A foodie weekend in Cornwall: Merchants Manor.
By Spence Homes
I travelled to Falmouth, Cornwall to stay at Merchants Manor, a premier country house hotel ideally positioned to explore the Cornish Riviera by land and sea.
If we think of food and Cornwall we probably think of Cornish pasties, incredibly creamy ice cream and perhaps the odd bit of seafood, with many of our memories being more about the bucket and spade, sand and sea, if not incredible cliff side walks. Falmouth offers this but also a different side to Cornwall. I was here for a winter foodie weekend to taste Cornwall ‘out of season’ as it were. The cliff side walks proved just as incredible and the moody sea was beautiful in its own right but the cold weather meant that comforting but fine food was a must, as was an escape from the cold that one would be content not to leave if the weather took a turn for the worse.
Arriving in the evening, sight-seeing would be left for tomorrow. That stated, the hotel offered food for the eyes. Architecturally the hotel is a glory; rendered in the Queen Anne style, completed in 1913. The hotel comfortably blends the traditional and the modern with its elegant restoration, gym and swimming pool. The evening meal is essentially waiting for me upon arrival and is most welcome, so I will begin there.
Merchant Manors’ Sunday menu presents traditional Sunday roast options; there was nothing on offer for a vegetarian, perhaps to be expected. To counter what would be the meat of the meal, the main course, I had the vegetable soup to start. A bowl of earthy-orange soup was brought to me, presenting wholesome tastes of parsnip and butternut squash. The taste of the soup was only rivalled by its fresh, seasonal scents; it was a very balanced starter, delightful with fresh artisan breads.
Local artwork, much of it originating from the nearby university, gave fresh flavour to the well-adorned room of low-lighting, dark, sleek tables and chairs, and tasteful Christmas decorations. The dining area, bright and modern in the daylight, seemed more traditional and at home with itself as evening fell. That is an attractiveness of the place as a whole- the traditional and the modern blend comfortably at Merchants Manor, from the log-fire in the lounge and the grace of the restored library to the well-cultivated cosiness of my room, decorated with similarly endearing illustrative artworks as those which I looked upon as I ate.
From scanning the menu, Merchants Manors’ brasserie encompassed the traditional brasserie restaurant concept of seasonal local produce, simply cooked and presented with finesse. The menu relies on top quality meat, poultry and game, with an emphasis on big, honest flavours. I went for the pork roast and found the impression the menu gave to be accurate. Presented well the pork was excellently cooked; tender meat beneath a crispy, slightly sticky skin garbed with sweet strips of crackling proved a treat, as did the roasted potatoes, their skins crunching and cracking like autumn leaves. A variety of vegetables and a helping of bittersweet apple sauce rounded things off and fused multiple flavours together- a real treat and a great, warming meal for a cold night, of which the honeyed parsnips were well worth noting. I drank a Conviviale Primitivo: smooth, simple and easy; aromas of plums and mellow black cherry, before moving on to dessert.
It was my first evening in Cornwall so the trio of Cornish ice cream stood out for me as a dessert, as did the Cornish cheeseboard. I was adamant that my dessert would have ‘Cornish’ in its title. Soft and velvety the ice cream was certainly Cornish and was certainly pleasant, but even with scatterings of meringue it felt a little uninspired. That stated, my choice had been quite modest though the dessert menu, as often is the case, was generally predictable with nothing grabbing my attention. This was countered by the starters and main courses of which everything certainly sounded delicious and exciting. The soup was one of the best I have tasted and the pork was excellently and carefully cooked, which meant that the forgettable dessert was easily forgotten.
Sioned Rudlin, who owns the hotel with her husband Nick, served me, as well as warmly introducing me to the hotel. Service in general during my stay was warm, friendly, and very helpful. After admiring the attention to detail in the dining area- the artwork, the flowers, the exquisite but simple glassware, I retreated to my room to rest.
My room, cosy and comfortable, had the same attention to detail, with those noticeable local illustrative prints on the walls, alongside details like locally designed drinks coasters on the bedside tables. The room was modest, calming, and meditative. Mostly white, cream and shades of teal and aquamarine the room felt slightly ‘beachy’ but didn’t overplay that. The bed was incredibly comfortable and I slept well after having a great shower and flicking through the bedroom browser Porthole, a small publication about the hotel and the surrounding areas’ history and heritage. With tales of smugglers and ‘Morgawr’, the Kernewek language for ‘sea giant’, I somehow managed to sleep without too much fear for the day ahead.
