Wednesday, 8 December 2010
The Gurnards Head - Cornwall
As long as I can remember, the idea of staying in an old-fashioned inn has appealed to me. Not for me the stark contemporary clean lines of a modern hotel. I want real character. I want to stay in cosy rooms above the pub, take my nightcap in the bar; waved off to bed by cheery, pipe smoking (no doubt bearded) regulars. Awake refreshed and eat a hearty breakfast by a flickering log fire whilst surveying the weather rolling in across the rugged moors outside. I also want to eat excellent British, seasonal food and drink fabulous booze. I want it. I want it all.
Sadly the reality so far just hasn’t delivered. It’s hard, actually almost impossible to find an inn that also has rooms, and isn’t charging extortionate prices and also, most importantly hasn’t been turned into a Weatherspoons.
But, gather close regular readers, that’s right huddle close and listen as I whisper dramatically, because I want to keep this amongst ourselves…. I’ve found it! It exists, and not only is it all that I dreamed of…. it’s more. Much more.
This dream of a pub is The Gurnards Head, and you’ll have to head to the far reaches of Cornwall, almost to Lands End to find it. But it’s there, and it’s bloody excellent.
To be fair, I’d heard mention of it from Browners of ‘Around Britain with a Paunch’ and come across it in Diana Henry’s excellent Gastropub Cookbook, Another Helping, but had filed it away in my ‘one day’ file.
So, you can imagine my delight and mounting excitement as the Cornish countryside flashed by outside, whilst driving there last Sunday week with friends Kate and Neil of Lahloo Tea, who had suggested accompanying them for a meal and one night’s stay to celebrate Kate’s Birthday.
Even the low groans, curses and moans from an amazingly car sick ‘E’ in the back couldn’t detract from my no doubt irritating cheeriness as The Gurnards Head ‘hove into view’ (Check out my crusty barnacled nautical speak!). Pirate style “Gaaaaahs” were certainly appropriate, as the inn is situated in beautifully rugged Cornish countryside, just a couple of minutes walk from breathtaking steep cliffs, and beyond that, the sea. As they say at The Gurnards Head ‘Next stop Newfoundland’. It really is perfect.
“Gaaaaah” groaned ‘E’ suddenly. But alas it wasn’t the almost obligatory Pirate speak. No. It was the sound of a desperately carsick passenger about to puke inside the car. Luckily, we had arrived just in time to avert disaster as we screeched to a halt stumbled, stiff legged, aching and in the case of ‘E’ puce coloured, out into the rather bracing coastal air and crunched our way across the gravel to the entrance.
Inside The Gurnards Head it was perfectly cosy, with a log fire lazily crackling and popping in the grate. Greeted warmly at the bar, we threw ourselves onto a cosy sofa and were offered complimentary tea, whilst we slowly recovered from the drive.
Twenty minutes later, having checked into our rooms, which are as you’d expect from the inn of my imagination were cosy and rustic (and with supremely soft beds), we assembled back downstairs for Sunday lunch in the restaurant.
We’d taken advantage of a ‘Sleepover’ deal, which included one nights Sunday stay, lunch, dinner and breakfast for…get this, £75 per person! Which is such a ridiculous bargain, encompassing as it does dining of such quality that I almost want to keep it to myself.
Seated and studying the lunch menu with ‘E’ having regained her composure somewhat, we briskly set about ordering food and booze.
Incredibly good, crumbly homemade soda bread was munched as we guzzled amazingly well priced and excellent wine served by the carafe.
My starter of Chicken Liver pate, Toast and Gherkins - despite being rather conventional - was beautifully executed, creamy and mousse like but with real depth of flavour. It was nicely done.
‘E’s plate of Red Wine braised Squid and Croutons was less conventional, and from the brief forkful I snatched of it, bloody amazing. ‘E’ now says it was one of the best things she ate all weekend.
Being by the sea and wanting to embrace all things aquatic (apart from great white sharks and perhaps box jellyfish) I’d uncharacteristically disregarded the Slow Rib of Beef and the Braised Lamb Shoulder and gone for Plaice with Fennel, New Potatoes and Citrus Beurre Blanc.
