Nationally it was a year of high-profile food-related stories. Horse meat, the creation of a lab-grown burger and the patented ?cronut?, a croissant-doughnut hybrid, all caused a stir. On the Isle of Wight as elsewhere, the horse meat outrage focused diners' minds on the origins of their food. Venues such as the Priory Bay Hotel, Pointer Inn and Lockslane; and suppliers including as Island Foods and Dunsbury Lamb were able to capitalise on this renewed interest in local food provenance.
Events on the Island continued to feature local food very favourably. The Cowes Food Shows run by Red Funnel have become a regular feature, drawing tourists from Southampton and beyond. And the new Chilli Fiesta seemed to be a success - maybe to be repeated in 2014.
2013 was also a year of big changes in some of the high-end kitchens around the Island, and a time when quite a few interesting new venues opened their doors, as well as some sad times as others went to the wall. We had a few bad meals, quite a lot of decent meals, and a pleasingly large number of excellent and delightful meals. We've been saying it for years, and the longer we say it, the more it seems to come true: the Isle of Wight really is a great place for eating out.
Read on for part one: January 2013 - March 2013.
There has been much debate on the Isle of Wight about the merits and disadvantages of chain and franchise eateries. If the arrival of Costa in Newport?s St James Square raised a few eyebrows then the rumours of Starbucks has aroused widespread consternation.
However, left to itself, the Island doesn't always manage to make the best of its assets. Without the backing of national companies, some popular hostelries could have literally been ruined. In the last couple of years the Old English group has spent a shed-load of moolah on the Fountain, the Folly, the Crab, the Hare & Hounds and most recently the Ryde Castle - which was in a pitiful state following a catastrophic fire. And that investment can only be a good thing surely? There are plenty of local examples of buildings that could do with a similar hefty injection of cash, but alas don't look as though they are likely to get it.
For as long as Matt and Cat can remember, the site at Merrie Gardens, Lake has resembled what the planning authorities euphemistically call ?brown field?. With the quaintly-spelled name ironically attached to one of the Island's most soullessly dismal bungalow estates, and a former fridge factory for many years its main local amenity, one can hardly be surprised. The historic thatched farmhouse at the front of the site was possibly the victim of an arson attack about a decade ago and the land was left to lie. However, unexpected good fortune turned up last year when Staffordshire brewery Marstons submitted ambitious plans to build a 180-seat pub and convert the Grade II-listed farmhouse into staff accommodation. After a decent amount of disruption as a new roundabout was created, the pub opened its doors in summer 2013.
Cowes has quite a dynamically-changing high street. During the famous yachting festival particularly, the place is bursting with temporary retailers and eateries. However it's not all seasonal pop-ups; there are some establishments like Benzie that have been there as for as long as Brucie has been entertaining us on Saturday night TV. Another long-standing fixture in the middle of this ever-changing streetscape is Eegon's café. This little venue is a rare exemplar of the unreconstructed vintage style - yes, children, there was a day when all cafés were like this. Most have moved on, or faded away - but not Eegon's. This doughty survivor is still offering budget café fare with no frills, in a venue that looks as though it might have been meticulously dressed by an ITV set-designer for yet another 70s retro drama..
Matt and Cat had been doing their bit for the Isle of Wight Walking Festival - did you know they lead free guided walks for the Festival every year? You didn't? Well, come along to the next one and find out more. Anyway, in 2013 it was the turn of Cowes, and after a stroll from the Floating Bridge to Gurnard and back, your reviewers were ready to tackle some food. Eegon's seemed like a suitable place for refuelling and recovering from a prolonged stroll. This venue is one of the places Matt and Cat first reviewed, way back in January 2006, when they judged it "very enjoyable". How had it got on in the intervening years? Very much by staying the same, if outside appearances were to be believed. So in they went to find out.
It's fair to say that 2013 has been an eventful year for the Island's most famous restaurant, The Hambrough.
Last time Matt and Cat visited this Ventnor venue it was prominently branded as Robert Thompson's The Hambrough. No longer. 2013 was the year that the chef who was literally synonymous with his flagship restaurant left in puzzling circumstances. Also quitting the Hambrough group at around the same time was a swathe of staff including the Hambrough's restaurant manager, their marketing officer, and even catering consultant Steve McManus. Similar problems beset sister venue the Pond Cafe in Bonchurch, with staff coming and going. Kitchens at both the Pond and the Hambrough were closed at various times over the early summer, and at least one booked event was cancelled.
This season was an uncharacteristic debacle in the life of what has been one of the Island's most carefully curated and developed high-end names: a brand that has had a huge positive impact on many businesses and individuals in Ventnor and across the Island. Why 2013 was the time that the Hambrough group's well-oiled machine went off the rails in such a public way is hard to fathom. Certainly Matt and Cat, like many others, watched with a morbid fascination when it seemed as though the floundering leviathan would beach itself fatally on the rocks. They breathed a sigh of relief on behalf of the Island's hospitality industry when disaster was averted and over the summer normal service began to return to both the Hambrough and the Pond Cafe. The head chef is now Darren Beevers, a man who must be saluted for having returned order to the kitchen and beyond at a time when some assumed the Hambrough group had consumed itself. The Island's only Michelin star is the unsurprising casualty of this season of turmoil - but Matt and Cat care little for such trimmings. They want only to know what a meal at the Hambrough is like. So after giving the restaurant and new chef a few months to settle down, it was time to head southwards once more.
Matt and Cat are a right pair of provincials. Not for nothing is their website called Matt and Cat's Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide.
Sure, they have made a few forays into mainland reviewing, with a pretty good hit rate - and the occasional dud. But eating out in London must be different, mustn't it? That capital nexus of dining and the culinary arts, where tiny birds tirelessly fly luscious delicacies into your very mouth; their every wingbeat instagrammed and blogged by an army of knowing cosmopolites.
On a recent trip to That London Matt and Cat soon realised that, despite catering for the nutritional needs of metropolitans, eating out is not so different in Westminster as in Puckaster. Having lunched on a posh fish finger butty, M&C?s dinner adventure began in Canary Wharf. Well, not quite in the sexy skyscraper district, but in Rotherhithe on the opposite side of the Thames. And that, dear reader, was due to the unexpected yet heart-warmingly familiar tale of a ferry being cancelled, marooning the duo on the south side of the river. Turning their backs on the twinkling lights of the financial quarter and its glut of restaurants they peered into the gloom of Rotherhithe. The first taxi driver they flagged down and asked for a recommendation offered to take them to Canary Wharf for fifteen quid, before driving off. The second one told them emphatically there was nothing in Rotherhithe. No pubs, no shops, not even a Tesco Express. It sounded like Winford but with fewer amenities. Undeterred - after a brief consultation with Google - Matt and Cat discovered an address for Café East, the only place for miles around that appeared likely to serve any kind of food. Having spelt out the unfamiliar address to the highly sceptical taxi-driver, they set off southbound past boarded-up hostelries and featureless streets.