On waking I met with Nick Rudlin and further discovered how much Falmouth has on offer. I was glad I had read Porthole, preparing me for local tales, secrets and recommendations of places to visit. Upon hearing of all the pirates the area once had to offer, and all the wildlife it continues to have, as well as the plethora of pathways and beach walks I could take today, I would have happily stayed longer to explore. Glendurgan Garden and Pendennis Castle were just a few obvious suggestions that I could not visit because of time, but I opted to take a cruise along the Helford River and then do some unstructured wanderings on a loose time schedule. First though, came breakfast.
A beautifully arranged continental breakfast of fresh local yoghurts, some fruits, mueslis, jams and the like, alongside meats and cheeses, looked truly luxurious, akin to a still life painting. Borrowing a glass of the fresh orange juice from the serving table and sitting down for breakfast I instead tasted one of the cooked breakfast options, the Cornish breakfast consisting of crispy back bacon, Trelawney sausage, hogs pudding, grilled field mushrooms, free range eggs, vine tomatoes and griddled bread. The Trelawney sausage was musky and rich in taste, especially with the slightly crumbly texture of the sweet and succulent hog’s pudding. The pleasantly slippery field mushrooms full flavours had been maintained, with their damp taste and scent not cooked away. The bread, crunchy and warming, and the salted Cornish butter I became used to, were delicious, while my poached eggs were as they should be in texture and taste. Twin Peaks seems to be making a comeback so I can admit that I was damn tempted to state ‘You know, this is, excuse me, a damn fine cup of coffee’ when my coffee was served. It was damn fine indeed, and the breakfast as a whole was finely prepared and presented. What was on offer was generous too, with the milk poached smoked haddock breakfast, and many of the other breakfasting options, sounding delicious and substantial enough to prepare for the day ahead.
The boat trip, the Helford River Cruise, leaves from the Budock Vean Hotel foreshore, about a fifteen minute drive from Merchants Manor. To get to the foreshore one walks through the hotel’s award winning gardens, bypassing exotic flowers, waterfalls and, at this time of year, a dewy lushness garbed in frost that is refreshing, really waking you up. The landscapes are, in general, incredible and it was a beautiful morning as I walked to meet my guides, Hetty and Tom, for the cruise. Hetty and Tom were wide awake, keen and very friendly and informative as we set off. The regular cruise uses a Hannahmolly boat, a traditional Cornish boat licensed for twelve people. Watching the waters I was guided up Port Navas Creek towards the Helford River. Ancient, protected forests, sublime even with the shedding of their leaves, were a magnificent sight and will not be going anywhere anytime soon, protected by Charles, Prince of Wales, among others. Wildlife abounds here, though we saw little at this time of year- plus, one has to be lucky and perhaps spend more than an hour and a half out on the boat (herons and kingfishers are common; there have even been sightings of orcas).
Cruising down towards the sea we pass Helford Gig Club, the well regarded Ferryboat Inn, and the mansions of actors, actresses and rock stars, before cutting across to the picturesque Helford Village. Oyster ranch cages dot the waters- indeed I am sorry to not have made it for the Falmouth Oyster Festival that takes place in October, of which the locals I spoke to gushed about. If one wishes to learn more about oysters and oyster farming then a Helford River cruise is one way to go about starting this endeavour. From pointing out an old smugglers boat, with tales of that particular character always carrying a double-barrelled shotgun about with him, to scattered information on the birds and fish of the estuary, one is bombarded with fascinating information from the cruise company. Hetty and Tom are great guides and the information provided sends one to the library, or, better yet, back to the waters. A hidden chapel among the oak trees and a stop for hot chocolate should not be missed.
Getting closer to the end of the cruise, we went up river to take in the creeks, including Frenchman’s Creek, the name perhaps coming from locals overhearing’s of foreign smugglers, of which there were a plenty. The history and heritage of the area is incredible, certainly inspiring a few Greats, one being the novelist Daphne du Maurier who honeymooned here and wrote a novel riding on the back of the inspiration and intrigue she found here. The landscapes and seascapes are beautiful, but also very well cared for and treated with respect. Vitally, the cruise company seem environmentally and ecologically aware, and also often archive their photographs and observations so that it can be used by locals, researchers or anyone who may need it. All in all the boat trip was a delightful way to spend the morning and I am keen to be back on the waters again. The Helford River Cruise lasts one and a half hours and costs £20 per person and I would highly recommend it for anyone visiting the area.
