Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Cheese and Biscuits On Tour - Jersey (part 1)
I had a plan to head this post with an aerial shot of Jersey taken from the plane, like in the Bergerac titles. As it's October our early evening flight arrived in the dark, and actually just as well as it was a naff idea in the first place, but it did get me thinking - how is it a 1980s mediocre detective series is still the most famous thing about Jersey? John Nettles is collecting his pension and his 1947 Triumph Roadster is probably long since sold for scrap, but mention Jersey to most people over the age of 30 and they'll be able to sing you the opening notes of that theme tune as if it was yesterday. Whether you want them to or not, in fact, I've discovered.
But of course that's the point of PR invites such as this; to raise the profile of Jersey as a food and drink destination, or even just to remind us it exists at all. Because is it turns out, Jersey really makes the ideal weekend break. Flights are cheap and regular (and only half an hour from Gatwick), the airport is tiny so you can be out and picking up your hire car minutes after landing, and because traffic isn't an issue (and once you also realise that there are about 3 postcodes for the whole island and so using them to navigate in Google Maps is a recipe for disaster), getting around is a breeze.
The first night's meal was a sandwich and a bottle of wine from room service, because why the hell not. It arrived quickly and was very nice, just like pretty much everything else for the rest of our stay at the Atlantic Hotel. With an outdoor pool surrounded by palm trees and expansive views of the ocean, it's a corner of Jersey that could be St Tropez as much as it could the Channel Islands, were it not for details like red postboxes on the narrow lanes and British-style number plates on the cars.
But we weren't in Jersey to sit around the pool soaking up the autumn sun, we had potatoes to see. The next morning, after managing to get completely befuddled by Google Maps and caught up in a car rally (don't ask) we eventually arrived, late and a bit fraught, at Manor Farm. Didier and Christine Hellio at Manor Farm are involved with the 2nd most famous thing about Jersey after John Nettles - the Jersey Royal potato, and supply most of the UK's big supermarkets. This time of year is called the "seeding" - the first growth spuds have their shoots removed and then are sorted by size, by hand, and placed upright in wooden trays. This means (somehow) that when they re-shoot there are more shoots, more resulting plants and therefore in the end more potatoes. Those sorting and de-shooting them potatoes can expect to be paid £55 per 100 full boxes. For the purposes of a photo opportunity I had a go, carefully arranging them upright as I'd seen the farm workers do. On my way out of the barn I looked back and saw someone take my attempts out of the box and do them again, properly.
The 3rd most famous thing about Jersey (at least to anyone into their food) is Jersey Rock oysters, and so the next stop on our itinerary was Faulkner's Fisheries. Jersey's coast is riddled with old WWII bunkers, many still standing and derelict but some repurposed for happier times. Shaun Faulkner used to play in this particular building as a child (very dangerous apparently; two children died in the 1960s when they accidentally disturbed a cannister of mustard gas) but in the late 80s began renovating it and installing tanks for lobster and crab. Now, seawater is pumped in and oxygenated and the crustaceans live a charmed life while they wait for the pot, either on the premises or in houses and restaurants across the island.
We had a play with a couple of live lobsters from the tanks (females have larger bodies but males have larger claws, and getting the rubber bands on them without losing a finger takes a bit of practice) and toured the various nooks and crannies of this strange building - the ammo room is now lobster tanks, the gun room an office which still has a narrow window for pointing a machine gun through - then ate a couple of oysters (not Jersey Rocks ironically, but gigas from Normandy) in the sun. We could have easily stayed for a fresh seafood BBQ - the menu read like a dream - but alas we had a Michelin-starred lunch to get to. Curse our rotten luck.
Ocean, the restaurant at the Atlantic Hotel, is bright and comfortable but unashamedly fine dining. The trend in London may be towards bare tables and beards but there's none of that here; surfaces are covered in white cloth, chairs are plush and comfortable, and the staff smartly dressed. One man's "old fashioned" is another man's "traditional" but I think there's room in the world for all styles; I certainly couldn't care less as long as the food's good.
