Guernsey: Hedge Veg, Fenella Maddison’s Fort Grey cheese and a recipe for aubergines

August 31, 2009 § 2 Comments

One charming aspect of visiting Guernsey, the island of a thousand greenhouses, is discovering the local custom of “hedge veg”.  Keen amateur gardeners sell their surplus produce in their front gardens or at the roadside, leaving out an honesty box.  You will find most often potatoes, tomatoes and French beans, also cucumbers, peppers and aubergines and occasionally melons and grapes too.  Shops are thin on the ground outside St Peter Port but during the summer months, thanks to hedge veg, you will find an abundant supply of fresh picked fruit, vegetables and salad wherever you are on the island.

Here’s a rather splendid example from the west coast:

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The last day of our holiday came round on Saturday so I decided to to pick up some fresh Guernsey produce for a nostalgic supper at home that evening.  First stop was our local Vazon Bay roadside stall for some gorgeous glossy aubergines:

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Next, a visit to the bustling Forest Stores en route to the airport to track down a locally made soft blue cheese called Fort Grey.  I’d spotted an article on this cheese in the Guernsey Evening Press a few days earlier.  It’s made by Fenella Maddison using local Guernsey cows’ milk from Torteval.  She made the headlines after taking a Silver award at this year’s Nantwich Cheese Festival held at the end of July.

Here’s Fenella’s cheese which made a lovely end to our meal back home later that evening.  It’s soft and creamy but with a distinct blue tang.  If you enjoy Gorgonzola dolce then I think you would enjoy this cheese too and I urge you to give it a try if ever you have the chance.

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Savouring the cheese at the end of our meal the name Maddison suddenly rang a bell – Derek Maddison was a former colleague of mine at GEC’s Stanhope Gate head office in London some years ago.  I remembered he’d then moved to Guernsey to take up an insurance job.  The mental wheels kept turning and I remembered too that his girlfriend at that time was called Fenella… what a coincidence!  Clearly Derek and Fenella are married, living in Guernsey and Fenella is now an artisan cheesemaker.  Good on you Fenella!  I shall drop you a line shortly and let you know how much I enjoyed your cheese.

Before the cheese course, I turned the glossy Guernsey aubergines I brought home into one of my favourite pasta recipes – Spaghetti alla Siciliana – adapted from Marcella Hazan’s recipe.  I don’t salt and drain aubergines now but roast and squeeze out the bitter juices instead.

Here’s the finished dish ready for serving:

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And here is the recipe:

Spaghetti alla siciliana

For 6 as an Italian style pasta dish; 2 for a generous main course dish

1 large or 2 medium aubergines baked for 45 minutes, cooled, squeezed, peeled and chopped into rough chunks
1        tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic peeled and chopped
14 oz 400g tinned plum tomatoes drained and cut into thin strips
freshly ground black pepper
salt
1lb spaghetti (wholewheat is good here)
3 tbsp grated mild pecorino cheese
1 oz fresh ricotta
8-10 fresh basil leaves roughly torn
freshly grated parmesan cheese for the table

 Add the olive oil to the pan along with the sliced onion.  Cook over medium/high heat until the onion becomes pale gold.  Add the chopped garlic and cook for a few seconds more, stirring as you cook.  Add the tomato strips, turn the heat up to high and cook for 8-10 minutes stirring frequently.  Add the aubergine, turn the heat down to medium and cook for a minute or two, mixing it with the other ingredients.  Season with pepper and salt, remembering that salty pecorino will be added subsequently.

Cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling water.  When still al dente, drain and mix with the sauce in the pan or in a warmed serving bowl.  Stir in the cheeses and basil and season once more.

Serve immediately with more parmesan cheese at the table.