To build up an appetite I walked Falmouth Bay and took some coastal paths, enjoying the smell of the sea and the sight of ships on the horizon before heading to Hooked on the Rocks for lunch. Just a stone’s throw from Falmouth town, Hooked overlooks Swanpool Beach, the estuary, and over to Pendennis Castle which I watched the light break over. Hungry, I turn my attention to the menu. The menu offered fresh seafood, shellfish, vegetarian options, a few steaks and plenty of tapas, with a multitude of cocktails, wines and a whole lot more on secondary menus. There was lots of choice and the menu oozed with the lazy lunches, decadent dinners and sublime shellfish that Hooked advertises, promoting a chilled-out atmosphere.
The design of the place is simple; lots of wood, lots of white, all adding up to a minimal effort, maximum view visual, whereby every customer must spend most of their time looking out to sea. Again, looking back to the menu I remembered that I had been informed beforehand that the ever-changing platters were a great way to try local shellfish, but I had also been given strong advice to try a lobster from the lobster tank if feeling decadent and ravenous.
I went for the Signature Platter as a main course. I followed this up with a forgettable desert, a type of crumble-cheesecake that was bland. That said, this mattered little as such for the Signature Platter of seafood was more than enough and was satisfying. Presented on a large tray, a great number of mussels mingled with clams steamed in chilli, ginger and coriander broth, with scatterings of seared scallops, king prawns and two pieces of tempura fish on the side. The composition of the dish was beautiful, especially considering how much was on offer. An offering of sea-salted chips came with it, fresh and fluffy with a dry, crispy outside, placed down next to an array of sauces and a fingerbowl. The table was beautifully full and I began my meal. The broth added intense, fusion flavours to the incredibly fresh seafood, adding strong Asian tones to the salt and richness of the mussels. The clams were finely cooked, their soft, slipping texture was perfect, and the milky, light scallops were just about right- a firmness or flexibility giving in to a mellow softness, though they were slightly too oily for my taste. While the prawns were delicious the tempura fish overdid the fusion flavours of the dish as a whole for me, though the soft, twangy fish flesh itself was cooked well. The broth added to the flavour of the seafood while the seasonings of the tempura fish overkilled the taste of the fish itself. I drank the modern style Rioja, Valdemar Tempranillo at the close of the meal. Service throughout was incredibly good.
As there are a plethora of trails covering coastal paths, bridleways and quiet lanes, as well as small roads surrounded by trees and close to the sea, I walked the coast and through some forest, skimming the South West Coast Path, before briefly exploring Falmouth town. The town seemed to have lots of arts and crafts going on and lots of art students walking around- an atmosphere I enjoyed. Returning to Merchants Manor I made good use of the pool and sauna (the hotel boasts an impressive Wellness Centre: gym, pool, sauna and hot tub), read in the lounge for a while, before sampling the dinner menu, as opposed to the Sunday dinner menu here.
Duck, lobster thermidor, market fresh fish, all made an appearance on the evening menu, alongside a wide range of starters, with vegetarian options available this time round. Thus I selected the butternut squash and sage linguine as a main. Preceding this I ordered scallops that came with a cucumber puree and cucumber trimmings. Delightful focaccia that broke like twigs in my hands was presented to me with more of that satisfyingly salty Cornish butter just before the scallops arrived. Light and tender in taste, the scallops were perfectly accompanied by the crunchy curling’s of cucumber that littered the plate and the dots of bright cucumber puree that was a zesty green in colour. The white of the scallops and the green of the cucumber gave a fresh appearance to the dish that was matched by the healthy, fresh taste of the lightly cooked scallops. The texture alone warranted these scallops as very good.
The linguine arrived a short while later: creamy and warm, the pasta was sticky and comforting to eat, with a slightly gummy quality to it that demarcated its freshness. The sweet butternut squash gave subtle flavourings that made the dish feel, and taste, very autumnal, perfect for a cold evening. As stated, this dish was comfortable and comforting but it could not surpass the delicate flavours of the starter. Generous seasoning helped bring the flavours out, though this is merely a personal preference. The meal was lovely, and my knowledge that Merchants Manor sources local produce, organic and free range goods helped explain many of the big, honest flavours I had tasted here. There was an honest charm to all of the food which I tasted at Merchants Manor, which fitted with my general impression of the hotel. A relaxing stay was had in this elegant hotel in a historical and natural locale and I would be willing to recommend it to friends and family who wished to stay in Falmouth, a place well worth visiting.
My stay at Merchants Manor had come to a close and after a last wander round the tasteful hotel and a relaxing shower I got to sleep, ready to head off to essentially the other side of the Cornish coast the next day. Set on a spectacular surfing beach on the north Cornwall coast I was to spend a night at Watergate Bay Hotel to close my foodie weekend in Cornwall.