Back home, now, after a delightful week on the Isle of Wight, miraculously avoiding rain almost completely (I don't think anywhere escaped on Sunday), playing host to a few very welcome guests, walking the family dog, breathing delicious lungfuls of sea air and generally enjoying a period of what I believe the young people refer to as "chilling out".
Needles to say (see what I did there? That's an Isle of Wight joke) the liver didn't get quite the break I had promised it, and there was ample opportunity to sample local food and cooking as well. The Isle of Wight, apparently in ample need of a boost to the tourist trade, seems to be quietly reinventing itself as a foodie destination, and, as a foodie who visits the island regularly I couldn't be happier about this trend.
The island's reputation for top quality produce, a consequence of its rain-repellent micro-climate, presumably, is well established in certain areas already: stalls selling Isle of Wight garlic, tomatoes and asparagus are perennially popular at Borough Market. Less well known are the increasing cohorts of suppliers selling seasonal, traditional produce at farm shops and regular markets dotted throughout the island. This is a trend echoed up and down the country, of course, but it feels particularly obvious in the finite confines of a 147-square mile island.
It's hard, and maybe a little unfair, to pick out individual suppliers, but I have a particular soft spot for Captain Stan, who sells locally caught fish from a boat moored permanently among the house boats in Bembridge harbour. I called in on Tuesday without realising he's only technically open Thursday, Friday and Saturday but he was there doing some essential maintenance and readily sold me a couple of fantastic sea bream from his cold box. Simply grilled with a (very) green salad of spring onion, broad bean and avocado they were a perfect lunchtime treat. A trio of John Dory on Friday was a further highlight. If anyone feels like voting for Stan in UKTV's Local Hero awards, it would be a vote well spent.
As far as dining out is concerned, two of the main contenders are currently having work done. Eyeing each other suspiciously from symmetrical vantage points in Yarmouth and Seaview are two venerable institutions, the George Inn and The Seaview Hotel. The former has always been a favourite spot for a smart al fresco lunch, while the latter has a new chef who has ambitions of winning the island's first Michelin star. This time, round, though, I only chose from a limited menu at each, The George being in the middle of an extensive refurbishment that seems to have closed the main restaurant (but is no excuse for the execrable "espresso" I was served) and the Seaview being given a chance to settle in with its new chef. I'll be back, though, and look forward to reviewing them both later in the year.
The attention this time turns to The Essex, a smart and thoroughly agreeable restaurant in Godshill, home of the model village, a popular island destination. Godshill is surrounded by impressive looking organic farms, vineyards and other suppliers and The Essex takes full advantage, boasting an impressive list of local suppliers, many of whom I can personally vouch for!
Judging by the style of food and the presentation it wouldn't be too much of a surprise if The Essex pipped our friend at the Seaview to the post in the Michelin race. Amuse bouches - themselves surely an island rarity - of confit chicken with beet leaves were a nicely judged surprise kick-off to Saturday's dinner. Mum and I then had cannelloni of crab and lobster resting in a puddle of bisque; this was pretty good, although the bits of veg in the bisque were a distraction and the soup itself could have had a little more depth. Dad's gazpacho of tomato dressed with yoghurt and olive oil went down very well, praise indeed given that the folks had got back from Greece and had presumably therefore been sampling top quality representatives of all of the soup's major ingredients.
I went for slow cooked lamb for the main course, while the olds both opted for some pork (all the meat from animals reared within a stone's throw of the restaurant). The lamb was braised shoulder and was perfectly cooked flakes of well flavoured dense meat with no trace of the mouth-sticking dryness you can sometimes get with braised lamb. The accompanying sweetbreads were less successful, having been lightly battered and deep-fried: the predominant flavour was the frying oil not the terrific glands inside. The pork dish was a great ensemble: slow roast belly, black pudding with apples and some slices of unadvertised (but welcome) extra meat, I think tenderloin. This was generally well received, although both bemoaned a certain lack of crispiness in the crackling. A shame, and not really so hard to get right. Overall, though, imaginative combinations and great to see the kind of food you'd expect in an upmarket London "bistro deluxe" in a sleepy Isle of Wight village.
The Essex, Godshill, Isle of Wight 01983 840 781