I’ve read Eat Love Pray and pretended to hate it (but there is nothing not to like about stuffing your face with pizza in Naples); I got addicted to Carol Drinkwater renovating an impossible house in the south of France and I’ve read Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons (the follow up wasn’t as good). I’ve even had a go at some D.H. Lawrence in Italy and had a dose of realism from Tim Parks and Peter Robb. But the romance still lingers: a long table in an overgrown garden behind an old Tuscan farmhouse, sea in the distance, jugs of local wine on table filled end to end with family and friends.
And that is the only reason why books about driving south sell – we all want a bit of that long table. On that basis I will soon be packing up and heading down to Porthcurnick beach and moving into the hut with Jemma and Simon (guys?). On the first Sunday of June, the team behind Caroline Quentin’s darling – the Hidden Hut – created that coveted moment: a long table filled with food and people. And there was sun.
Wine Stock brought together some of the finest food and wine establishments in the region: Fifteen Cornwall, The Tresanton Hotel in St Mawes, chef Simon Stallard and wines from Cornish-based Mark Hellyar of Chateau Civrac and Bristol based Liam from Red & White wines. Tickets were £50 a head and included four courses and three glasses of wine. Expensive? Bargain. Two of the courses were main-sized man portions, there was a pasta starter and a coffee cup full of dessert. Instead of full glasses, each token could be exchanged for five smaller wine tasters. All this set against a backdrop of milky blue sea and I would be hard put to describe a better place or better food.
Diners could eat in any order at any time – a small stroke of genius. We could do a Napoleon and eat dessert first, or, as recommended, go for the crab-stuffed squid ink tortellini from Fifteen with melted butter and what tasted like samphire on the top. The salty sea air was an ideal condiment to the sweet crab and the texture of the black pasta was perfectly al dente alongside the crab’s softness. Washed back with some Chateau Civrac Wild White and we were on to the next course: the elegant Hotel Tresanton’s squid Caesar salad which was more gutsy than fine dining – a large cardboard takeaway box crammed with freshly fried wonky (good sign) squid with all the Caesar trimmings. Portion-wise, I think the eggs could have been eliminated and the dish would have been equally as good: tender, tasty and filling.
Squid was followed by lobster – a hefty half (front claw comparable to the length of my forearm, well almost) with meaty chips and salad, barbecued and sweated over by Hidden Hut’s very own talented Simon Stallard, the man who has made al fresco a commercial reality. I have never really wanted to say this, ever, but I think I ate too much lobster. And who can blame me? Freshly brought in by Dreckly Fish who operate out of Newquay, the lobster was even delivered to our table by the man who caught them. Traceability suddenly has a whole new meaning.
A bit of a break with some rock pooling and improvised beach dancing to the Spanish guitar and some Tidal Beats from David McWilliam led us on to dessert – a vanilla pannacotta with berries. After the lobster it would be hard for anything to be exceptional but it slipped down rather nicely, if just a little too sweet. On Liam’s recommendation from Red & White I finished up with a glass of prosecco and despite my initial reservations, it really worked as a meal finisher.
Jemma and Simon of Hidden Hut have combined down-to-earth hospitality with ambition, creativity and excellent cooking in the context of the Cornish landscape with all its beauty and all its challenges. It has already earned them national recognition but I have a feeling there is a lot more to come yet. For more information on upcoming events go to hiddenhut.co.uk.