Meet the Gardener

Executive Chef Michael Smith introduces our very talented professional gardener, Polly Carter, who is responsible for bringing that extra touch.

Executive Chef Michael Smith introduces our very talented professional gardener, Polly Carter, who is responsible for bringing that extra touch of seasonal colour and flavour to many of our dishes…

Michael: “From my early days here at Porthminster Beach Café, I dreamed of creating a coastal kitchen garden. There was a plot I had my eye on directly opposite the restaurant; it was on quite a steep slope and the area was bisected by an off shoot of the coastal path, but I couldn’t help wonder whether one day we could transform it into a fabulous source of flavour and colour for our dishes.

“Luckily for me, around 8 years ago the parents of one of our young apprentice chefs Jim and Julie Horn were both passionate and knowledgeable gardeners. I craftily planted the seed of the idea and they ran with it, clearing, weeding and terracing the plot to make way for fresh herbs, fruits, edible flowers and vegetables. Over the years several dedicated gardeners have been charged with its up keep and development. That task currently rests with Polly Carter, a freelance gardener whose training includes a National Trust traineeship in Heritage Horticulture (including kitchen gardening).

Kitchen gardens are relatively common at country house hotels for example where they have plenty of space and existing in-house gardening skills. I don’t know of any other restaurant gardens quite like ours, and it certainly presents its own challenges, as Polly explains:

Polly: “The plot here is north-facing, but sheltered and protected from frost by its proximity to the sea. The soil is relatively poor (we are working on enriching it this year using a homemade compost combining seaweed from the beach and comfrey). There are two distinct areas; the lower half gets plenty of sun, so we grow Mediterranean plants and herbs there; further up in the shade we’ve planted fruits and also encourage things like ramsons (wild garlic), sorrel and horseradish. These crops support the chefs foraging efforts, they like to pick wild food from the surrounding area, but we also propagate what we can to give their legs a rest!”

The biggest challenge is ensuring that the garden is productive all year round, so that Michael and his team can find fresh flavours and inspiration in this little plot, week in week out. I focus on crops which regenerate and benefit from being cut regularly, and I also sow the same seeds over successive weeks to make sure they are replenished ready for those scissor happy chefs! We don’t have much room, so every tiny area yields something useful, and I underplant wherever I can.

Michael is adamant that everything must add something to the dish or drink (some of the flowers and leaves are used in cocktails or as fresh teas) so I’ve developed the garden by focusing on flavour, not just adornment. Although I do think it is still a thing of beauty, especially in the summer. In fact, the view from here is probably the best in all of St Ives!”

The following, amongst others, can be found in the garden: Tagetes (the edible petals and leaves have a pronounced fruity flavour), Borage, Broad Beans (apparently the shoots are good when stir fried), Courgettes (mainly used for the flowers, which are stuffed with various good things and deep fried), Blackcurrants (the chefs use the leaves like vine leaves), Gooseberries, Nasturtiums, Calendula, Eciums (good for bees), Thyme, Olive Herb, Black Mustard (a common weed which is encouraged in the garden because of its strong, punchy flavour), wild strawberries, watercress and various types of sorrel. There are also pear, apple and crab apple trees, the chefs use the blossom as well as the fruit.

Michael: “To a certain extent, having a kitchen garden dictates the flow of the menu. It means that we naturally take our lead from what is in season; our chefs get quite excited when something new is ready to pick!”