 Details for Guernsey’s Forest Stores are:

Forest Stores
Le Bourg
Forest
GY8 0AW

01481 238 395

As far as I know, the only retail outlets for Fenella’s Fort Grey and Torteval cheeses are on Guernsey – either the Forest or Torteval stores.  You can read about Fenella’s cheesemaking exploits here:

http://a2guernseymilk.com/cm/latest-products/43-uk-latest-products/68-torteval-cheese-from-guernsey-island-an-introduction.html

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Where to eat on Guernsey’s west coast: Vazon Bay Café, Crabby Jack’s & Fleur du Jardin

August 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Three very different places to eat if you find yourselves on Guernesy’s west coast.  We were on holiday staying at the Vazon Bay Apartments just across the road from the beach so became regular visitors to the Vazon Bay Café.

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This is a totally unreconstructed beach/transport café very popular with bikers who can overrun the place at times.  Fantastic for big mugs of tea, instant coffee (don’t even think of asking for a cappuccino here!) sticky buns and of course huge fry-ups.  A wonderful example of its type and very welcome after a hard morning’s surfing.  Here’s husband Tim showing how it’s done:

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Crabby Jack’s is a restaurant and bar just across the road and is something of a local institution.  It’s also a favourite with the local surfing and beach crowd but is more of an evening than a lunchtime place.

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A shameless American pastiche but the locals and our children love its.  Menu is steak, burgers, pizza, pasta and the bland end of seafood (ie nothing still alive on your seafood platter).  It’s permanently busy – you must book during high season or expect a long wait.  The atmosphere is relaxed, service is slick and portions are generous.

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Finally, the Fleur du Jardin, inland in Kings Mills, the closest thing to a country village Guernsey can offer.  It’s a small hotel, restaurant and bar.  We chose to eat in the bar on the last night of our holiday and were lucky to find a table as it was packed with St Peter Port after work office crowd.  You won’t find a traditional pub on Guernsey – somewhere like the Fleur du Jardin is as close as you’ll get but the atmosphere is more posh yacht club – lots of bleached wood and slate – than boozer.  The menu is gastropub: I was very happy with my choice of sea bass fillet, crushed new potatoes and roast tomatoes.  They do burgers, steaks, shell-on prawns too and have a good choice of beers and a sensible mainly Antipodean wine list.  A pleasant place to spend a summer evening.  Booking definitely recommended during high season.  Sorry no pictures so you’ll have to take my word that it is indeed a picturesque spot.

Vazon Bay Café

Vazon Coast Road
Castel
Guernsey

01481 252 513

Crabby Jack’s

Vazon Coast Road
Castel
Guernsey GY5 7BF

01481 257 489

Fleur du Jardin

Kings Mills
Castel
Guernsey GY5 7JT

01481 252 513

Battle of the bakers: exhibiting at Guernsey’s North Show

August 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’ve cherished the ambition for a number of years now of entering some home-made produce into an agricultural show.  Being an urban dweller, opportunities to visit rural shows are thin on the ground, but if you happen to be in Guernsey in August (as we were on our family summer holiday) you can’t fail to miss the three events on the social calendar, the South Show, the West Show, and the biggest and best of the lot, the North Show which hosts the famous Battle of the Flowers (more on this later).  Curiously, there is no East Show – presumably because the east of the island is dominated by St. Peter Port or Town as the locals call it.

All three shows were heavily trailed on the local radio stations: after all, Island FM’s strap line is “Breaking News Across the Bailiwick” so it wasn’t long before I realised this could be my big opportunity.  I seized the moment and telephoned Mr Dorey, the show organiser and soon found out how to register.  I had to attend Castel Parish’s Douzaine Room, a local community hall, between the hours of 3.00 and 5.00 on the Saturday afternoon before the show.

I turned up at the appointed time to find the hall bustling.  The first thing I had to do was become a member of the North Show Agricultural and Horticultural Society, annual subscription £15.00.  Oh no! I quickly learned that  in order to qualify as a member not only do you have to be resident of Guernsey but of three specific parishes, Castel, Vale and St Sampson’s.  Fortunately, this is Guernsey where a relaxed attitude is taken to addresses of convenience.  In return for fifteen quid they were happy to accept the address of our holiday apartment which we would occupy for precisely one week.  They didn’t even rumble me when I mispronounced the name of our parish Castel, which in the local accent is pronounced Cattle.

