FLAVOURS OF CORNWALL: VEGETARIAN CAFE IN ST IVES
PUBLISHED: 12:31 22 June 2015 | UPDATED: 13:03 30 August 2017
Hattie Miles 07907 645897
Cliff-top garden in St Ives provides endless possibilities for the menu at Spinacio's in St Ives, Cornwall
Living in Cornwall often means living life outside - and with these glorious views of St Ives Bay who wouldn’t? asks JEREMY MILES
Paul Griffith drives his fork into the ground and surveys the breathtaking view from his kitchen-garden. Blue skies dip down to a wind-whipped green sea while the rugged Cornish coast sweeps around the town of St Ives below to Carbis Bay and beyond. Gulls wheel overhead and seals bark on the rocks below. It’s glorious isn’t it?’ he remarks. I love this place, it’s my passion and my life.’
This rugged garden set on the hillside above the coast path to Zennor is also a testament to hard work and resolve. A terraced haven built on three levels and screened from the footpath by old fishing nets, it supplies nearly half of the produce for Spinacio’s, the vegetarian restaurant Paul runs with his partner Susan Owens on the harbour-front at St Ives. Salads, potatoes, onions, garlic, artichokes, fruit and herbs are just some of the crops that find their way daily to the restaurant kitchen less than a mile away.
Sixty-year-old Paul started the garden 17 years ago. By his own admission he was little more than a frustrated window box gardener at the time but he had aspirations. When a decade later he and Susan opened Spinacio’s, the garden really came into its own. It’s location on a storm-battered cliffside was far from promising but with an ingenious eye for anything that would help create natural screening, Paul built a protective barrier around his eccentric looking hideaway.
Thousands of walkers pass within feet of the Spinacio’s garden every year but few realise what lies behind the curious collection of old nets and fishing floats that mark its boundary. Those who do stop to wonder often decide that it’s a sanctuary for some strange recluse. There have often been rumours that I’m a hermit and this is where I live,’ laughs Paul.
Anyone who does enter the garden through its suitably strange looking old steel door set in the hillside will find an impressively well-ordered growing area. Raised beds, poly-tunnels, sheds, greenhouses and a carefully contrived irrigation system made from old water tanks and lengths of drainpipe keep this greenest of production lines going. Meanwhile a series of old bathtubs discarded by local holiday cottages contain a rich supply of compost.
It’s hard work. Paul spends mornings prepping in the Spinacio’s kitchen before heading for the garden at around lunchtime. Some four hours later he returns to the restaurant with fresh ingredients ready for the evening’s customers. You just can’t beat the flavour of something that was only picked a few hours ago,’ says Paul.
Together with Susan and her 26-year-old son Tom, Paul cooks in the restaurant six days a week. Wednesday is his day off. What do you do then?’ I ask. He seems mildly surprised at the question. I spend it in the garden of course.’
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Paul is that he isn’t actually a vegetarian. I’m perfectly happy to eat a vegetarian diet most of the time but if I’m out somewhere I occasionally choose a meat dish. It really isn’t a problem for me. I’m not the sort of guy who goes sloping off for a sneaky bacon sandwich.’
He believes that the food he serves at Spinacio’s benefits from his omnivorous tendencies. I have to say we havequite a good reputation with carnivores. I’m convinced that one of the reasons they enjoy our food is because I’ve been eating meat juices all my life and I know how to make a vegetarian gravy that will match any meat gravy.’
Paul, a one-time London taxi driver, first came to live in St Ives 20 years ago. He knew the town well from childhood holidays spent with his grandmother but says it was circumstance not choice that brought him to Cornwall.
I’m a city dweller by nature and would never have chosen to come down here - it’s such a long way from everywhere else - but it’s become my home and I love it. I have no regrets whatsoever.’
He knows he’s been lucky to find a fruitful niche in what can be a deceptively difficult environment to make a living. Cornwall can look very idyllic from afar Unless you have some sort of mission and a mindset to do a multitude of things it can be a huge struggle.’
Paul believes a lot of summer visitors have difficulty understanding the seasonal nature of a town like St Ives. A lot of people come here believing that they’re investing in year-round business opportunities. Then suddenly November hits and they’re scratching their heads wondering what to do with themselves.’
For Paul and Susan running a successful business in St Ives is a simple financial equation. They close Spinacio’s in the winter simply because once they’ve reached the VAT limit there is little point in carrying on.
We’d effectively have to pay the taxman our winter takings.’ explains Paul. We’d be working for nothing.’ Their winters are spent planning the coming season and sourcing new plants to grow in the garden.
I deal with an amazing seed company in Wales which specialises in finding seeds from all over the world - strange vegetables that might have been growing in a remote garden for 200 years,’ says Paul. It’s very exciting because I love experimenting with different crops.’
With the restaurant closed from October to March perceptions among those used to seeing businesses come and go can markedly differ. There are always people who think we’ve gone bust while others are convinced we’re sitting with our feet up in the Bahamas or somewhere.’
In fact much of the hard work continues. I’ve increased the size of the garden by a third this winter,’ says Paul. And we’ve sourced some fantastic new organic wine. It’s all an ongoing project.’
He pauses for a moment to reflect on what he’s achieved. I suppose in the days when I was just a window-box gardener who loved cooking I could never have envisaged anything like this. But I never had a dream, never had a plan. It was just a series of mistakes, accidents and circumstances.’ n
Spinacio’s Vegetarian Restaurant can be found upstairs at the Old Custom’s House in Wharf Road, St Ives TR26 1LF. It is open 5.30pm-9pm five nights a week.