Sea spaghetti and lizard leaves in Falmouth

by Anita Pati - Tuesday May 17, 2016 1:05 pm

Anita heads down to the West Country to meet the owners and restorers of a manor house into a boutique hotel.

www.merchantsmanor.com

Sometimes, when it comes to foodie Cornwall, it’s all Padstow this, Padstow that. So it was a relief to be invited to Falmouth to sample its new kid on the culinary block. Merchants Manor, a Queen Anne style manor house and spa, has just bagged two chefs to transform its food offer into a destination restaurant aka Rastella. Rastella, for ye uninitiated, means “grill” in Cornish and their Bertha grill can seal the deal.

Owners Nick and Sioned Parry-Rudlin upped sticks in 2013 from London – although they’re originally Welsh – having been leading lights in the hotel business. They took on the 100-year-old house, which had been owned by local merchant George Newby Carne, to convert it into the boutique 4 AA-star hotel it is now.

Nick says, “We want Rastella at Merchants Manor to be seen as somewhere worth making a journey to – but at the same time we are an hotel. We are a place to dine fine not fine dine”. To this end, they work with local producers including a butcher, fisherman and forager to source wild food.

“This was all pink walls and red carpets,” says Sioned, gesturing to the sedate library which hosted one of our dinners, “it was like an old people’s home”.  Now it’s sober slate-hued walls and bespoke furniture. While some of the bedrooms still have relics of the manor’s prior life – chintzy curtains, grand Victorian – the owners are doing a good job of sweeping through installing local artwork, Celtic wool blankets and Parisian antique mirrors. There’s also a Turbo gym and swimming pool that I carefully avoided in favour of Cornish cream tea and scones.

Rastella restaurant

The owners hope new blood will transform the relaunched, 60-cover restaurant into a regional destination restaurant. Overseeing Rastella alongside Chef Patron Hylton Espey is Head Chef Daniel Kerr.

Award-winning Hylton arrived straight from Capetown, South Africa, and rather than get a mouthful of pea soup in the capital, he’s opted to cook it in surfing heaven because, “I grew up by the sea in South Africa”. He’s brought his wife and five-year-old son too. Daniel has worked in the Gordon Ramsey stable in London alongside chefs like Jason Atherton at restaurants including Pétrus, Claridges and Maze. 

“With Hylton and Daniel we have two of the best young chefs in the UK, says Nick. “This is a major development for us and for Falmouth.”

It’s a smallish menu but the food was very impressive. A brown crab custard starter with samphire and grapefruit ate like mousse, light not sticky with good use of citrus complement. The main of pasture-raised lamb rump from local butcher Phillip Warren was well finished, just pink enough and the overall dish was a pleasure combo of little islands comprising herby gnocchi roundels, morels and truffle shavings. Truffle fries were a disappointment, sadly, as I couldn’t discern truffle and they were a little soggy but then desert of poached plum and vanilla Pavlova was excellent.

The food, says, Nick is “More than just organic – it’s also about sustainability with wild and natural elements. The teams ethos is what grows together goes together”. He cites how, for instance, the fish is “plucked” from the sea while the seaweed is foraged by the chefs. “Neither has any organic certification but both are 100% natural and as nature intended.”

The restaurant will bring in local fish catches and the next day’s lobster, caught that morning, was exquisite. The chefs had chargrilled the lobster on the Bertha grill – which reaches temperatures of 400 degrees – before placing it on a bed of celeriac and fennel remoulade, with a smudge of wild garlic aioli and pickled fennel. The aniseed of the fennel had slightly infused the creamy lobster flesh which really worked. Drinks served include Cornish gins such as Stafford’s and Tarquin’s, and local ales.

Our last supper was specially prepared for us and off menu but it gave us a flavour of how the pair of chefs spark off each other, hinting at future experiments, all of which will find their way onto the menu. It's hard to believe these guys have only worked together for just over a month – their contrasting styles, Kerr more classical and Espey into his pickling and foraging – creates a really edgy menu.

Particularly well-crafted were the ‘Falmouth Rockpool’ of Kelp Steamed Porthilly Oyster, Smoked Mussel, Bertha Roasted Sea Lettuce, Fresh and Foraged Sea Weed with Umami Paste and the MSC Hake, Cornish Asparagus, Truffle with Newlyn Landed Scallop, Samphire and Cauliflower.

Hylton and Dan will sea forage for these ingredients in the rock pools at Falmouth beach happening upon sea spaghetti – which flares bright green when boiled – culp, which is like papadelle, and the more elusive red dulse.

Cornish suppliers - tea and lizard leaves

Merchants Manor, like many, will source locally.  The loose leaf Tea served at the hotel comes from Tregothan Estate, apparently the largest producer of tea in Europe. It’s a robust, short-tasting tea that doesn’t easily stew. 

The vast private estate has been owned by the Boscawen family since 1334 and is open by appointment only, except two days a year. Much love is poured into maintaining its gardens with such delightful specimens as a “burnt sugar tree” from Japan whose leaves waft caramel fragrances down the valleys. The tea is pretty expensive stuff though, working out at £1,800 per kilo so those hotel room samples are like gold-dust.

The hotel’s Lizard leaf salads come from local market gardener Peter Lawrence who runs an organic 14-acre farm called Canara on biodynamic principles. The affable Peter, once a music teacher from Rugby now throws himself into quirky experimentation, hybriding breeds, popping motley combinations of veg together – and the Cornish chefs love it.

“I’m always trying to look at generic vegetables or fruit and do something quirky with it,” he says, with varying degrees of success: His small cucumber punnet with Quarto, Crystal Lemon – a round yellow skinned cucumber, Cucamelons and Bur cucumber – West Indian gherkins, “went down like a lead balloon,”.

His tomato varieties include heritage beefsteak “Black Prince” from Siberia and tiger-striped plum tomatoes. But it’s his famous Lizard leaves that are most popular, guarded by two startlingly realistic scarecrow mannequins called Ken. These include Russian kale, Tat Soi and Red dragon. They fill him with joy: “I was like a kid in a sweetshop when the baby lettuce market came in,” he says, “and chefs love it”.

Later

After a hard day sampling teas and salads on our 1950s tour bus Huey, it was time to enjoy yet more relaxation. I popped into Merchant Manor’s Linen Room spa, opened in October 2015.

The spa uses organic ingredients across 13 different therapies with names such as Nomad's Walk - feet on your back. Sarah, my skilful therapist, succeeded in loosening my ironing board back with a tailored aromatherapy treatment called Smell the Roses. One successful technique included a French “percussion”, so called because of the rapid sidehand chops that drum the skin.

And then it was onto more Champagne, this time a blind-tasting face-off between local Cornish sparkling wines and established Champagnes. Guess who won? Not only did the smoky Camel Valley sparkling do it for me and others partaking, Falmouth did a very good job of planting itself onto the culinary map.

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