Forget food miles, catch a mackerel and go foraging!
Jimmy Whatcott, chef at the Carnmarth Hotel, Newquay.
A lot has changed in Newquay in the last 10 years and Headland Road where the Carnmarth Hotel stands is a good bellwether of the revolution. Once it was a rundown area full of backpackers and tired town houses. But all that changed during the building boom before the bust of the recession.
First the streetscape was updated, the road got a glittery surface and the town houses and backpackers were replaced by a series of monumental modern flat developments offering penthouse apartments and modern design. So against that backdrop it was a brave decision to resist the developers’ large cheque books and keep the family hotel business for owner William Hatfield. The result is the Carnmarth is now in the enviable position of being the only hotel on the road, if you overlook the small matter of the Headland Hotel at the end of it. William had a vision and turned the 100-year-old business into a modern boutique hotel with a fine dining restaurant alongside a more informal bar eatery.
I met up with chef Jimmy Whatcott, 32, while the Carnmarth kitchen was still in the heat of battle serving breakfast to a busy dining room. Jimmy worked for BMW and lived in London until what he describes as a eureka moment when he walked away from all that and moved to St Ives to become a chef. Chance took Jimmy and his girlfriend to work at the Alex Polizzi-owned three rosette Hotel Endsleigh in Tavistock, Devon. As Jimmy explains: “It was pretty intense for a first proper real chefy job, I was really thrown in at the deep end, I’ve come a long way really quickly.”
So what’s on the menu at the Carnmarth? “We have a set menu but a large specials board because seafood is so unpredictable. We used to have mussels on the menu all the time, but at the moment the farms are closed so you need to just put it on when it’s good. We have four or five fish dishes on our menu at the moment and we just change things depending on what is good and available”
“We have a lot of freedom over the dishes and they trust us with the menu. We have a Spanish chef so we put some Spanish dishes on. Our food isn’t expensive we have dishes from £5. People can have a three course meal or a burger and watch the footie.”
What trends is he seeing at the moment? “Everything’s gone back to basics again which is nice. We’ve done the molecular gastronomy thing, now it’s nice not to meddle with the food too much, not try to be too clever. And put the food on a plate for goodness sake, rather than on slates!”
Do you find diners are concerned about sustainability and food miles? “Not so much, I think they like the back story but it doesn’t feature too much in people’s minds. It’s nice to read on a menu that the food comes from 10 miles away but I don’t think they worry too much. To satisfy my conscience I try to say where our fish comes from. A lot of the stuff we are using comes from the immediate area.”
To make the point, the dish Jimmy shows us here consists of fresh mackerel caught the day before by the kitchen porter. At the moment mackerel is reported to be in short supply but take a fishing rod and feathers to Towan Head on a high tide and there are plenty for the catching. “The seaweed is straight off Fistral, straight off the rocks, we just wash it to get the sand off and then deep fry it, a bit like the Chinese restaurants. We add a bit of rock salt, a little sugar, it’s really tasty. To that we are adding a bit of sea purslane from the coast path.”
The mackerel is presented in two ways, a fillet torched and grilled, and raw fish diced and made into ceviche. Ceviche is a popular South American dish where the acidity of lemon or limes is used to ‘cook’ the raw fish. It leaves the delicate flavour of the fish and the meat stays soft.
“We take the flesh off the mackerel and soak it in lemon and Cornish cider with some sugar, some peppers and shallots.
With that will go some local baby fennel which has been braised in fish stock until it is al dente. It is then cut in half and chargrilled. Some baby gooseberries which are just coming into season will add a tart flavour.
Walnut pesto is made with equal parts walnuts and Parmesan cheese, some lemon zest and a little olive oil and a bit of salt and crushed garlic. The mixture is whizzed down in a blender but left coarse, although you can make it as rough or smooth as you like.
The mackerel fillet is scored through the skin to let the heat in. You need to take out the pin bone with a sharp knife which runs down the centre of each fillet. Jimmy explains: “I blow torch the fish to give it a nice toasty barbecue flavour, dust it with a little sea salt and blow torch the skin side, it curls up to start with, then relaxes again. It gives it a real different barbecue flavour, starts the cooking process and then we finish it under the grill.”
The fennel is cut in half and char-grilled again to add that barbecue flavour to this dish. The result is in keeping with the theme this summer of simple clean flavours that pack a punch. And forget about food miles, this dish hasn’t travelled more than a few hundred metres to make the most of the natural ingredients on our doorstep here in Cornwall. n
Come and meet Jimmy and watch him on our demonstration area at this year’s opening chef, 11am on Friday, September 11.