Padstow rightfully revels in its picturesque reputation but there’s a lot more to the town than its camera-ready looks. Stylist's Anna Brech visits a place of world-class culinary adventure
I’m sitting in a large, sunlit room learning how to remove a small worm from a piece of monkfish using a cocktail stick.
It’s a lesson that’s somehow at odds with our beautiful surroundings (set off by a huge window overlooking the glistening Camel Estuary) and yet Padstow Seafood School is not for the faint-hearted.
A day here brings you sweeping views of the harbour, yes, and a generous supply of crisp, delicious Muscadet as you cook.
But it’s also run by a serious crew of dedicated Stein chefs, for people who really want to roll their sleeves up and get to grips with the nitty gritty of prepping fish and seafood.
For a rookie like me (I’m more of an eater than a cooker), it’s an eye-opening experience.
Running the workshop is Mark Puckey, a veteran chef in the Stein ranks who has had years of experience working everywhere from Laos to Bali and Hong Kong.
A man who truly knows his stuff, Puckey was born to teach and can combine patient how-to tutorials with an astonishing level of knowledge casually dispensed as he talks us through each dish (the best spice-grinders in the business, for example, come from India under the unlikely brand name Butterfly Desire).
Over the course of five Masterchef-style hours, I and my small group of fellow pupils learn how to pluck barnacles and beards from cockles, peel thin sheaths of skin from skate wings and pan-fry flambé a fillet of monkfish.
We also watch as Puckey demonstrates how to humanely kill a crab and lobster (thankfully something we are not called upon to enact ourselves) in the pièce de résistance, a resplendent Thai red seafood centrepiece packed with mullet, squid, mussels and prawns.
As someone who regularly travels the world, a diaspora of cultural experience is key to what Stein does. The school is no exception and we drink up detail of Thai, Indian and Chinese approaches to seafood, cooking up everything from a Tandoori masala paste to grilled mussels with Spanish Romesco sauce.
It's intensive, theatrical and lots of fun.
A town with a heritage
For all people joke about the eponymous effect of “Padstein”, the Stein family have flourished here for a reason. Their internationally-renowned Seafood Restaurant celebrates its 40th anniversary this year but when Jill and Rick first brought the place in 1974, it had none of the hallmarks of the celebrity it would become.
In fact, the couple ran it as a nightclub for a few inauspicious months, an ambition that was rapidly quelled by problems with what they describe as “keeping law and order with a clientele of burly fisherman”. Instead, a seafood bistro was born and it gradually accrued a reputation for creativity and excellence that would put Padstow firmly on the map for gourmands.
The Stein story has continued a bit like this down the years; a mixture of good luck, taste, timing and eye for the opportunity has seen the family successful launch everything from boutique hotels to a deli, pub and of course, a fish and chip shop.
Nowadays, Padstow is one of the few seaside towns in Britain that flourishes year-round, in part thanks to the Stein effect.
We stayed at St Edmunds House, a gorgeously restored townhouse with just six bedrooms. With its antique green window-frames, American shutters and an impeccable decking area, it has all the discreet luxury of a retreat in the Hamptons. But its modern, crisp décor (a Jill Stein speciality) is also cut through with personal touches that make you feel right at home the minute you cross the threshold.
I spent my time here daydreaming that I actually lived in a chic New England-style abode where cushion-strewn four poster beds are the norm, and the corridors just happened to be tastefully curated with black and white photographs and contemporary art.
The ground-floor master bedroom comes with giant four-poster beds, comfy armchairs, oak flooring and bookshelves straining with the likes of Anita Shreve and Sarah Waters.
Come the morning, you can cocoon yourself in fluffy bathrobe and head out to your own private balcony, coffee in hand, for a glimpse of the Camel Estuary lingering on the horizon.
My favourite spot, however, was the bathroom, with its pebble-dash walls, Molton Brown miniatures and a giant, egg-shaped bath that was just made for wallowing in.
Dining in style
You’ll want to get familiar with Padstow’s all-singing repertoire of restaurants as quickly as possible – but make sure you map out how to enjoy each one. Cod coated in a crispy shell of batter with chips, lemon and a pinch of coriander, for example, is best sampled in time-honoured style standing by the harbour-side with a fresh salty breeze meaning you ingest fish and hair in roughly equal measure.
Pop by the deli for unbeatable Cornish Sea Salt, melt-in-the-mouth Florentines and a slice of Cornish yarg. The Cornish Arms in the nearby village of St. Merryn's is great for a quiet Sunday night with scampi in a basket and ale from the excellent St Austells brewery on the side. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could make a foray to The Scarlet, a half hour drive away, for gourmet dining (with an award-winning spa on the side).
Save the best til last, with your last night at the jewel in the Stein crown. A lot has changed since 1975 but The Seafood Restaurant continues to relish in its reputation as a world-class foodie destination. With solicitous waiters, a ballroom-style interior and chefs that are continually moving the goal posts of ingenious cuisine, it bridges just the right balance between old-school and cutting edge. The team here have worked all over the world and are unafraid to venture abroad for influence, drawing inspiration from the very best, most creative global approaches to seafood.
The menu offers up an intrepid romp through classic French and spicy Indonesian dishes, even where the fish itself is locally sourced (and lots of it is, including wild salmon from the Salmon Estuary, Cornish cuttlefish and Porthilly oysters). We feasted on a cerviche starter of monkfish with pomegranate and a hit of chilli and Cornish crab drizzled in wasabi mayonnaise.
For mains, we got serious with Chettinad Masala Fish Curry – a glorious mash-up of stone bass, tamarind and Indian spices – and a time-honoured Rick Stein-favoured masterpiece, the Indonesian Seafood Curry. With a plethora of flavours and textures - from the tang of garlic-covered prawns to grated coconut salad - it was a delicious assault on the senses that’s not to be missed.
Out and about
Padstow is small enough that you can easily cover it by foot in a morning. The high street is great fodder for mooching around, with a nice mix of independent and mainstream shops. There are one or two well-priced clothing boutiques, as well as art galleries and a standard clutch of quaint fudge and postcard outposts.
There are plenty of boat rides to be had from the local harbour, or you could hop on a ferry to Rock over the estuary – home-place of Sharp’s brewery, who make the brilliant Doombar (so named for the treacherous sand bank in the estuary that has waylaid a number of boats in its time). A really nice way of getting to grips with the coastal landscape is to hire a bike and head along the Camel Trail to Wadebridge. This is an easy and flat but exhilarating route, affording a front-seat view of the rugged North Cornish coastline. If you’re feeling energetic, you could even head to Camel Valley Vineyard, located further down the route and the setting for one of England’s finest sparkling wine alchemists.
Getting there and away
The nearest train station to our area is Bodmin Parkway, around 15 miles away. You can get a bus from there to Padstow. The nearest airport is Newquay, around 12 miles away, and again, a bus service runs between there and Padstow. See here for more information.
Rick Stein is running a special offer to mark its 40th anniversary this year. Enjoy a one night dinner, bed and breakfast at The Seafood Restaurant for two people from £334. Find out more here. Prices at St Edmunds House start at £295 per room per night. Click here to book. A one-day course at the Padstow Seafood School costs £198 per person. Click here for more information about the different types of courses on offer.