seafood, and both Asian and Mediterranean food influences are strong. However, no matter how far in advance they reserved, these guests will never get the best seats in the house…
The finest view is in fact the privilege of whichever chef pulls the long straw on any particular day and finds themselves on ‘the garden run’. Because behind the restaurant lies a productive and very special little plot of land – a unique coastal kitchen garden.
“Kitchen gardens are relatively common at country house hotels where they have plenty of space and existing in-house gardening skills. I don’t know of any other restaurant gardens quite like ours, and it certainly presents its own challenges,” explains Mick Smith, the far-sighted Executive Chef who pushed for the creation of this garden nearly a decade ago.
It’s now a daily source of fresh flavour and inspiration. Specially designed and meticulously tended to be productive all year round, every bit of the small space yields something useful – from fruit and vegetables to herbs, leaves and flowers. Garden-grown produce has become a signature element of the food at Porthminster Beach Cafe, and gives the restaurant a noteworthy point of difference. “To a certain extent, having a kitchen garden dictates the flow of the menu,” Mick explains. “It means that we naturally take our lead from what is in season; our chefs get quite excited when something new is ready to pick!”
Whilst one chef raids the garden each day (new chefs can get quite scissor-happy and have to be taught restraint, explains Mick) another embarks on ‘the forage run’ along the nearby coastal path. Using foraged ingredients is now quite common, but Mick was one of the first chefs in Cornwall to introduce them onto his menus. It’s part of the training programme for any new chef joining the brigade, who will soon become adept in finding things like sorrel, horseradish, pennywort and wild garlic.
Some days the forage run also involves a trip to the waterline to search for samphire and seaweed – a mission which can occasionally involve an unintended soaking! One example of how Mick and the team use seaweed is in their Dashi Broth – a Cornish take on the Japanese classic. “We use mackerel, which is similar to Bonito, and Dulse, a purplish seaweed which grows on nearby rocks,” explains Mick. “We semi-cure and smoke the mackerel and then dehydrate it along with the Dulse. From this we make a broth to which can be added things like scallops, surf clams, mussels and pak choi.” Incidentally, any excess seaweed is combined with comfrey and used as a fertiliser for the garden.
These daily forays gave Mick the idea of creating the restaurant’s very own gin – a spirit to encapsulate the unique location. A chance conversation with Steve Dulstow of Colwith Farm Distillery provided Mick with a project partner; the two explored the kitchen garden together and walked the chefs’ regular foraging route to Porthminster Point. They selected various wild finds including Pepper Dulse, Rock Samphire, Alexander and Sea Buckthorn. These were added to a pure Cornish spirit made from potatoes to create a distinctive coastal gin which is now served at Porthminster with lime, samphire and purple violets.
The restaurant sources as much seafood as possible from St Ives Bay with the help of fish merchant Matthew Stevens. But here again they take local sourcing a step further, with the delivery of day boat fish straight from source. Fisherman Toby Wright beaches his small vessel just long enough for one of the chefs to wade into the water and grab a couple of crates of freshly-caught fish – most often mackerel. This is the advantage of having a kitchen door which opens directly onto the beach – something few chefs could dream of!
Mick admits that it’s not realistic for a busy restaurant to source all their ingredients in this way but is determined to put the principles of hyperlocal food to work wherever he can. One example is a new project Porthminster is supporting – The Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Wilder Beef initiative. This takes the principle that grass-fed beef is better for the environment and marries this with the fact that cattle have long provided the essential service of maintaining the Trust’s cherished wildlife sites. There are several of these sites around St Ives and West Penwith where cattle graze freely outdoors, feeding only on grass and herbs – a diet which results in healthier cattle and tastier meat as well as having a much smaller environmental footprint. Mick was one of the first chefs to sign-up for a batch of Wilder Beef, and will soon be serving it to guests.
For Mick, hyperlocal sourcing is a way of doing justice to the incredible location enjoyed by Porthminster – both by showcasing the amazing produce on his doorstep, and by contributing towards a more sustainable future.
Make sure you check out our Porthminster Beach Cafe listing here.