UK's newest 'foodie hotspot' is far-flung fishing town in Cornwall

Porthleven in the sun
-Credit: (Image: Western Morning News)

Imagine a small coastal town where you can have one of the best dinners in the entire region and know for a fact that you could carry on dining extremely well during a week-long stay if you were to visit other venues dotted around the local harbour. I was fortunate enough not to have to imagine such a thing.

I knew I had found a genuine foodie hot spot as I looked out of a restaurant window while dining in Porthleven. For those who don’t know it, the old fishing village on the north-western shore of the Lizard Peninsula has become a centre of culinary excellence.

Turning from the window, a quick glance down at the Kota Restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu was enough to remind me that I was having dinner somewhere very special indeed. I had eaten food cooked by head chef Ross Sloan before (and waxed lyrical about it in these pages) so I knew it would be innovative and first class, but seeing the very first offering – a single large oyster served with homemade rhubarb vinegar and whey puree, alongside my wife’s oyster wrapped in a nest of deep-fried potato noodles… Well, that was enough to get me very excited indeed.

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The smoked mackerel doughnuts with horseradish cream and herring roe which followed were equally sensational, as were the little beef-tartare tartlets dressed in an oyster emulsion with gochujang, capers and shallots which followed that.

Smoked mackerel doughnuts
Smoked mackerel doughnuts -Credit:Western Morning News

These dishes were a wonderful introduction to a course of heritage tomatoes filled with Mylor crab, cucumber, lovage and tomato ponzu dressing. Which in itself was a refreshing way of saying hello to the Cornish wild sea bass cooked over charcoal, brushed with lemon oil and served with fennel puree and shellfish coconut bisque and mild but delicious local elephant garlic scapes.

I could go on. All this, and we were only halfway through the menu! Which, by the way, was very good value. Yes, I know that paying £75 for one person’s dinner might seem a lot given the number of food banks there are in the region, but in Copenhagen where I was last week you can pay over £400 a head at some restaurants, and I know a good many British venues where the tasting menu will be double Kota’s price. I also know that you can part with more than £30 for a simple plate of steak and chips – so 75 quid spent on all this skill and artistry seemed a bargain.

Scallop at Kota
Scallop at Kota -Credit:Western Morning News

Two months ago when I was first working on the new Hesp Out West series I spotted Ross Sloan out foraging in a remote Cornish cove and, soon after that, was invited to stay at Kota which has comfortable visitor accommodation directly above the harbour-side restaurant. So I certainly wasn’t going to turn down the invite, although I had no idea just how good his latest cooking would be.

But there was another reason I wanted to spend some time with in Porthleven… I wanted to find out how and why it had become one of the premier foodie hotspots of the region – and to do that I needed to speak to a man called Jude Kereama. He is the chef patron of Kota, and a larger restaurant called Kota Kai just 30 metres along the harbourside.

Jude Kereama, Kota, Porthleven
Jude Kereama, Kota, Porthleven -Credit:Western Morning News

A couple of decades ago no one would have dreamed of coming to this corner of Cornwall for the food. There was a fantastic chippie (its retired lorry-driver owner told me it was his lifetime’s ambition to cook and serve the best fish and chips in the land – and for a while he did just that), but there wasn’t really anything else to rock anyone’s fishing boat. Now, it is one of the single locations west of the Tamar which has enough fine dining places to keep a discerning diner happy for a week and which is also close to wonderful beaches and fabulous walks.

It also has an annual food festival which has been getting bigger and better for the past 15 years – an event which was the brainchild of the charming and enthusiastic Mr Kereama and his late wife, Jane.

New Zealand-born Jude honed his kitchen skills with one of NZ’s top chefs before coming to the UK, where he met Jane. Searching for a restaurant in the UK, they settled in Porthleven and opened Kota in 2006, before launching Kota Kai in 2011. Kota (meaning ‘shellfish’ in Maori – Jude is half Maori, half Chinese-Malay) and Kota Kai have since become stalwarts of the Cornish food scene and bring together the eclectic flavours of Jude’s heritage, creating menus utilising the best local produce with a signature Asian twist.

Kota leeks and mussels
Kota leeks and mussels -Credit:Western Morning News

He earned the Trencherman’s Award for ‘Special Contribution’ in 2020 and was named ‘Chef Of The Year’ in 2019. Kota is recognised by both the Good Food Guide and the Michelin Guide with a prestigious Bib Gourmand Award and the AA (one of only five restaurants in Cornwall to have been awarded three Rosettes).

Jude, who has appeared in four series of The Great British Menu and has proved to be one of the most popular figures in the competition, admits that the Porthleven Food Festival has really helped to put the town on the map.

“It all started when some friends who had a local delicatessen were with us and we were commiserating on the lack of business on a quiet winter Saturday night,” he told me. “We were asking how we could drive some interest out of season. That’s where the idea for a food and music festival was born and we formed a small committee. There were eight of us running around like bananas trying to organise everything. That was 15 years ago and it’s going from strength to strength.

“I’d been an executive chef in charge of opening restaurants in London, so it was a bit odd that, in coming to Porthleven, I ignored everything I’d learned. The first thing you do is research the demographics – who is going to eat in your restaurant?

“But when it came to Porthleven we didn’t do our research very well. I tell the story about how some locals came to check out the new menu when we moved here, and they said: ‘What’s a jalapeno?’ There were loads of things on the menu they’d never heard of. However, we fell in love with the village and what we loved about Porthleven is that there’s a huge heart to the community.”

Kota sardines
Kota sardines -Credit:Western Morning News

And it’s a very local, Cornish community which nowadays plays host to one of the region’s finest food festivals in April when some of the top UK chefs turn up to share their knowledge and their cooking and join in the fun.

“The festival has highlighted what’s on offer here, which attracts visitors all year round – and we really do have some fabulous places to eat,” said Jude, generously plugging all the many competitor venues around town. “Fishing was at an all-time low when we arrived here 19 years ago – now it’s become a really foodie place and that of course helps the local fishing industry. People are coming here to stay for a long weekend or even a week, because they know they can eat out very well indeed.”

The upturn has helped local people who work within the catering industry, one of them being chef Ross Sloan who grew up nearby. “I worked in local hotels as a kid then went travelling, before coming back to Cornwall. By the age of 21 I was a head chef, but there wasn’t much competition around. I was a bit geeky, researching everything I could.

Ross Sloane
Ross Sloane -Credit:Western Morning News

“You need to fail to learn, and that’s what I’ve done,” says the overly modest Ross. “So I worked with Jude and eventually became head chef here at Kota about 10 years ago, but I went on to do other things. Like a lot of people I’ve had a scattered career. Now I’m enjoying being back at Kota – and what I never want to do is become one of those chefs who are just robots. I need to be creative – I enjoy the research, sitting down reading books, looking at pictures of food, getting ideas.”

Which is the reason why Ross is one of the most innovative and creative chefs in the region. He has offered to take me foraging along the local seashore later this year, when I’ll be returning to Porthleven to do some cooking with the highly experienced Jude on Kota Kai’s Josper grill.

In the meantime, I worked off my large dinner by going for a lengthy walk along the coast which gives these chefs and many others their inspiration.

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