It usually takes a few years for mainland trends to make their way to the Island. Mostly, by the time we’ve raised our heads out of the County Press, bubble perms, carrot-fit jeans and the inexplicable popularity of nonentity couple Stevie and Chloe-Jasmine have been consigned to the obsolete bin without crossing the Solent. However, one thing that we might have stolen a march on is the trend for local food. Being an Island, people here have traditionally fished mackerel for their tea, foraged for blackberries and picked wild garlic. All of this centuries-old behaviour was recently helpfully branded with a handy neologism: the locavore movement.
Helping open others’ eyes to this (arguably) sustainable way of life is big business nowadays, as food tourism transforms a mere holiday into a participatory experience. Locally we have plenty to boast about. Some producers, like the Garlic Farm have been trumpeting about their produce for over forty years. Other newer businesses understand the benefits of promotion using social media and personable champions to draw attention to their products.
Spotting a gap in the market, Ventnor’s Royal Hotel cannily wrapped some of the more prominent local suppliers into a handy gastronomic weekend package, with visits to food producers, cookery demos and, of course, a chance to sample some of the best food the Island has to offer. We popped along to check it out.
Clearly the gastronomic weekend tapped into a market with a significant demand as the event was a sell-out. Most punters came from Hampshire but others were from further afield; we just trickled south from The Town on the Beach.
Most of the mainland guests arrived on Friday and were treated to a gin and tonic taster experience with Xavier Baker from Isle of Wight Distillery. This new business has made history by being issued with the Island’s first and only distilling licence. We’ve tried the tasty botanicals-infused Wight Mermaid’s Gin, which we described as being ‘distinctly herby’.
The first full day of the gastronomic weekender included a masterchef demonstration by the Royal Hotel’s head chef, Steve Harris, with guest appearance from Will Steward of Living Larder. This local grower has a passion for well-flavoured fresh produce and clear traceability. Next up was a visit to the Garlic Farm. Well and truly on the foodie map, the Garlic Farm has done a magnificent job of creating a visitor attraction from this staple ingredient. Cat’s an avid consumer of the farm’s onion and garlic marmalade and she and the tour’s guests took advantage of the well-stocked farm shop.
After lunch at the Garlic Farm the gastronauts sallied north to Goddards Brewery. We were lucky enough to have a personal tour round the brewery last summer. We learned that Goddards uses local water from Knighton as a key ingredient of its beer. And we also discovered the meaning behind the name of the brewery’s craft beer Duck’s Folly!
The Isle of Wight these days really does have a reputation for quality produce, and you can pick some of the best out if you spot the county’s own accreditation Wight Marque. The highlight of the weekend was the gourmet menu showcasing Island ingredients, including some from suppliers that the guests had met earlier in the day. Before dinner we were invited to have a sneaky peek into the kitchen. We stood in the pass and watched the dishes being plated up ready to be served. We pride ourselves on not having a clue about what goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant and, to our uninitiated eyes – although we couldn’t fathom the system – it all ran like clockwork. It was very insightful seeing how each dish was constructed, with the waiting staff poised to take the finished plate out to the expectant diners.
Dinner at the Royal Hotel is always a treat. It’s clear why this historic hotel has been listed in every Michelin Guide since it was first published in 1911, with its attention to detail and professional service. Having taken our seats in the sumptuous dining room and had our linen napkins flapped over our knees, we awaited the show. Cat’s starter was a pimped up pea and ham soup. A luscious green velouté, created from blended local asparagus (instead of peas) and diced bacon, substituting for the ham, scattered on top. The dish was garnished with quail eggs and some more of that delicious asparagus, plus a sauce of wild garlic.
Matt’s had spied the pork and scallop starter when we were in the kitchen and had set his heart on this chunk of belly pork with its foamy crispy pork popcorn and green beans anointed with pork juices. It did not disappoint. Continuing the local meat theme, Cat loved her sirloin of veal with smoked potato and cheese from the Isle of Wight Cheese Company. Matt’s main was Cheverton Farm lamb; garlicky with elephant garlic from the Garlic Farm and wild garlic picked from Shanklin, plus buttery pommes anna and pulses. The meat was beautifully tender and well-presented.
For dessert Cat enjoyed a rather fancy interpretation of rhubarb and custard: an attractive assemblage of set vanilla custard with tangy poached rhubarb and rhubarb sorbet. Matt’s pud was a tribute to the raspberry. This soft fruit had been encouraged to fluff up in a vast warm soufflé which somehow intensified the raspberriness.
On Saturday night we spent an extremely restful night in room number one, with its glorious view of the English Channel. Before we knew it, it was time to make our way back to the dining room for a cooked breakfast, which included the hotel’s own smoked salmon and some fine scrambled eggs.
Day two of the gastronomic weekender included a talk by Joni Rhodes of local producers the Tomato Stall. Her enthusiasm for these beautiful fruits was palpable. Joni brought a selection of the tomatoes with her which couldn’t wait to try. We also got a sneak preview of one of the company’s new products – a spicy tomato drink which, we discovered, makes a very agreeable bloody Mary!
With sixteen year’s experience in the hotel’s kitchen, the Royal’s sous chef Jon Paul Charlo demonstrated how to fillet a sea bass – fresh off the boat that morning. He also showed how to make the seafood risotto some of the guests had enjoyed from the gourmet dinner menu. Jon explained how the fish stock is made over four days or so before being combined with the rice and selected fish and crustaceans. We tried a spoonful and can attest that it was yummy.
As we checked out of the hotel the sun was, of course, shining. The Royal Hotel, and the Isle of Wight’s food and drink producers had done themselves proud. This kind of bespoke holiday adds value to the Island’s tourism product and could help extend the season beyond the Easter to September range. Or, of course, you could live here and enjoy the fruits of local producers at any time of year.
Thanks to the Royal Hotel for inviting us to experience this fabulous gastronomic weekend.