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It’s only 10 miles from Southampton to Cowes on a Red Funnel ferry, yet the Isle of Wight feels much further away. Just 37 kilometres long and 21 kilometres wide, this diamond-shaped island is packed with an astonishing variety of landscapes – from rolling, broad-backed, open downs and tranquil estuaries teeming with bird life, to glorious ancient woodland, sandy bays and wooded chines. The island’s natural assets have long been a source of enjoyment – no wonder Keats, Tennyson and Dickens all found inspiration here. But these days it’s all about the thriving food culture.
The last five years has seen a quiet revolution on the island. Farm shops have been springing up – some with cafés attached, and artisan producers have set up shop, often chucking in day jobs in pursuit of their culinary dream. Consider cheese producer Richard Hodgson, with his award-wining Isle of White blue, and baker John Fahy, whose sourdough rivals anything from a posh London bakery.
Top chefs have migrated here too, attracted by the easy-going lifestyle and superior local produce. There’s even one with a Michelin star – Robert Thompson at The Hambrough in Ventnor, who is quietly but surely putting the island’s most southerly resort back on the map. He’s got big plans, with a multi-million pound overhaul of the once glittering Winter Gardens, complete with a concert venue, hotel rooms and a couple of restaurants, due to open in 2013. Yes, the Isle of Wight is back in the game.
It doesn’t get much more bucket and spade than Colwell Bay, but at the end of a row of beach huts is this funked-up seaside café serving lobster and chips, fine burgers and some serviceable wines. Grab a cocktail and a cushion on the terrace and watch the sun go down.
The island has a growing number of farm shops – some with great little cafés attached. Briddlesford were the first to offer food and it’s still among the best, with bargain-priced steaks from the farm and an on-site butcher producing stellar sausages.
Watch yachts scudding past from the large beachside garden on a warm summer’s day as you tuck into Solent-caught cod with peas, garlic, smoked pork belly and summer girolles. Or if it’s blowing a hooley, retreat inside to the chic dining room with its zinc-topped bar.
Part of the Dimbola Museum & Galleries, and once the home of famous Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (she of ‘fairy pictures’ fame), it’s a step back in time as you nibble excellent locally made cakes and lunch on the likes of cauliflower cheese.
Don’t be fooled by the local convenience-store exterior – it’s a gastronomic Aladdin’s Cave once you’re through the doors. A grocer’s,, wine merchants, deli and café all rolled in to one, with a pretty outside terrace for scoffing the contents. If only all village shops could be like this.
Crab and lobster salads don’t get much fresher than the platefuls served up at this simple outdoor eatery with views over the lobster pots and fishing boats beyond. For afters, head to the kiosk below for homemade cake – preferably munched sitting on one of the stripy deckchairs to rent.
The Dan in question used to be the head chef at The Royal Hotel in Ventnor, but he’s relaxed the cooking at his bright modern eatery on the green in St Helens. The simple, modern fare shows off a talent for sauces, but the kitchen is equally handy with fish and chips (cooked thrice, of course).
Everything you ever wanted to know about garlic and were afraid to ask. Seriously. There are cooking and gardening classes, farm visits and a nationally renowned garlic festival, too – plus a café on site. The food lives up to the billing – and no, there isn’t garlic in everything.
Perched on the hill overlooking Ventnor’s small marina and the glittering Channel beyond, Robert and Diana Thompson’s chic restaurant-with-rooms (pictured, left) was awarded a Michelin star four months after they moved in, and the cooking says it all. Expect a riot of cherry-picked local produce.
Brown is a man on a mission to raise the tally of the island’s dining accolades with his ambitious cooking. To cap it all, he goes about his business in a wooden chalet close the historic manor house that was once belonged to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
A welcome addition to the island’s dining scene when it opened in 2011. Expect Danish accents on the polished, fish-focused menu (the chef has Nordic blood), and enjoy the results on a beanbag perched above the beach or in the restaurant proper.
It might look like any old village boozer, with its horse brasses, swirly carpet and classic pub menu, but there’s passion in this kitchen - and a penchant for pies. The Nrewchurch special comprises handmade shortcrust pastry over rich chunks of lamb shank braised slowly in wine.
Situated in the gloriously atmospheric Victorian seaside resort of Ventnor, this hotel has been wining and dining guests for over 150 years – Queen Victoria included. Posh it up in the Appuldurcombe dining room, or kick back on the Terrace for a relaxed lunch and memorable teas. (Dish pictured, left.)
On the north-east coast of the island, in the sprawling well-heeled Victorian village of the same name, the recently refurbished Seaview offers imaginative modern British cooking to a mostly ‘down from London’ crowd – as the locals rather sniffily call them.
Located in a chocolate-box village awash with thatched cottages, The Taverners (pictured, right and top right) represents what all good pubs should be – great grub that shouts about local produce and delivers a glass of something decent to drink too. Locals pack the place, while farmers and gardeners regularly come knocking with produce to sell.
written by Fiona Sims
This article was published on 3 May 2012.