Just what the heck is going on? If you’re under forty, please indulge M and C for a moment of rose-tinted nostalgia. If you’re old enough please join in. Do you remember, back in the day, when all you had to do was ride around on your chopper bike, casually brushing your feather cut from your eyes as you squinted into the searing sun which beat down on the melting tarmac during the long hot summer of ’76?
A time when a holiday meant a week on the Isle of Wight, not a month-long sponsored hike through the Peruvian mountains in aid of charidee. Well, it seems that those halcyon days may be about to return. This summer will be scorchio, the bike’s tyres are pumped up and the English holiday is tipped for a resurgence.
Matt and Cat have combined their individual memories of seaside holidays to make one nostalgic emulsified lump of sunburn, sandy sandwiches and tar on the beach. Thankfully the Island’s beaches have undergone a transformation since the polluting disaster of the Pacific Glory. However, apart from the unlikely eventuality of Gary Glitter being number one in the hit parade, the other thing which will definitely be different this time around is the holiday café. This English institution has undergone an almost unrecognisable transformation since 1976. Some, perhaps now a minority, remain unreformed: in 2006 Matt and Cat ate at Sandown’s Kate(s) Cottage and were transported back to their childhood holidays. When they visited another café, they found it about as far from squeezy plastic tomatoes as you can get…
Opened a matter of weeks before Matt and Cat’s lunchtime visit, the Garlic Farm had already made a bit of a name for itself. Prominent and enticing advertising on Wightlink TV, plus the High Sheriff’s opening, secured this new venue a place near the top of the must-try list for M and C. On a dazzling Monday lunchtime, they drove over the down to the Garlic Farm and, on their arrival, saw the car park was full to bursting.
Anxious that they would not be able to get a seat, M and C bypassed the interesting-looking courtyard interpretation boards and scuttled through the well-stocked shop to the airy café. A friendly chap was ready to greet the couple and offered them a pleasant table near the open wood-burning stove, indicating the specials board and drawing the wine list to their attention. A maitre d’, specials board and wine list… in a café? This was starting to look like something other than a greasy spoon.
As Matt and Cat studied the menu, they considered their recent visit to Chale Green Stores. Seemingly just a village shop, the café within was an unexpected gem. With the CGS lamb pie still a vivid and pleasant memory, first impressions at the Garlic Farm suggested that the rural café has entered its renaissance. Padded menus have their place, but it’s not in a giant brass paperclip engineered into a hand-crafted wooden garlic-bulb with the artisan’s name on its base, as adorns each table at the Garlic Farm.
Looking around at their fellow patrons, Matt and Cat saw elderly wine quaffers, Baby GAP-clothed children and a wholesome couple in natural fibres. Geographically Newchurch is about five miles from Sandown but its café culture is a world apart. At the Garlic Farm café fried eggs are dusted with smoked paprika, meat pie is re-imagined as seafood parcel; and the word gravy is consigned to the distantly-remembered menu of the proletariat.
Although the grilled goats cheese on rocket pesto tagliatelle sounded pretty scrummy, Cat chose asparagus and poached egg with Hollandaise sauce. Matt looked with interest at tomato, chick pea, chorizo and potato stew with smoky paprika fried egg; and grilled ham steak, crushed new potato champ and sweet tomato chutney. However, his ignorance of what being faced with a new potato champ might entail meant he went for the less opaque option of puff pastry filled with salmon and crayfish in a pimento and tomato sauce with ripped leaves. The order given, M and C sat back and enjoyed the heat from the fire.
The meals arrived. Cat’s lunch looked beautiful; a neat little bundle of asparagus spears surrounded by a yellow puddle of Hollandaise sauce. Rimming the sauce was an artful drizzle of balsamic reduction and atop the creative pile sat a poached egg with, for visual interest, two tiny curls of red and yellow pepper, flat leaved parsley and chives. It was a skilful arrangement and it seemed a shame to disrupt it. However, Cat was hungry so she stabbed at the egg. As it had been cooked to such accurate perfection, the yolk was entirely runny and gushed out of its wibbly white sack, cascaded over the veg and blended with the sauces. The asparagus was very nice, not at all woody. It was also not at all absorbent and, despite her best efforts fumbling with the cutlery, the egg yolk and Hollandaise sauce remained on the plate resisting all attempts to be scooped up and eaten, dripping wilfully through the fork’s prongs every time. This was a crushing blow and, having just decided that nouvelle café was the way to eat, The Cat considered that a nice hunk of bread (or the foodie equivalent, a disc of focaccia) or even a handful of chips in the old school way might have been the perfect egg-soaking accompaniment.
Unlike Cat’s dish which was lacking in carbohydrate, Matt’s meal conformed to the rules of the balanced nutritional plate. Although it was pretty small it was very tasty; flaky puff pasty almost hidden beneath a spoonful of piping-hot salmon and crayfish sauce. For once, the crayfish really did appear to be crayfish, freshly pulled from their shells. It’s not unknown for king prawns or even scampi to make an appearance, especially when the whole lot is cooked in with something else, but the Garlic Farm proudly displayed the authentic crustaceans on the top of the heap.
Asparagus & egg £5.95
Seafood pastry £8.95
Chocolate brownie £2.75
Sweet potato cake £2.75
Tea for two £2.50
Puddings were called for and there was a good selection of cakes. Cat was talked into having the chocolate brownie by the maitre d’ who sold it with the promise of a dollop of mascarpone (which alas did not arrive, and after Cat made representations this was substituted at the last minute with single cream). These afters were very nice. Matthew had sweet potato cake, an unusual variation on carrot cake, complete with standard issue walnuts and very non-standard squiggle of strawberry compote. This was all successfully washed down with a nice cup of tea, poured from a china pot into tea cups with saucers and fresh milk – no sign of plastic cartons!
For a new venue, the Garlic Farm café was certainly geared up to deliver. The staff seemed attentive without being overbearing, gently probing the punters and undertaking some very discreet conversational market research and soliciting direct feedback. Towards the end of their meal the waitresses’ interest in Matt and Cat’s dining well-being waned somewhat and, being in a hurry M and C had to chase up the bill. However, this probably reflected more on M and C’s desire to get back to the office rather than any overt slackness on behalf of the Garlic Farm staff.
This rural café has high aspirations and may not appeal to those wanting a quick and cheap lunchtime feed. It can only be a matter of time before they also serve a dinner menu as frankly, much of what they offer might sit equally well or better there. The menu unexpectedly made no mention of local produce – other than the farm’s own chutney – and hardly any of garlic; which seemed a bit of a wasted opportunity. Perhaps Cat’s asparagus was brought in? Surely not. And really, when will a kitchen get a better chance to offer some crazy garlic-themed specials? It’s just waiting to be done.
For a relaxed and interesting meal in pleasant surroundings you’d find the Garlic Farm café hard to beat. Still, Matt and Cat hope that the farm will go further, and capitalise on its unique position. It’s well placed to stand out from what is becoming an increasingly competitive rural café market.
Garlic Farm Café, Newchurch