People on the Isle of Wight have long, long memories - and unforgiving ones. Matt and Cat have heard tales of folks who have vowed never to revisit a particular establishment after a single disappointing experience - and cling to that simple principle for so long that generations later their children's children are still wedded to the conviction that nobody should ever go near the place.
It's for that reason that Matt and Cat make a point of going to pretty much anywhere (at least once). Good food and service can be found in the most discreet of locations so sometimes it's worth deviating from the well-trodden path. Island eateries can change quite rapidly for better or worse, and you never know when a gem is going to turn up - or, for that matter, a lemon.
However, with nearly 2,000 licensed food premises on the Island, in nine years Matt and Cat have only managed to visit about a quarter of them. And let's not even start on about revisiting places. So it is only fair for them to confess that they'd never actually been to Adgestone Vineyard. Nor had they really considered it as a dining venue, and yet it is. Driving through the countryside one sunny afternoon they were in search of a cream tea and, having only recently enjoyed the teashop at nearby Brading Roman Villa, decided they'd like to try somewhere new. Thus they ended up pulling into the vineyard's little enclave.
The question that Matt and Cat most often hear is "Are you guys really fat?". Well, aside from the fact that Cat is not a 'guy', the answer is well… no, maybe yes, in places (mostly restaurants). While Matt is content to lean back in his chair and pat his stomach after a particularly fine mixed grill, Cat mitigates her tiramisu intake with the occasional spin on her bicycle.
The Isle of Wight is famous for its spectacular and undulating landscape. Anyone who has ever straddled a bike here will undoubtedly have encountered a climb at some point but the strenuous uphill bit is delightfully offset as you freewheel down the other side. For the less energetic there are a few flat trails on the Island, mostly on the routes of the old steam railway. One of those cycle tracks is the particularly scenic West Wight causeway, which runs alongside the Western Yar estuary. Having treadled from Yarmouth to the glorious Freshwater Bay and back, Cat drew up at the platform of Yarmouth station - now Off The Rails cafe - which was crammed with similar walkers and cyclists.
Coming to a halt on the cycle track, Cat leaned her bike against the platform with all the other bicycles (surprisingly there didn’t seem to be any bike racks at this cycle-friendly cafe). Spotting a table by the vast patio doors, she hopped in and nabbed it. This proved to be an unorthodox entry; if she’d walked in through the door she would have been properly greeted and seated and given a menu. However, having glanced around then taken a trip to the counter she was fully furnished with a menu and advised that a waiter would be over soon. Cat’s trackside seat was was an excellent place to sit and look across Thorley Brook wetland, as the afternoon sun slowly made its way across the platform.
'How many Islanders does it take to change a lightbulb?' 'Change? We don’t like change!'
One of the Isle of Wight’s charms is how it has remained steadfastly behind the times, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. This laissez-faire attitude may have more to do with collective inertia than real fear of change. Whatever the reason, if you're into vintage vacations then a ticket to Ryde on August Bank Holiday weekend is the hot chit, as the town is filled with old-school mods and their contemporaneous vehicles.
Having built up a decent appetite gongoozling scooters, foxtails and Union flags, Matt and Cat were drawn to Bagel Wrap. The café's enticing music, al fresco seating and shady awning mark it out from the many other sarnie shops in town. Now in the heart of Ryde Leisure Strip, this eatery has been feeding the lunchtime crowd long before the submarine sandwich surfaced over here. Although the Union Street cafe has a rear courtyard and plenty of seating inside, M&C nabbed the tiny table out front so they could continue enjoying the antics of Ryde's colourful visitors.
Matt and Cat recently twanged their umbilicus enough to take a trip to the delightful town of Lymington - Hampshire’s answer to Cowes, with its quaint thoroughfares, yachticulture and quayside amenities.
They popped over to have lunch in the town’s newest fine dining venue, the Elderflower restaurant, invited by their mainland counterparts Ladies Who Lunch in Hampshire - a sort of matriarchal Matt and Cat, run by the charming ‘CJ’.
When CJ chose Elderflower for this first collaborative review, she had done her homework. The restaurant is run by chef Andrew Du Bourg and his French wife Marjolaine. Both have impressive experience in the hospitality industry: Andrew’s last gig was as head chef at the nearby five star Chewton Glen Hotel. Matt and Cat were suitably intrigued.
Lymington was heaving with visitors; it was a perfect storm of Bank Holiday weekend, the last Saturday of the school holidays, market day and the sun was shining. Expecting the venue to be rushed off its feet, Matt, Cat, CJ and pal Sue were surprised to find that they were the first diners in the place. It was pleasingly calm after the hustle and bustle of the street and, as they settled at their table, they enjoyed watching the throng through the bullseye glass in the authentic Georgian windows.
The Isle of Wight does funny things to people. Some folks that move here just don’t get with the vibe and can’t wait to leave. If you’re not used to a place where everyone’s cousins live nearby, the roads have names and not numbers, and local businesses are obsessed with having logos that include the county's distinctive diamond shape, then it can take a bit of getting used to. So let’s get this over with now - neither Matt or Cat were born on the Island and all of the above were notable distinctions compared with their originating counties.
But resistance is futile. Once you tune in to Wight life, then you can have the Best Fun Ever. It doesn't take much to find your niche and M&C have certainly carved out one for themselves pontificating on the Island’s food offering for nearly a decade. It’s easy to see how their old associate, fellow pie-botherer and much-missed IW County Press columnist the late Keith Newbery turned down approaches from national newspapers, not wanting to forsake his Island home.
And so, perhaps, the same is true of Alan Staley, proprietor of Sandown’s Ocean Deck? Following a seventeen-year stretch at Ventnor’s Royal Hotel, this supremely competent and experienced chef went to the Seaview Hotel before moving on to work for himself. With his charming wife Hayley on front-of-house duties, his ‘office’ is now within a salty spray of The Bay, with an enviable view of the English Channel.