Friday, 30 March 2012

Built Legacy : Paint it white


We've often noticed that the best examples of architecture are found when we lift our eyes from the pavement or stick our heads around corners. Our area has a wealth of fine buildings from every era, waiting to be discovered if we would just look. As a celebration of our built legacy, we've set out to document the pick of the crop. Here, to start things off, is a triptych of architectural studies in white, showing off various decorative styles.



Images © Nik Strangelove

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Signs of Spring

Technically speaking, spring began over a week ago on 20th March, which is the date of the Spring Equinox. However, West Cornwall has been witnessing the usually accepted signs of spring for quite a while now. 

It's this time of year when we're most thankful for the place we live; when the memories of summer first come flooding back. Just about now, park benches and lawns will be receiving their first tentative visitors armed with newspapers and takeaway lunches, the reckless and over-excited will be digging out flip flops, washing loads will be fluttering in the breeze, and B&Bs will be getting a fresh lick of paint. Before you know it, Jelberts will be open. Happy days indeed.

 

Images © Nik Strangelove

Hidden House of Knowledge

Ever on the hunt for the unique and downright eccentric, we were lured through the doors of Morrab Library the other day. 

Apparently, the majority of local taxi drivers are oblivious of Morrab Library's existence. And it has to be said that it is one of those places that, while a few folk may have heard of it, most know precious little about it. We were no exception, so our visit had been carefully planned to coincide with the Friday 'tour', and at 2 o'clock sharp we were rounded up by our tour guide, Dawn.

We learned about the Library's origins: from the ladies' bookclub in 1770 that started the ball rolling, to the eventual leasing of the grand private residence, Morrab House, at the end of the 19th c. (see poster). We discovered that it is one of only 30 privately-run libraries in the country and, as a charity, the majority of its staff are volunteers.

We were shown around the various rooms, each housing books on a particular topic. These include the usual subjects of Geography, History, Politics and Literature, but there are also some less expected themes: the impressive Crime section which is regularly topped up with the latest editions by a local book reviewer, and the comprehensive Local History section in the Jenner Room.


Four times a year a number of new books are chosen and purchased, but the majority have been donated, inherited or given, in one way or another. Many date back to the earliest days of the library and there are some extremely rare and extraordinary volumes among them. And, by way of illustrating this fact, our attention was drawn to
small leather-bound book entitled 'Things not Generally Known' by John Timbs.

As well as the books, there is a comprehensive archive of newspapers, manuscripts, maps, paintings and photographs, which in the main are of local relevance. The largely unexplored collection of photographic prints, transparencies and negatives is currently being catalogued, and is set to be properly housed in the new £1 million extension, which has been funded by a single member. Aside from this astonishing gesture, money for general upkeep to the building is an ongoing issue; parts of the basement are worryingly damp.

The library is also a place to work. While we were there, students, scholars and bookworms, young and old, were hunched over library tomes or laptops. The academic surroundings, the peace and quiet, and the sea views make for an idyllic learning environment. On certain days, library rooms host various clubs, including the Shakespeare Club, who are indomitably working their way through the entire works. In an effort to keep the Library alive and vibrant, it often plays host to members' events and talks by local authors (including the odd famous name).

Tour over, we reflected on what we'd seen and heard. In many ways the library is a relic from another time, but one that appears both odd and refreshing to modern sensibilities. Because it's a private institution, it exists outside the rigid regulations of other similar organisations. For example, Health & Safety directives are limited to discreet typed placards. We found one that read: '…so please, if you can't get up, in, out or over something, just ask, someone will help you.', and another that advised: 'Samuel Arnold, composer of the immortal opera Baron Kinkvervankotsdorsprakingatchderm died on 22nd October 1802 as a result of falling off his library steps. SO PLEASE BE CAREFUL! or ask for help.'

It's these little touches that reveal the library's heart, and its appeal. Its success is down to the fact that members participate; it's like a club, where everyone shares a love of books and is prepared to do their bit to ensure the library is saved for the enjoyment of current members, and for that of future generations.

If you're the type of person to whom
the image of sunlight falling onto old leather warms your very soul, and who hankers after a library where a handwritten card is favoured over a barcode, then Morrab Library is for you. 

