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Food Hotel: Mesmear, North Cornwall

St Minver, Polzeath, North Cornwall
01208 869 731
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Last Wednesday at 8am, I was on the tube, snuggled into a stranger’s armpit on my way to City Airport. A couple of hours later, I was motoring through the daffodil-fringed lanes of north Cornwall in the sunshine.
Frankly, I could have chucked my Oyster card into the North Atlantic there and then without any regrets: trains are all very well, but if you need a swift getaway from the daily grind, you can’t beat an hour and a quarter from grimy east London to the already spring-like Newquay.
My chauffeur was Tessa Rose, mistress of Mesmear, a stylish collection of holiday rentals near the hip village of Polzeath. Although she’s an ‘emmet’, as those from ‘upcountry’ are known in this south-western corner of Britain, she and her husband Alan fell early and hard for Cornwall’s charms, and, after years of ‘dreary’ holiday rentals, they finally made the leap and bought their own place in 2003. The couple were looking for a fisherman’s cottage as a weekend bolthole, but ended up with a 164-acre farm – and as we pull into the drive, I begin to understand why. Tucked away behind high hedges, five minutes from the beach, it’s a gorgeous spot for what is now their family home, plus two 18th-century slate barns, which Tessa and Alan converted into rental accommodation when they moved down full-time a couple of years later.
I’m staying in the larger of the two, the Mill, which sleeps 10 – and comes with its own staff: chef Colin, and housekeeper Caroline. The couple, who live on site, provide rather superior breakfasts, teas and dinners (think homemade croissants and eggs Benedict rather than toast and cornflakes), and generally keep things looking immaculate, leaving holidaymakers to concentrate on the important stuff, like whether they should spend the day at the beach or in the solar-heated swimming pool.
After years of damp cottages, ‘furnished with granny’s cast offs’, Tessa was determined to make it a cut above the competition – and with the light, airy spaces, local artwork, luxurious slate bathrooms with Cornish products, and thoughtful touches like a drying room for wetsuits, crabbing nets, and a DVD library for wet days, she’s succeeded in creating the ultimate holiday rental for the boutique hotel generation.
Colin has left me a loaf of homemade bread, and a Cornish cheeseboard with apple chutney from Mesmear’s orchard, and later that afternoon, when Tessa and I return from an invigorating yomp across the dunes to Rock, the woodburning stove has been lit upstairs, and a cream tea has been left out for me – I could definitely get used to this kind of service. For a confirmed city girl, however, the prospect of an afternoon watching the drizzle hit the moor is a bit scary; but actually, when Colin and Caroline arrive at 5pm to start preparing dinner, they find me happily curled up by the fire, with the pile of the magazines so thoughtfully laid out on the coffee table. They don’t seem to mind me pestering them with questions as they go about their work, and Caroline tells me how much visiting children enjoy going with her to collect eggs from the hens, or to harvest vegetables from the kitchen garden Colin has created – “a carrot is always more popular if they’ve picked it themselves – especially when it’s purple!”
In keeping with my newly glamorous lifestyle, I’m entertaining this evening – former UK Winemaker of the Year, Sam Lindo of the equally-decorated Camel Valley Vineyards just down the road in Bodmin, is coming for dinner. He’s brought a bottle of his elegant Pinot Noir Brut, recent winner of the international category in a prestigious Italian sparkling wine competition, which Caroline serves along with a generous tray of canapés as we chat about the award, the vagaries of the Cornish climate – and, when Tessa and Alan join us, Sam’s chances in the annual Rock to Padstow swimming race this summer.
He tells me that when his father, Bob, made his first wine more than 20 years ago, he didn’t really know what other people’s wine tasted like – he just made the right one for his land, a former sheep farm. “Back then, it wasn’t too popular,” he muses, “but now people have come round to more delicate flavours”. I take this as a charming understatement – Camel Valley is widely regarded as one of the best vineyards in the UK – and, ask whether, given that demand for wines such as the Brut and the Bacchus far exceeds supply, they have any plans to capitalise on this phenomenal success by expanding? Sam demurs; they’re happy as they are, he tells me. His mother is a demon at pruning the vines, he and his father love making wine; they don’t want to become full-time businessmen.
Over the next few days, as I chat to Colin, and Tim the oyster man at Porthilly, and Olivier the chef, I recognise this laidback attitude as somehow peculiarly Cornish, even if, like the last, they’re recent arrivals in the area. Passionate about their work, they all nevertheless recognise the importance of balance – if you’re too busy to chat to your neighbours, or take the afternoon off when the surf’s good, then you’re doing something wrong.
Colin, for example, gave up his restaurant because the pressure spoiled the simple joy of cooking for him, but the menu that evening shows he’s back on form. Port Isaac crab, coconut and chilli soup, followed by sesame-coated lamb fillet with a sweet potato rosti and seasonal veg, and the delectable passion fruit cheesecake I’d spotted Caroline labouring over that afternoon: all executed with a lightness of touch which lets the carefully sourced ingredients really shine. Colin is keen to show visitors the best of Cornish produce, and as well as growing much of his own fruit and veg, he’s a regular early morning visitor to the fishmarket in picturesque Port Isaac, and has built up good relations with local butchers and other small suppliers. We sit chatting at the wide oak table late into the night, musing on the irresistible pull of Cornwall, and when, in the wee small hours, I finally flop into the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets of my enormous bed, and hear a lamb bleating outside, I can’t help wondering whether Mesmear might make an emmet of me, too.
Mesmear, St Minver, Polzeath, 01208 869 731,
A week staying at The Mill, which sleeps up to 10 guests, is priced from £3,500 complete with your own personal chef and housekeeper preparing and serving full English breakfast, afternoon tea, three-course dinner and wine each day.
The Calf's House and The Barn, each sleeping four, are priced from £800 per week on a self-catering basis.
Low fare regional airline Air Southwest has regular flights to Newquay Cornwall Airport from London Gatwick, London City, Manchester, Leeds Bradford, Bristol, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cork, and Dublin.
Air Southwest has a four times daily service from London Gatwick and a twice daily service from London City, which operates year-round. Fares start from £29 one way including all taxes and charges.




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29 March 2010
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