Cathy’s Port Eliot parmesan biscuits

Cathy St Germans, at Port Eliot Festival. Photo courtesy of Port Eliot Festival

Like me, the majority of Cathy’s memories, sweet and sad, seem to be hung around food and relationships with people she loves. As I listen to her describe her life, the food memories she conjures through her storytelling take on a peachy pink glow.  I can hear the crackle of the campfire on the Isle of Islay as her family toasted marshmallows and grilled freshly caught fish, I can feel the excitement as she watches her mother cover pastry with crème anglaise for the first mulberry tart of the year and I can see Kay’s hands deftly rolling out pastry on cold, white marble for the Cornish pasties they would eat every Saturday at Port Eliot House.

Growing up in rural Worcestershire, Cathy was lucky enough to be surrounded by fruit trees, church spires, farms and the Malvern Hills. The whole area hummed with nature and her own home, “hadn’t been touched by the hand of modern life”. Their garden was a great source of both food and happiness. Long days were spent playing outside and her father, the local doctor, worked in the kitchen garden whilst her mother grew herbs, flowers and fruit, or cooked an endless supply of jellies, quiches and soft fruit tarts. One summer Cathy remembers spending several days removing dirt in their glasshouse, brushing back the earth to discover beautiful patterned tiles underneath. Summer holidays were spent on the Isle of Islay, hiking all day to see ospreys and eagles, slurping freshly caught scallops and cooking on the campfire at night. Life was simple, abundant and nourishing.

Growing their own produce meant that food was a huge part of their lives growing up. They ate with the seasons and experienced all the joy that comes with that. A large asparagus bed in the kitchen garden was always “an incredible source of excitement” and Cathy remembers her 13-year-old self being amazed by the mulberry tree in the garden, that would spring into life each year and produce so much fruit that there was a bloodbath of juice from where Cathy’s family and the garden birds has gorged themselves.

It is probably this childhood that we have to thank for the work that Cathy is now doing to help save British farming. A long-time champion for regenrative agriculture, at the begining of lockdown Cathy set up ‘Farms To Feed Us‘ an initiative that connects people with farmers, fishers and food producers.

Over the years the memory of her mother’s cooking has been a source of both comfort and sadness. After she died, Cathy’s brother Jamie wanted to read her quiche recipe at the funeral instead of a poem; Christmas not long after, Cathy and Jamie spent trying to recreate her legendary trifle.

Cathy still has the cookbook which her father gave her mother as a Christmas present. Inside the front cover reads: “To Pat, Love George” and then “see page 62”, presumably as a heavy hint that this was something George wanted his wife to cook for him. On a family holiday in France one year they stopped off at a renowned bistro for lunch only to order a simple mushroom omelette. Cathy’s mum was so impressed by it that she marched the whole family into the kitchen and asked the chef to show them how he made it. Cathy still cooks an omelette like that to this day.

Port Eliot house. Photo courtesy of Port Eliot Festival

Having been a journalist in London for several years, In 2001 Cathy married her soul mate Peregrine St Germans, and moved down to Cornwall to live with him in his family home. Not just any old place, Port Eliot House is a Grade I listed stately home and had been in the family for 500 years. At first Cathy was astounded by the grandeur and scale of things; they ate off silver plates and the food was always cold by the time it got to them because the kitchen which was 110 yards away from the formal dining room. Despite this grandeur, life in the house was full of love and happiness, mostly due to Perry “who was deeply unconventioanl, but made life so much fun”.

Fed up of cold dinners, it wasn’t long after moving in to Port Eliot that Cathy undertook a complete renovation of the regency kitchen. The kitchen was a popular place for visiting chefs to prep ahead of their set at the festival

Both keen to share their home with others, Cathy and Perry opened their doors to the public and started Port Eliot Festival. Years before Wildnerness was doing it, Cathy and Perry created a boutique festival that had local and sustainable food at the heart of it. Renowned chefs from Moro cooked a huge paella on a campfire to a crowd of lively festival goers and the scallop dish from Cathy’s summers spent on Islay would become a festival classic. Big culinary names such as Skye Gygnell, Jeremy Lee, Peter Gordon, Thomasina Miers and Rick Stein (to name a few) loved prepping meals in Port Eliot’s Regency kitchen that Cathy so lovingly restored. Yet the real nourishment during the festival came from Cathy’s Cook and loyal friend Kay, who first got the job at Port Eliot House on the merit of her Cornish Pasties, which she would make for Perry and Cathy every Saturday. It wasn’t long before Kay’s steak and kidney pies, rice puddings and Victoria sponge cakes became legendary amongst the visiting chefs and festival staff.

For 15 blissful years Cathy and Perry were together, before he tragically died in 2016. Cathy has since moved out of Port Eliot House and the much-loved festival, which embodied Perry’s “aplomb, grace and generosity”, is no more.

I think it takes a special type of person to be able to share a home with strangers, even if your home does have 82 chimneys. But Cathy reassures me that’s what they loved the most about it. She recalls a story of going to bed one night of the festival. It was about 3am and “like Armageddon outside: smoke, litter, music, people everywhere”. Crawling into bed and trying not to disturb Perry, she realised that he was wide awake and listening to the shouts, laughter and thumping music from the festival. Whispering he said to her “this is one of the happiest nights of my life”.

Perry and Cathy enjoying the music at Port Eliot Festival

The recipe that Cathy is sharing on this blog is Simon Hopkinson’s Parmesan Biscuits. This was the recipe Kay used to make when they had guests at Port Eliot House and is something Cathy still cooks to this day.

Simon Hopkinsons’ Parmesan Biscuits

Ingredients

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
  2. Place the butter and flour into the bowl of a food processor with the salt, cayenne, mustard powder and cheeses. Process together to begin with, and then finely pulse the mixture in short spurts as you notice the mixture coming together – it will eventually bind without the need for egg or water. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Lightly flour a work surface and gently roll out the pastry to about the thickness of two pound coins. Cut out the biscuits to the size and shape you wish – anything between 3cm/1¼in and 5cm/2in, depending on the occasion. Lay them out on a greased baking tray about 2cm/¾in apart – it may take two lots of baking to use up the entire mixture.
  4. Carefully brush the surface of each biscuit with the egg and sprinkle over a little finely grated parmesan. Bake for 10 minutes, or until they are a gorgeous golden-brown colour; the superb smell will also inform you that they are ready.
  5. Carefully lift the biscuits off the tray using a palette knife and place on a rack to cool. Although the biscuits will keep well in a sealed container for a few days, I have never known this to happen!

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