“Stopped off at a winkle store. Must eat more calcium rich fruits de mer for good bones and strong teeth.”—Sylvia Plath
Once a year in may, the market traders of Dieppe take the ferry to Newhaven and set up their stalls in Bartholomew Square in Brighton, just off the sea front between the Palace and West piers. For one morning each year the air is filled with the scents of Camembert and heated Gruyère cheese and beeswax candles from the honey stall. There’s bread, piles of pain de campagne and baguettes; sausages and rillettes; a stall selling nothing but plump white garlic tinged with pale green; another selling artichokes the size of net buoys. There are fresh crevettes, harengs saurs, moules, and huitres. We drink Sancerre with the fishmonger and dream of the fish restaurants in Dieppe. The traders do brisk business with the grateful English. They’re grateful, too: they’re four times as busy as on a market day back over the Channel.
I’m filming in Brighton for a bbc series. We’ve been at the mackerel festival where the vicar of Brighton blessed the nets and we sang “For Those in Peril on the Sea” under a blackening sky. We race through the last verse as the rain begins and run to the market. I ask Michelle, one of the organizers, what the French would want to buy if we were to send market traders to Dieppe. Cornish Pasties? Clotted Cream? No, she laughs: sliced white bread because it’s great for croque m’sieur and baked beans. We all laugh, we always laugh. It’s the English way; we envy and love all the produce from over the Channel, yet we seem curiously lethargic about doing it ourselves. It’s this imbalance that gives me reason for what I do. I believe that there is no more civilizing activity than eating. I love the Chinese words for greeting: not strictly “Hello,” but “Have you eaten yet?”
Twenty-five years ago I set out to create a French seafood restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall. I’d spent many years taking ferries across from Plymouth to Roscoff in Brittany and then travelling up and down the coast ordering platters of seafood, lobsters, crabs, prawns, clams, mussels, shrimps, scallops, and oysters with mayonnaise and shallot vinegar. I’d eaten thick fillets of cod with beurre blanc, steaming bowls of fragrant fish soup, lobsters with chives and hot butter, and simple sauces on fresh fish: uncluttered Northern European cooking. I’d drunk acid fresh bottles of Muscadet, Gros Plant, and Sauvignon de Tourraine.
I wanted to do the same at home. Cornwall is just as beautiful, if not more so, than Brittany, and our seafood just as abundant. Why did we have to go to France to eat it? So I opened the restaurant. I wanted one like they had over there. I didn’t have much ambition then for a well-known restaurant. I just wanted Padstow to be like a seafront restaurant in Concarneau, Cancalle, or St. Malo, where the locals and tourists could have plainly grilled Dover sole caught just off Trevose Head near Padstow, or lobster and crabs from Johnny Murt’s boat, the Boscastle Belle.
I never believed that there is anything particularly different about the British as a people in their acceptance of dull and badly-cooked food. It’s just been a long journey down the wrong road. I have always wanted to show that you can come to Britain and really enjoy the food, at least on the North Cornish Coast.
Gerry Johansson, “Fish Sign.” Cerry Johansson / Photonica
There are many others like me, who were brought up to do something else, not trained as chefs or restaurateurs. I read English Literature at Oxford University and intended to become a journalist but ended up cooking and running a restaurant. I share a passion for good food and drink with many like-minded people in other English-speaking countries, who have started microbreweries, vineyards, olive groves, bakeries, farmstead cheese dairies, and specialist restaurants. It could be said that in countries that don’t have a rich inherited cuisine, the growth of good restaurants and food has been partly achieved by people with dreams of one day opening a little restaurant somewhere.
Our restaurant started simply like that, but it has grown somewhat, as I keep adding bits. First we had seventy seats in the restaurant, then we opened ten bedrooms above, then we opened a delicatessen selling things like crab and saffron pasties, fish pies, fish cakes, mackerel escabeche, pickled herrings, homemade jams and bread; then we bought another small hotel just up the road and opened a bistro there. We opened a café next to the deli, and now we’ve got one hundred seats in the main restaurant and a seafood cookery school, too. It seems like unstoppable ambition, but to me it all fits. I want people to enjoy what I like in seafood at all price ranges. At the cookery school, I want them to have a chance to cook the way we do, uncomplicated cooking of the best raw materials that the North Atlantic has to offer. That’s the way I look at cooking, the way I think of the best British cooking: keeping it as spare as possible and allowing the quality of the freshest food to speak for itself. It all should be so easy for anyone to do, just a matter of good common sense. But as Myrtle Allen, a famous Irish cook at Ballymaloe House outside Cork, once said to me, “Sadly, common sense in cooking is not so common any more.”
I used to have a slight fear that one day I’d get found out, that someone would tell me that what I do is all too straightforward for the prices I charge. A very talented and complicated pastry chef even remarked that my competitive edge—selling the freshest fish cooked quite plainly—would be eroded when everyone could get the same quality fish that I do. Now I see that he was wrong. The best quality in seafood is not finite. The more I learn about fish, the more I realize how little I know. I will never stop seeking ever better fruits of the sea, as well as ever more subtle ways to cook them.