Review: Locanda on the Weir, Porlock Weir
- Credit: Archant
Long treasured for its stunning location and unspoilt historic charm, Porlock Weir now has some Mediterranean magic to add to its appeal, discovers Catherine Courtenay
There's no getting away from how dramatic the scenery is on the Exmoor coastline. Over the centuries, dozens of creative and artistic types have been drawn to this place which revels in nature's splendour and intimacy. Soaring cliffs, mysterious woodlands and the ebb and flow of the tide, bring a constantly changing atmosphere.
One of the best ways to approach Porlock Weir, the historic harbour which lies about a mile away from Porlock, is to come over the moor from Exford, traversing a wild expanse of heathland, with undulating hills, ravines and streams; in the distance there's the sea and Dunkery Beacon, the highest point in Somerset.
Weather patterns vary around here. On this occasion, clear skies and spring sunshine provide fabulous views of the moor, but heading down to Porlock means plunging into a mist that has come off the sea; wrapping itself around the coastline, it's hard to tell where sea and land meet. Mysterious and beautiful, slightly spooky, but thrilling.
After the drama provided by the natural world, arriving at Locanda on the Weir feels like coming home. Safe, warm and a perfect place to relax those hyper-alert senses. The scenery, that blanketing mist, is still there, but you can sit and watch it unfold and change from the comfort of a deep sofa beside a log fire - with an Exmoor gin and tonic in hand.
Cindy Siu and Pio Catemario Di Quadri are the new-ish owners of Locanda on the Weir. They came from London to run the house on the harbourside as a restaurant with rooms, experiencing their first season last year.
Pio is the chef. He's also the son of an Italian duke and quite naturally, his food is Italian-inspired. His background is in finance, but his first love has always been cooking, hence the decision to up-sticks and move to Somerset to fulfil his dream.
It's a dream shared by Cindy, whose interior design skills - she worked on a renovation of 18th century mansion Croome Court Park in Worcestershire and Farmacy in Notting Hill - have transformed Locanda. Each of the five bedrooms are individual and luxurious; the lounge is cosy and homely and the restaurant is elegant. Artworks fill the walls, juggling for space between the bookshelves, and there are candles everywhere. It's all their own personal furnishings; this is not some corporate fit out, this works because it is Cindy and Pio's home.
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And because it's their home, and they know about good hospitality, the couple make eating or staying here extra special. So, for instance, if you book to stay then they'll chat through dinner options when you arrive, depending on what Pio has in the kitchen, he'll make something for you personally. So no worries regarding any dietary needs.
Pio's food lives up to the exuberance with which he talks about it. A beetroot carpaccio, with feta, pomegranate and mint looks too good to eat. "There's nothing to it," he says. "It's all provided by nature." Delicate pieces of gnocchi come in a rich but tangy cheese sauce, a perfect portion that leaves you craving more. He's bound to have something in hand that's his favourite dish of the moment, and for us it's Alexander the Great lamb. Truly special, this is his version of a lamb dish he ate in India - packed with exotic spices, it's a revelation. Accompanied by a medley of perfectly cooked veg, it is beautifully presented, a work of art; and it has a wholesome vitality that sets it apart from the usual fine dining fare.
Cindy and Pio have created a contemporary hideaway for a short break. Tailored to suit the individual, incorporating modern food trends while also fully embracing all the local area has to offer.
After a leisurely breakfast - the boiled eggs with truffle soldiers are divine - we see Pio in the front garden, working on his plan for an outdoor cooking space. It's a reminder to keep tabs on what's happening here.
Prices from £115 per room, including breakfast. Main courses from around £18.50. The house can also be booked for private use.
Exploring Porlock Weir...
Porlock Weir is a perfect point for exploring this section of the South West Coast Path. One five mile route takes you through ancient woodland to Culbone Church, the smallest complete church in England, and through the romantic remnants of Lord Byron's daughter's gothic mansion with tunnels carved out of the hillside by 19th century Swiss mountaineers.
The salt marshes about half a mile towards Porlock from Porlock Weir have evolved following a storm in 1996 which damaged a shingle ridge, so letting seawater flood the low-lying marsh area. A decision was taken to allow nature to take its course, so creating a new ecosystem, home to rare plants and wildlife. You can see the striking remains of skeleton trees which were killed by the salt water.
Eat and drink
Potter around the harbour and stop off for a coffee at the Harbour Gallery and Café, where you can also see an excellent range of local art and crafts. The Ship Inn has oodles of olde worlde charm and is a great place to enjoy a pint. The Porlock Weir Hotel has also reopened under new ownership, a sister hotel to the highly respected Luttrell Arms in Dunster.
There's a fabulous chandelier hanging in the hall at Locanda on the Weir. It came from Pio's family but for a long time lay in storage as no one could repair it. No-one that is until they discovered Exmoor Glass. Working from a studio at Porlock Weir they use ancient techniques to create pieces by hand including their popular Cranberry Range, a dichroic jewellery range and bespoke commissions - which includes the Locanda chandelier.
Reviving a local food heritage that goes back to oyster farming in the 1800s, this was set up as a community company, raising funds through grants and crowdfunding. Enjoying its first commercial year in 2018, it supplies local restaurants and stockists.