We Visit

Porthleven

Once famous for its tin and china clay, this picturesque fishing village is now being tipped as Cornwall’s next food hotspot

 

It’s not yet as famous as Padstow or St Ives but the harbour village of Porthleven is fast gaining a reputation as the next Cornish hotspot when it comes to food tourism.

Set in the dramatic sweep of Mount’s Bay on the stunning Lizard Peninsula, Porthleven has a population of around 4,000, but April’s food festival in the village attracts eight times that. 

The most southerly port in Britain, Porthleven has a long history of fishing, particularly mackerel and pilchards. A few day boats still land their daily catch, but nowhere near as many as the 100 drifters that once worked here. 

The harbour, completed in 1825, took 14 years to build, much of the hard work carried out by French prisoners from the Napoleonic War. 

Porthleven harbour faces South West and feels the full force of any storms. The sea walls are enormous, as is the granite pier, from where the more fearless visitors can watch the spectacular waves. 

The coastal path running through the village offers breathtaking views of The Lizard and gives walkers a fascinating glimpse into the area’s history with abandoned tin mine engine houses, quarries and an extinct volcano on Tregonning Hill.

The sheer strength and built-to-last construction of the thick sea walls made Porthleven harbour a refuge for boats on a coastline that is notorious as a black spot for shipwrecks. Not that the harbour is immune from batterings from the weather. In the winter of 2014, waves measuring 40ft crashed over the clocktower next to the pier. 

One place that has survived countless storms is The Ship Inn, a 17th century smugglers’ haunt which overlooks the harbour and remains something of a village hub. With its ceilings and walls plastered with old beer mats, brasses and glass fishing floats, this cosy, flagstone-floored pub oozes character. We grabbed a table close to the roaring log fire and supped pints of hoppy, citrussy Porthleven Untameable Pale Ale and a steaming bowl of mussels in creamy leek and cider sauce. 

The village’s economy was once driven by boatbuilding, net-making and fish smoking and there is evidence of this dotted around the harbour today.

Amélies restaurant is housed in an old fish smokehouse on the quayside and tables near the window are prized with their views of boats in the harbour. The restaurant is owned by Sam Sheffield-Dunstan, whose father Norman Sheffield owned the legendary Trident Studios in London, where the likes of David Bowie, Elton John and Prince recorded. 

Amélies is known for cooking much of its food in a wood-fired oven, whether it’s pizzas topped with crab meat, anchovies, squid and mussels, ‘straight off the boat’ fish, Porthilly oysters or lobster caught by a fourth generation fisherman who lives in the village. 

Amélies gained a famous neighbour in 2014 when the Rick Stein restaurant opened in the Grade II-listed former china clay store next door. An extension of the celebrity chef’s ever-growing empire, Cornish seafood and fish is given a global twist in dishes such as crab with wakame and wasabi mayonnaise and Goan cod curry. 

For those visitors who want to cook their own fish when staying in Porthleven, Quayside Fish on Fore Street is an award-winning fishmongers. On the morning we visited, the ice-covered displays were groaning under the weight of local crab, John Dory, monkfish and hake. The shop also sells a range of local products including wines from Cornwall’s largest vineyard Camel Valley and bottles of Healey’s Cornish Cyder. 

A short drive from Porthleven is the New Yard Restaurant at Trelowarren. In the old stable yard on Sir Ferrers Vyvyan’s historic Trelowarren estate, the strictly seasonal menu chosen by head chef Jeffrey Robinson uses local produce foraged in neighbouring fields. In the building opposite there’s a 25ft purpose-built wood-fired pizza oven heated by wood from the estate and with toppings grown on the farm over the road.

Jude Kereama of Kota restaurant, which overlooks the harbour at Porthleven

 

No trip to Cornwall would be complete without a hot-from-the-oven pasty and the best in Porthleven is to be found at the Horse & Jockey Bakery. The skirt steak pasties are exceptional and even got the royal thumbs up when Prince Charles and Camilla visited the family-run shop last summer. 

Occupying one of the prime spots in Porthleven is Origin on Harbour Head, which serves the best coffee for miles – all of it roasted in nearby Helston. Open seven days a week, it is the first port of call for many locals and visitors, especially surfers in need of a caffeine boost before braving the most challenging surf spots in Cornwall. 

Next door is Kota Kai, a bar and kitchen serving Thai-inspired tapas which has become one of Porthleven’s go-to places for visitors with children due to its family room and Tuesday film nights. 

Kota Kai is the lively sister of nearby Kota, which is the best-known restaurant in Porthleven. It’s run by Jude Kereama, a half Maori and half Chinese Malay chef. Kota gives prime local ingredients a vibrant Asian spin in dishes such as Cornish hake with mussels, samphire, dashi stock, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed and buckwheat noodles. 

Kereama has twice appeared on BBC2’s Great British Menu and is an integral part of the Porthleven Food Festival, which marks its 10th anniversary this year. 

What started out with a handful of stalls and a few hundred people, now attracts 30,000 visitors to Porthleven during the three days it runs. 

Porthleven Food Festival takes place around the harbour, shipyard and playing fields and this year’s line-up includes cookery demos from festival patron Antony Worrall Thompson, who will be joined by top chefs Emily Watkins of The Kingham Plough, Josh Eggleton of The Pony & Trap, Tom Brown of Cornerstone and Michael Wignall, as well as Porthleven chefs Donato Dondiego of Amélies and Stew Eddy and Bryok Williams from The Square

A three-day party with live music, art, dancing, street food, stalls, parties and children’s entertainment, the festival is a reminder of why Porthleven’s star is rising. 

Read more about eating and drinking in the south-west