And the good news is that the food at Ocean is excellent, starting with this "margarita" amuse, a lime foam over jelly. A perfect palate cleanser and nice clean monochrome colour scheme.
But things really kicked into a different gear for the starters. This beef tartare with oyster and foie gras mousse was all kinds of wonderful, a riot of colour and texture and flavour, each element individually impressive but all of them combining to create something really special. The surf and turf thing has been done many times before, and in fact I've even had raw beef and oysters before (at the Clove Club, I think) but the addition of foie and just the pitch-perfect balance of ingredients made a truly memorable dish.
The other starter was hardly less impressive - a meaty, juicy chunk of local lobster, topped with French caviar, and some expertly crisp and dry pieces of lobster tempura. Also interesting were some prettily variagated micro watercress leaves, which I'd not come across before.
A pigeon main came as breast fillet and leg, and with a few extra bits of chargrilled offal (heart, kidney etc) under a glass dome filled with hay smoke. The presentation was incredibly similar to the way the Ledbury present their game dishes, and I enjoyed it just as much here as in Notting Hill, the pigeon meat being bouncy and tender, and the thick game jus as rich as Marmite. I wasn't entirely convinced by the addition of a baby sweetcorn, but this is a minor niggle.
A vast, bright white chunk of Jersey sole was the other main, on a bed of Jersey crab-crushed Jersey potatoes. The fish itself was slightly overcooked, but still had a great flavour and it was great to see so many bits of local produce on one plate. Looks good too, doesn't it?
Before dessert, cheese, and a very fine cheeseboard indeed including a load of personal favourites including Vacherin goat's and a reed-wrapped Livarot. Oddly, the Comté in the middle there wasn't the finest example of its kind, being a bit young and bland, and I'm afraid the local Jersey cheeses didn't quite stand up to the French varieties. But it's early days yet for the Jersey artisan cheese industry and they need all the encouragement they can get, so it was still nice to see them.
This pre-dessert of mango and passionfruit reminded me of a peach "soup" I had at a restaurant in the Costa Brava called La Llar many years ago. Different ingredients, obviously, but the same concentrated flavour of tropical fruit, here livened with a smooth mango sorbet and a couple of dots of meringue for texture. Very enjoyable.
Moist pistachio olive oil cake with some shocking green crumbs of something-clever-but-I-don't-know-what done to pistachio, an incredibly smooth chocolate "crème" and black cherry granité. There's not much not to like about chocolate, pistachio and cherry, and as with all the other courses a range of clever techniques added texture.
Equally good was glazed banana with vanilla cream, which again took an impressive range of techniques to a tried-and-tested flavour combination. Particularly good was the caramel ice cream which was so smooth and rich it was like eating cold clotted cream. Which is, I'm sure you'll agree, a Good Thing. I'll even forgive them the use of a square glass plate.
After lunch, stuffed and a little tipsy from a range of matching wines, we thought it would be a good idea to walk to Ouaisné Bay which Google Maps said was a half hour traipse. And indeed it was, although unfortunately it wasn't clever enough to direct us to the many footpaths (I've since discovered) that cover the island and so instead we spent a rather alarming 30 minutes nearly getting run over trying to navigate some tiny narrow road lanes.
But dinner at the Oyster Box was worth the peril involved in getting there - a whole fresh crab and chips, and a lovely view over the bay. Which, in its own completely different way, was every bit as enjoyable as the Michelin-starred high-falutin' meal we'd demolished a few hours previously. What's so good about Jersey is that you can do both of these things, and everything's so close to everything else it's all that bit easier. We didn't walk back though - we got a taxi. Google Maps can do one.
Oyster Box 8/10
Our stay at the Atlantic Hotel and lunch at Ocean restaurant provided by the Atlantic Hotel. Flights and car hire provided by VisitJersey, who've just launched this nifty interactive video campaign called Escape to Jersey, have a go, it's fun. Rubbish photos by me, good photos by Helen