We walked out into the gorgeous Morrab Gardens, blinking in the spring sunshine, feeling enlightened and with a distinctly positive and peaceful aura. It is highly likely that future posts will be written within the book-lined walls of this wonderful local Pandora's box.

Anyone is welcome to join and membership currently costs £27 per year. Non-members are able use the facilities by paying £3 for the day. Take a look at the library's website and blog, which often features choice finds from the local archives and has all the news about forthcoming events.

Morrab House
Morrab Gardens
01736 364474





Saturday, 24 March 2012

Fine Folk #5

Miss Jones
17
Penzance
A-Level student
Penzance's finest feature: Battery Rocks.

Mr Parker-Rees-Fernandez
18
Falmouth
A-Level student
Penzance's finest feature: Miss Jones.

Favourite date venue
: Untitled restaurant.


Images © Nik Strangelove

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Subtropical

The spring sun came out in force yesterday and warmed our pallid March faces. And it struck us, that while Cornwall partially hibernates during the off-season, there is one sign of sunshine that lasts out, whatever the time of year: the Cornish Palm. Looking slightly incongruous in a grey and winter-beaten British town, and albeit slightly tattered, this evergreen exotic stands as a flag of hope for local people, promising better and brighter days to come.

Blessed with a reliably damp and Gulf Stream-warmed climate, we enjoy a proliferation of palms and other subtropical plants and trees. OK, so their actual hardiness kids us into believing we live in a much more temperate part of the world than we really do, but they remain a positive characteristic of the area, and it is why Penzance Post proudly flaunts a palm on its masthead. For us, it is a symbol that only has good connotations: exotic lands, desert islands, parrots and pirates. Fine examples of palms can be found all over the region, but to revel in the most glorious palm parade, we should all know to head for Morrab Gardens.

The particular species that we generally associate with the region is Cordyline Australis (thank you Google), a tree indigenous to New Zealand. It's the one with the burst of spear-like leaves at the end of skinny bare trunks. Although easily recognisable, this is a plant with an identity crisis: it also goes under the name of the Cabbage Tree, or maybe you know it as the Dracaena Palm, and in Cornwall it is claimed to be the Cornish Palm, while in Devon it is hailed as the Torbay Palm, where it has become the semi-official symbol of the town. In fact, Cordyline Australis grows happily all along Britain's west coast, as far north as Scotland. Despite its fickle ways, we can still stake a claim of partial ownership and appreciate it as a perennial reminder of summer.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Robert Wright on a plate

Untitled by Robert Wright has been raising Penzance's epicurean bar for just over a year. Based in Jean Shrimpton's charming Abbey Hotel, holding a coveted 'Bib Gourmand' Michelin Award, and a recommendation in this year's Michelin Guide, it is a shining example of how to relax fine dining just enough to create something that is aspirational yet comfortable. 



For those of you who haven't been to Untitled – go. Have à la carte upstairs in the art-filled dining room, or opt for deep red sofas, cosy cave-like corners and serious tapas downstairs. In either room, the wine list is comprehensive, both in terms of choice and price range. And they have green wine – delicious, spritzy, hangover-friendly green wine. If you needed another reason, the Michelin Guide only awards a 'Bib Gourmand' to restaurants that offer excellence with good value for money, and Untitled is now one of only four in Cornwall to have achieved this balance.
 
We wanted to know more about the man and the philosophy behind this welcome addition to the PZ social scene, and Chef Owner, Robert Wright, kindly gave us some of his precious time in the short break between lunch and dinner service. 



Rob's geographical journey started in Tavistock, Devon. Next stop was Plymouth, where, after a stint as a vegetarian shopkeeper, he took a professional vegetarian cooking course at Plymouth catering college. On graduation, his tutors advised him to go for a job at iconic exponent of vegetarianism, Cranks, in Dartington, Totnes. He got the job, and crafted his art there for two years before answering the siren call of a pork pie. 



As a fallen vegetarian, he decided to move into the scene that we now call gastropub, and then on to Dartington Hall as second chef. From there, Rob moved over to Bristol's multi award-winning riverstation. This was where he cut his teeth – where he learnt and really understood the philosophy that he now still maintains; modern European food that is rustic, hearty, intelligent, created using traditional Escoffier skills, but less structured than Michelin food, with composition on the plate a lot freer and using only fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.



