Thursday 28 June 2012

Queen Cheese

There are entrepreneurs who simply want to make money and there are those that have a vision of a broader context and their place within it. Helen Venning, owner of Newlyn Cheese & Charcuterie, is a shining example of the latter. Yes she has a passion for cheese, but she opened her little shop because she is driven by a genuine desire to put Newlyn and Penzance on the map as a destination for food lovers. 

Born in North Cornwall, but moving to this area at the age of ten, Helen fondly remembers a time when Penzance was jam-packed with independent shops and the town glowed with a positive aura. While she has witnessed a distinct decline in this respect over the years, Newlyn has managed to cling onto its core of high quality food retailers; as well as its fishmongers, there's Lentern the butchers, Newlyn Bakery, Lovells fruit & veg shop and Jelbert's ice cream.

Helen simply sees her cheese shop as a missing piece of this jigsaw. In fact, much of the success of the business has come by perfectly complimenting the other sellers; she keeps tabs on what the other shops offer so there's no overlap, and she's happy to recommend them if customers come seeking an item she doesn't stock. While she does carry a small number of cheese-friendly items, like selected charcuterie, breads, crackers and olives, she is insistent that the shop is not a deli, and passionately upholds its singular purpose (much inspired by Jelbert's unbending 'vanilla only' policy). She believes in doing a few things well and not over-diversifying, and that's surely the secret to why her produce-selling neighbours are still going strong.

Interestingly, the final decision to focus mainly on cheese was dictated by the premises itself; in Helen's mind, the quirky little building by the bridge screamed 'old-fashioned dairy', and the concept grew around that vision. Inspiration also came from similar businesses like Country Cheeses in Tavistock, as well as other small retailers in the vein of Labour and Wait in London, who are channelling the vintage corner shop vibe exquisitely, with painstakingly chosen products, meticulously curated shelves and servers in crisp aprons. And yes, Helen's shop is beautifully styled and would look equally at home on Marylebone High Street as it does on New Road, Newlyn, but it works because it's simple and without pretensions; it's a real shop, selling everyday things that people want.

Cornish cheeses are the shop's central product. Helen has a good dialogue with the local makers which allows her to get to know the individual stories and to learn about new products. Local cheese connoisseurs and frequenters of the shop should be familiar with Yarg, Helford Blue, Helford White, Cornish Crumbly, St. Endellion Brie, Keltic Gold and the award-winning Cornish Blue. Sadly, Menallack, the producer of 16 fine Cornish cheeses including Menallack, Nanterrow and Tala, is no longer running (but panic not, Allet Farm is now producing their goat cheeses and there are plans afoot to bring the others back too).

Cheeses from further afield are also featured; a number of British classics and oddities are always welcome, and every month a small corner of the counter is home to a cheese representation from a particular European region. This idea stems from Helen's life away from Cornwall; for ten years she lived in Portugal, Spain and France. As well as a love of cheese (and food in general), she came home from her travels with some impressive linguistic powers and, until recently, she has put these skills to good use translating and teaching languages at Truro College. Listening to her authentic pronunciation of the obscure continental cheese varieties is almost as pleasurable as tasting them.

Helen built on her passion for the subject by learning on the job, talking to makers and by picking the brains of her partner Robert Wright, who runs Untitled restaurant in Penzance. Now well-versed in the language of cheese herself, she imparts her knowledge to staff through an in-depth training process that involves visits to suppliers and a lot of cheese eating. 

Of equal importance as the cheese, is service. Helen knows she can't compete with supermarkets on price, but what she can upstage them on is providing customers with an inviting environment, product knowledge and an eagerness to help and respond. A comments book allows her to fine-tune the stock to accommodate frequent suggestions.

To support the core products, Helen has a head full of future ideas, including cheese tasting evenings, a cheese recipe collaboration with local chefs, a picnic box service and the sale of mini cool bags with ice packs for customers with a long journey ahead of them. In fact, Helen's imagination is brimming with countless projects, and she's only being slowed down by the commitments of motherhood (Arthur is 9 months old). Despite this sweet distraction, Helen's energy is barely undiminished and her achievements are laudable.

Communities need people to act and inject positivity. As a local who's been away and returned, it's easy to stand back and bemoan the decay, but Helen didn't want to be that person. She's made a difference and hopes her contribution will help kick-start a trend in the right direction.

Words © Dee and Gerard Ivall. Images © Nik Strangelove

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Artists in residence

The seaside guesthouse has been much maligned over the years, but the counterattack on our sullied preconceptions is being spearheaded by a few visionary owners. While, overall, we believe the accommodation in Penzance to be of an excellent standard, one new establishment is making waves by staging an extravagant debut.

The Artist Residence opened on Chapel Street last spring, and while its arrival was barely noticed by the local community, the excitement it stirred among trippers, scouring the internet for a bed in our town, has been fanatical. The reason? It's different. And that's refreshing when many British B&Bs stick to a familiar homely style, and chain hotels opt for making their own lives easier by rolling out innocuous, wipe-down interiors. The phenomenon of the boutique hotel has done much to provide guests with another, more inspiring, option. But even in this territory, what once appeared to be individual, now looks generic.

Artists Residence, we believe, is genuinely breaking new ground, and in more than one way. The most obvious departure from the usual is the wildly characterful rooms; the interior decoration of each guest room has been designed and executed by a different artist with a local connection. It's an original idea and one that sits well with our area's artistic leanings. The styles vary from room to room, creating unique, personal worlds which guests love, and enjoy picking the one that suits them. From Jo Peel's vibrant murals to Dolly Divine's delicate collage style, there's something for everyone. The 'A.R. Blank' room even allows residents to make their own mark on blackboard-painted surfaces.

While the overall effect is a brilliant riot of creativity, much practical thought has gone into the balance of styles and the exact execution. In fact, behind the sense of playfulness is a serious commitment to customer service. To owners Justin Salisbury and Charlie Newey, guest happiness is paramount, and getting to know the people who visit them is an important way of understanding their needs – and this invaluable information is the basis on which the hotel is developed. Increased flexibility in accommodation is a direct result of customer feedback; many rooms now have extra beds or sofa beds to house additional guests if required, and some feature kitchenettes.

There's a good deal of uninhibited energy at work here too; the Penzance enterprise is the younger sister of the original A.R. in Brighton, and in the pipeline there are plans for a further location in London's Pimlico. But beyond the accommodation side of things, at the core of the Artist Residence concept is art. While the rooms themselves are already an exhibition of artist's work, there is also full-on Gallery downstairs, designed to showcase a wider group of artists to a wider public audience. Last Saturday saw the opening of Mat McIvor's solo show, and his dynamic work, and the buzz that it generated, demonstrated how the A.R has more to offer tourists and locals like. The extensive Georgian building has space, and much of it is unused by guests, so the vision is to create a busy social destination and arts venue, something that Penzance is crying out for. The shop is one aspect of this, selling local and artisan pieces. Food is another important piece of the bigger picture; presently, chef Nic Lennon creates 5-star breakfasts and premium cakes for morning and afternoon tea, but in a few weeks he will be opening a full-time cafĂ© that will spill out into the secluded rear courtyard when the sun shines. 

Strangely, it feels like the sun always shines inside the Artist Residence; the boundless ambition, youthful enthusiasm and creative spirit is infectious, and you can't help but smile while you're there.

Words © Dee and Gerard Ivall. Images © Nik Strangelove