One word. Amazing.
Beautifully cooked fish with the almost toffee like, slowly caramelised fennel. The citrus beurre blanc cut through all of the other flavours, tasting fresh and sharp, like it should be doing you some real good with regards to health benefits. Dangerously tasty.
‘E’ had gone for the same dish and we were both extremely pleased and smug with ourselves as we ordered dessert.
I ordered the Fig and Almond Jalouise, (a kind of French strudel/turnover apparently) with hazelnut custard. It wasn’t bad actually, I’ve never been a massive fan of figs so any dish I like where they feature I’d mark up as a success. Not as jaw droppingly excellent as the plaice, but perfectly good.
‘E’ meanwhile had gone for the Chocolate Brownie with clotted cream. Which, considering she makes famously good brownies for a living was perhaps a tad unadventurous. But, also adds weight somewhat to her enthusiastic thumbs up when she said it was superb.
Throwing our napkins onto the table and surveying the beautiful sunlit and rugged but freezing countryside outside we decided as a group that the best course of action would be to change into stout walking gear and go for a walk along the cliffs to work off lunch. There being apparently an excellent pub, recommended by the owner of The Gurnards Head in a nearby village.
Up to this point in our relationship, ‘E’ had often regaled me with tales of her outdoorswoman prowess and skill. “When I was camping in Wales/The Lake District/New Forest etc etc etc.
Understandably therefore I had her down as a cross between Bear Grylls and Daniel Boon, in fact I think I half believed she’d killed a large wild animal with her bare hands once, and I’d followed her advice on sturdy footwear (Hiking Boots) and spare warm clothing to the letter.
‘E’ on the other hand had followed none of her own advice, no suitable footwear and no spare clothes. In fact, she’d decided to wear every piece of clothing she had brought for the weekend all at once, as she was cold. Alarm bells were faintly beginning to ring.
Meanwhile, Kate and Neil appeared looking like they’d been sponsored by Gore-Tex, clad in all the correct outdoor gear. I jealously think I spied some kind of Kevlar retractable walking stick.
We strode off relaxed, happy and confident down the lane behind the pub towards the cliff path and beyond, the sea….
An hour later our cheery outdoor walk had descended into the sort of trial of grim desperation last seen on the Bataan Death March. ‘E’s tales of outdoor prowess were, lets say exaggerated, as we struggled our way over boulders, down rugged, slippery cliff paths with sheer drops into the sea just feet away and up tiring steep inclines. It was starting to get dark. It was cold. We couldn’t see a village with a cheery pub anywhere in the distance. How could it get worse?
That’s right. ‘E’ could slide fully over in the mud due to her entirely unsuitable footwear and be absolutely caked from head to toe. Disaster enough you might think, remember she was wearing ALL of her weekend clothes. But what’s this? ‘E’ scrabbling for purchase, has managed to grab a spiky gorse bush…and then, get this…somehow stuck her face in it as well! So less Bear Grylls, more Norman Wisdom
Struggling on, tired muddy and in ‘E’s case, bloody we started to come across traces of civilisation, and finally The Tinners Arms pub in Zennor that proved to be so cheery, warm and welcoming that even ‘E’ forgot about her earlier misfortune. We returned to The Gurnards Head in high spirits via a less taxing county lane route.
After a power nap, a hot shower, and a change of clothes (apart from ‘E’ who had to borrow clothes from Kate) we assembled downstairs in the bar for dinner, refreshed and cheery. Interestingly, I think a factor in the relaxation may be the lack of any mobile signal in the area. No calls, no Twitter, no email…frustrating at first, but then freed of the 21st century shackles of being so constantly contactable and in touch it becomes strangely liberating to take such a complete break.
Additionally the extremely happy and relaxed attitude of the staff helps. Nothing is too much trouble and this relaxed attitude extends to the pricing of the drinks, which are ridiculously cheap. There’s nothing worse than staying somewhere and looking at the bar menu or the room service menu and knowing you daren’t order from it less you be utterly gouged. Not so here, it seems there’s not much of a mark up in evidence at all. It’s extremely unusual to be able to order drinks and not really worry too much about the cost.
