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The Thing Is with Steve Canavan

Padstow Harbour, on the North Cornwall coast, at dusk.
Padstow Harbour, on the North Cornwall coast, at dusk.
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As I write this I’m sat on the veranda of a picturesque house overlooking the sea.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it previously but Mrs Canavan and I won a large sum of money on the lottery recently and have dumped all our lifelong friends, purchased a fleet of posh cars with personalised number-plates (just so people know how really well-off we are), and now spend our days quaffing wine and commenting on how disgusting the UK’s income tax rates are.

Actually none of the above is true, bar the opening line.

We are on holiday in Cornwall, near Padstow to be exact, which is a town that appears to be owned almost exclusively by the television chef Rick Stein. Such is the extent of Stein’s reach that I half expected to see him riding through the streets in a gold-plated carriage pulled by half a dozen horses, waving graciously to passers-by as he goes.

Stein, if you don’t know, is the slightly balding, ageing celebrity chef, who seems to spend his days on TV travelling to foreign countries watching them make food and upon tasting a dish, remarking something along the lines of, ‘the way the tarragon clashes with the fennel seed and chick pea… mmm, simply stunning’.

He resides in Padstow – a pretty little harbour village on the north coast of Cornwall – and to say he earns a few quid there is putting it mildly. He has a chippy (£9.45 for takeaway fish and chips), a very posh looking seafood restaurant, a cooking school (where next month, I noted, for prices starting at £198, you can spend a day learning how to cook recipes from Rick’s book ‘The Road To Mexico’), a café, a shop selling Rick Stein goods (I didn’t go in – to be honest a wok from Tesco will do me just fine), and a little down the road, a large pub (The Cornish Arms). And they are just the businesses I know about. There could be more. I daresay he owns the butchers, the massage parlour, and the veterinary surgery too (‘now Mrs Spencer, Rover is in fine condition but we really need to get to the bottom of this anal gland complaint’).

Now I’m not a fan of cookery shows – I strongly feel that life is too short to watch a stranger make a strawberry and elderflower trifle with a side of poached pear – but Mrs Canavan loves them. Indeed recently we missed the christening of a baby of a close family friend because it clashed with Saturday Morning Kitchen.

So predictably Mrs Canavan insisted I take her to Stein’s restaurant. Because I’m tight, we didn’t choose the real top end one - on the harbourside and with staff wearing matching shirts; we’re lucky if Bert, who runs the takeaway near our house, actually has a shirt on – but I did agree to take her to the Rick Stein café.

Firstly, it’s important to say, the food was very good and the service terrific.

The only complaint I had concerned my fellow diners. For starters, I don’t know what it is about rich men of a certain age but they appear to think it is acceptable to wear salmon pink clothing in public.

The man at the table to my left was dressed in white linen trousers, designer pink shirt, and a pair of open toe sandals, and was sat with his partner, a woman who looked bored out of her mind. We were in the café for just shy of two hours, during which he spent the entire time talking about his personal wealth. At one point he actually said, in a voice just loud enough for others to hear, ‘sometimes one has so much money it’s hard to know what to do with it’. It took every last drop of my willpower not to turn around, throw my sea bass at him, and say ‘well use some of it to pay to have your atrocious shirt dry-cleaned you big-headed clot’. His wife meanwhile barely said a word, but had in her eye a dreamy faraway look that suggested she was having an intense affair with either the gardener at the massive mansion where they lived or her personal trainer. Possibly both.

There does seem to be a lot of money swilling about in Cornwall but what a exquisite place it remains. Every time I go back it gets better. The coastline is stunning and the beaches beautiful, though the price of parking slightly narks me. In days gone by you drove to the beach, plonked your vehicle in some dusty, non-descript gravel area, and went on your way. These days you plonk your car park in the same dusty gravel areas but now there’s a machine charging £4.50 for a couple of hours stay. This is on top of the 20 pence admission to the toilet block (don’t get me started on this – a charge to urinate; outrageous).

The best spot we’ve found so far is somewhere called Bedruthan Steps, where there are a series of spectacular giant rocks littered along the beach. Legend has it a giant put the rocks there to act as stepping-stones, as a shortcut across the bay. I’m not so sure I believe the validity of the story but as I wasn’t present when the rocks appeared, I’ll hold my tongue. What is certain is that it is absolutely breath-taking, and if you can avoid pulling your calf while descending the 100 foot flight of steep steps (as my mother did; we had to slowly help her down while a long queue of tutting, unhappy tourists gathered behind us), you will be treated to a bewitching sight.

We’re here for the next few days – I expect to see plenty more pink salmon shirts before the week’s out.

By and large they’re awful

I noted a list of Britain’s service stations ranked best to worst was published this week.

It was surprising not to see Gloucester services make the top five for we stopped there en route to Cornwall and - as far as it is possible to be impressed by a building at the side of a motorway selling overpriced refreshments to fatigue-suffering travellers – we were impressed.

It bills itself as a Farm Shop style services, like Tebay in Cumbria. I’m not quite sure what this means – the fish and chips looked exactly the same as they do at other service stations, and cost the same too – but it is a very pleasant place, overlooking a little man-made lake and with a children’s play area to boot, a godsend when you have spent several hours in a car with a small whining child and want just a few minutes respite from hearing the words ‘are we nearly there yet?’

I am a bit of an expert on service stations as I used to work as a football writer and spent several days a week travelling the length and breadth of the country, heading to different stadiums.

There is only about four in England that I haven’t eaten at, which is, when you think about it, a hugely depressing statement.

I’ve never understood quite why they are so, in general, awful. I suppose they don’t really have any competitors so they don’t have to up their game.

Gloucester, though, comes recommended – especially if you’ve got unruly children you want to get rid of for half an hour.