Magic touches that make a big difference
If you wanted to eat out in Newquay when I first moved here nearly 20 years ago, you either went to the Wheat Sheaf pub on Henver Road, or the Dolphin Restaurant on Fore Street. That was the choice, they both served reasonable pub grub take it or leave it, or you could go to the chip shop.
How things have changed. In 2015 Newquay is full of great restaurants and top eateries serving in particular the very best seafood. Writing this guide each year I have the privilege of meeting the inspiring chefs who have turned Newquay's culinary scene on its head. The town boasts a band of inspiring, young, talented masters of their craft, experts in creating exciting dishes from fresh produce that comes from just over the cliff edge, or a few fields up the road. We have chefs who regularly abandon the heat of their kitchen to go foraging for wild samphire or ice lettuce along the banks of the Gannel.
They meet the fisherman, talk to their suppliers and have an ear to the ground for what is in season and what is at its best. They also care about sustainability. We have chefs who take care to find the abundant fish, avoid species that are under pressure, and respond to customers who are ever more demanding and knowledgable about the food on their plate and far more prepared to take risks and try new things.
Greg Huxford, sous chef at Silks Bistro at the landmark Altantic Hotel is a case in point. He is only 24, but uses the language of an artist controlling the flavours and textures of his trade. Greg is a rising star who sees the plates he serves as representing the landscapes they come from. His sea food dishes should represent the pull and push of the swell through seaweed covered rock pools. They should excite the nose as well as the eye, and the flavours should both compliment and excite when they come together in the mouth.
The dish he will be presenting at the show is a very traditional dish in many ways: mussels with hake and micro herbs. However to see it prepared and presented is to be reminded that what you get when you visit a great restaurant like Silks is the experience and the knowledge that turn an ordinary bowl of shellfish into something beautiful on the plate and delicious on the tongue.
Greg explains the thought that has gone into the dish: "It looks like a beachscape with the mussels and micro herbs like seaweed on the rocks, I really like that look, especially with fish dishes. Asked to summarise his approach to cooking in a sentence he says he strives for homely, hearty food with bold flavours that are nicely balanced, textures that work together and something that looks nice and colourful. "I like food that hasn't been messed about with too much", he adds.
The mussels in this dish will be served with hake, a fish chosen for its meaty texture that can handle all the flavours without overpowering the subtle saltiness of the shellfish.
At 24 Greg has already been in the industry for ten years and says he has always enjoyed cooking. He completed his formal training in Salisbury, gained experience working 'up country' before heading to Australia where he studied with top chefs in Queensland learning from man who had been head chef at the New Zealand parliament. "I learned a hell of a lot from him," says Greg.
"I learned about the science behind food, why things work, why proteins work in certain ways. It helps me to balance things like temperature when I understand how things work at a molecular level."
In the past many chefs I've interviewed ha
ve expressed a frustration that they would like to offer more seafood dishes but that for the most part the customer needed their hand holding, as they chose the same safe meat dishes. Greg's experience of diners at the Atlantic is very different. He says they expect seafood above all else and are looking to experience something more challenging. "I love cooking in Newquay because there’s a lot more fish about. When I worked in the Midlands it was all about meat, meat and two veg. It’s a lot different here, everyone loves the fish.
"A lot of tourists come to Cornwall for the seafood, it's a definite draw. With the TV programmes people are a lot more interested in where their food comes from and are getting more adventurous. People are getting more adventurous with the types of fish."
Greg explains how to prepare the hake.
"This year at the festival I am going to prepare baked hake with chilli and mussels. It’s one of our specials, a real big seller. Baking works well with the meatier fishes because they can take the heat, rather than seabass and the smaller fishes.
"With the hake it carimelises on the outside and really works. I will sear it on one side and then put it in the even heat of the oven, skin side down, to cook through. With the oven you get more of an even heat. To prepare fish for this dish, cut the fish into portions with the skin on, and dry it out on cloth, and get it as dry as possible, particularly the skin. Work in lots of sea salt and lay it skin side down on a pan with a little butter which will turn it nut brown. I cook fish on a piece of greaseproof paper. The grease proof paper stops the fish sticking to the pan but still lets it crisp up.
"Right at the end I add a squeeze of lemon to keep the taste fresh. The fish is flipped over to get a bit of colour on each side and I add a sprinkle of pepper before it goes in the oven. Using the oven reduces the risk of drying the fish out and it stops you playing with it in the pan. The fish stays in the oven at 180 degrees for five minutes. You know it is ready when it is just firm, you don't cook fish, you set it. So as soon as it's firm it's done."
An essential ingredient for this dish is harissa, which is a Moroccan chilli sauce, made from chillies whizzed down with garlic, coriander olive oil and cumin powder. This can be made and kept in the fridge as a useful addition to any dish that needs a bit of spice.
The mussels are cooked in a piping hot pan with diced shallots, white wine, garlic and chilli. The harissa paste is joined by the fresh peas and finally the very finely chopped parsley are added to the sizzling pan. The whole process from frying the shallots to serving the mussels to plate takes around 3 minutes.
The final touches that make this dish such a treat for the eyes are the micro herbs. Pea shoots and red amaranth, a red herb that tastes of beetroot and is one of the herbs of this season, plus red pak choi and red sorrel, all chosen for their subtle flavours and strong, mainly red, colours.
To find out exactly how to make this dish be sure to catch Greg's demonstration at this year's Fish Festival. n