We opted to eat dinner in the bar, at a cosy corner table.
Starting with the same excellent homemade soda bread we’d eaten at lunch, we sat and discussed what to order.
The menu has an enticing second section ‘The Kitchen Garden’ with a selection of dishes based around produce from The Gurnard Head’s own garden. I agonised over my choice, there being so much I wanted to eat, but in the end went for a Quail and Mushroom tartlet with Celeriac Puree and Mushroom Jus.
I have rarely ordered a decent quail dish, being so often disappointed that I’ve almost given up on it. But happily this last throw of the dice proved to be well worth it. Frigging superb, rich, moist and incredibly tasty. I was tres impressed.
Meanwhile, ‘E’ was eating a beautiful looking dish of Scallops with Pumpkin Puree and Parsley Tapenade. She was enthusiastic about the dish with her only criticism being that the tapenade was perhaps a bit too overpowering when competing against the delicate flavours of the other ingredients.
I’d gone for the Cornish Duck Breast, with Chervil Root, Chard and Darphin Potatoes, chosen because I hadn’t eaten duck for ages, and was intrigued by chervil root, which in the end proved to have a pleasant slightly aniseed taste. Overall it was a cracking plate of food, The duck being beautifully cooked with my only criticism that perhaps the portion of darphin potatoes was a bit large in relation to the other elements of the dish…which isn’t really much of a criticism is it?
Across the table ‘E’ was taking the worst food photo with her mobile that I’ve ever seen. She’d made her plate of Brill, Cauliflower and Shrimp gratin, fresh Vermicelli, White Wine velouté and Spinach look like someone had just thrown it up onto the plate. Nice eh?.
Luckily, I am incredibly skilful (and also ruggedly handsome, but I digress), and was on hand to do the dish some justice. ‘E’ absolutely loved the taste of the brill and the gratin, but wasn’t massively keen on the vermicelli, saying that she’d have preferred some potatoes as the carb element to this dish instead. She was also keen to stress this has more to do with personal preference rather than anything wrong with the makeup of the food.
Across the table, Neil and Kate gave their respective dishes of Guinea Fowl and Sole ‘Murat’ massive thumbs up. Happiness all around then.
Our desserts of Apple Tart Tatin and Dark Chocolate pudding with mint ice cream were both very good, but when stacked up against the outstanding starters and mains, a little less impressive.
Overall, a bloody fabulous meal. We stayed up for some time afterwards drinking, playing cards and chatting. I found it an incredibly novel experience to be able to stagger off beyond the bar, up the stairs to bed afterwards rather than brave the cold and a taxi home.
Waking up, incredibly rested and relaxed, we dressed and headed downstairs to meet Kate and Neil for breakfast, which we ate at a table in the bar and being served by the impressively side-burned owner, Charles.
It seems the relaxed attitude extends to breakfast and you can order anything that takes your fancy, as much tea and coffee as you can drink, help yourself to toasted homemade bread and jams, a full English, locally smoked kippers, porridge…. the best breakfast ever really if you’re a greedy bastard like me.
It was so pleasant, rather than eating up and checking out, we sat and chatted, ate, drank and read the papers for a couple of hours. In the background the smouldering log fire burned lazily . Outside, proving just how rurally located it actually is, a herd of cows wandered past in the road outside, directly past the pubs front door. It really is a magical place to eat and stay at.
I can honestly say The Gurnards Head provided overall one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a pub restaurant or hotel. The food was truly outstanding, the attitude of the owners and staff is beyond relaxed, they obviously love where they are and what they’re doing and they want you to love it too. I left, even after just one night’s stay feeling totally relaxed and refreshed and wishing I could reap the benefit of spending a week there.
‘The Sunday Sleepovers’ are available from 5th September to 22nd May 2011 and include complimentary tea on arrival, Sunday lunch, dinner, one night’s accommodation and breakfast the next day. For a frankly ridiculous £75 per person.
I urge you to go!!
The Gurnards Head
Telephone: 01736 796 928