Promising as his culinary career was, Rob decided to pursue another of his passions and went to college in Bristol to study Spatial Design (interior design without the soft furnishings). He then went to London and got a place at The Bartlett, UCL – one of the meccas for architecture at that time. On completion of his UCL studies he had an important decision to make – should he follow his love for food or his love for structure and form? Food won out, and he successfully sought work with Alastair Little in is eponymous Soho restaurant. His time spent working there was a time of inspiration and discovery, Rob still admires and refers to his mentor as 'the great Alastair Little'.



Senior trainer at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen near Old Street was his next role, then Head Chef at Amanda Pritchett's three high-end gastropubs: The Lansdowne, The Lord Stanley and The Fox. His final stint in London was a year at Spring Studios, where an early morning argument about ordering cocoa butter for Keira Knightley saw him throw a tray of organic bagels at the Head Chef, quit and fly to Paris, all before 11 am. He didn't have long to think about his next move because his friend and former Head Chef at The Gurnard's Head, Zennor got in touch asking if Rob fancied taking his place. So, in 2008, back from Paris and with nothing tying him to London, he jumped into his 1959 Volvo Amazon and pointed South West. As he drove over the brow of the hill onto Zennor moor, with a gnarly sea hitting the cliffs, he knew that Cornwall was where he needed to be.



He stayed there as Head Chef for three years – winning a César Award from the Good Food Guide (one of only ten) for 'Dining pub of the year UK 2010', and furthering the work of those before him to put The Gurnard's Head on the gastronomic map. Finally, in 2011, he opened Untitled by Robert Wright. A place with his own name above the door. Here, he maintains his exacting standards, only working with the freshest, local seasonal produce, and only with suppliers that hold the same regard for quality that he does. His partner, Helen Venning, creator of the excellent Newlyn Cheese and Charcuterie, is one of his suppliers, making a cheese board at Untitled, a cheese board unrivalled.



He showed us the cod that he would be serving that evening, explaining that it should not be white, but rather almost green and translucent with a sharp edge that sits proud and is super firm – this being the ultimate sign of freshness. On the subject of sustainable fishing, he trusts Newlyn fisheries, who believe that you can catch and eat cod with a clear conscience, and who have, in fact, increased the quota for cod in this area. He tries to use wholly sustainable fish such as gurnard, and he only uses fish that is locally landed. He won't buy anything that has come from the north sea, only shopping from the Atlantic. He tries to use each and every part of the fish he buys. Belly fat from cod, which is removed from the fillet because it will cook too fast compared to the rest of the fillet, is reserved and salted because salt cod makes great brandade, a tapas favourite. Heads and skin are used to make stock for soups and bases for sauces. Untitled is gaining a reputation as a fish restaurant, but this is a result of Rob's commitment to working with local produce and his creativity with fish rather than a purposeful specialisation. It's not something that worries him though – his only concern is that people come and have a great experience in his restaurant.



We asked Rob to design a dish to represent PZ. He gave us two: Brawn or Pigs Head Terrine, in reference to patron saint of Penzance, St John the Baptist, who's head famously ended up on a plate. And, St Anthony's Fishcake, an original recipe of his that is dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen, comprising mackerel, Cornish earlies (a variety of sweet, soft skinned new potato) and the three cornered leek which is a wild garlic indigenous to the area. 



Rob has chosen Penzance as the location for his first restaurant because, he says, it is real and there is no pretense here. There is a simple love and appreciation of food, but no snobbery. He is not sure if PZ could ever be a food destination, although he does believe that there is potential for the town to be something very special if more entrepreneurs brought newness and quality to the mix. And he believes that good things attract other good things. He likes to think that by creating somewhere nice to go and eat he is making the town more desirable, and without nice things it doesn't matter what the sea looks like, it will just feel like a dreary town. We asked Rob where he would dine on a Saturday night off. His answer was Curry Corner on Chapel Street, because not only is the food delicious, but sitting in the window to eat has a street food feel. And for the record, Pellows is his pasty maker of choice.



It is worth noting and appreciating that Rob wears a butcher's apron, the uniform of commis chefs, because, he says, chefs who wear them are the ones who believe that they never stop learning. This is wholly indicative of his attitude and entrepreneurial energy. Something tells us that this is only the beginning for Rob, and we look forward to the next chapter in his story.