Phew.  Next hurdle was choosing what to exhibit.  I picked up a handsome looking Show Schedule, homed in on the baking section and practically with my eyes closed stuck my pen down on a random choice which turned out to be local speciality Gâche Melée.  I had no idea what this was, but it seemed to be a popular choice and, what the heck, I had a few days to research it before the show opened on Wednesday.

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Back to our holiday apartment in Vazon Bay and within minutes, with the help of the miraculous iPod Touch, a WiFi Hotspot and of course the assistance of a 10 year old boy, I had discovered that Gâche Melée was a rustic apple cake. That sounded manageable.  After copying down seven different recipes, I stopped – they were all similar but subtly different, the kind of dish that is handed down mother to daughter with each family taking pride in their own version.  The ingredients were simple enough: apples, flour, sugar, fat in the form of suet or butter, liquid in the form of egg or milk, plus a little spice – nutmeg or cinnamon.

Game on!  I reckoned I could show the natives a thing or two so decided to experiment that evening with the most cheffy of the recipes I’d found – a version which caramelised the apples and used loads of butter.  The recipe was simple enough but, oh dear, I hadn’t reckoned on the self catering oven which was completely devoid of markings, temperature controls and instructions.  My first attempt to achieve a moderate heat resulted in a super-hot grill, whereas my next attempt heated up just the oven base.  After a little trial and error, I found a workable baking heat and put my gâche in to bake.

Here is the end  result.

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Hmm.  It tasted OK but wasn’t going to win any prizes in the looks department.  That self-catering pyrex dish didn’t really cut the mustard in the style stakes either.  I was going to have to raise my game.  I decided that for the Show itself, I should stick with what worked and use a prizewinning recipe.

Presentation is important too so next day in St Peter Port I called into well stocked kitchen shop Lelievre’s, just on the harbour frontage, and picked up a square metal tin (so important for a non-soggy crust) and, my secret weapon, a modish square plate to present my creation!  The helpful staff also told me how to pronounce gâche melée the local way – you should say gosh molloy rather than putting on your best French accent.

The morning of the Show dawned and I was up at 5.00 am to make sure my Gâche Melée was as freshly baked as it could be.  I’d prepared the apples the night before so it was pretty easy to throw together.  I forgot to mention earlier that not only was I winging it on oven temperatures but I had no scales either, so it was completely put together by eye.  I was pretty pleased with the end result:

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I cut a neat but generous square for the judges, positioned it artfully onto my new square plate then packed up the whole lot and transported it on my bike to Saumarez Park, the show venue, a mile or so up the road. There was an air of purposeful activity in the showground.  Guernsey cows and goats were being installed outside, and there was a steady stream of people coming and going through the main show tent.  Exhibitors were giving there vegetables, baking, mini gardens and so on the final primping.  I placed my gâche in its right place on the long trestle table assigned to baked goods, slipped the brown envelope with my exhibitor card next to it and had a quick look at the competing entries – mine didn’t look half bad in comparison – I could be in with a chance.

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Back to the apartment for a well-deserved breakfast.

We made a family outing to the Show later on that morning, admiring the perfectly groomed animals and the too-perfect horticultural produce.  The laden tables were a sight to behold.

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11.00 o’clock was the designated time for judging.  As you can see, the entries were protected from flies, and perhaps greedy spectators, by netting.

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Once the judges had made their decisions and awarded the coveted red and blue cards it was the moment of truth.  I wasn’t expecting a first place, after all as a non-Islander, it would be pretty embarrassing.  I needn’t have worried.  Marion Legg won first prize with this entry, generously proportioned, crusty and golden-brown and sensibly cling-filmed.

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Would the blue card and second prize be mine?  No, this went to Sarah Giles with her appealing, crumbly version.

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There was still hope – there was no shame in a third prize.  Could this be mine?

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No! Sadly not, as this was awarded to Janet Le Pelley (a good Guernsey surname). I was disappointed and would have to try again.  With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if a more rustic traditional presentation might have suited the judges better.  Also, I think you get a lighter textured gâche if you chop the apples, add them to the batter and bake straightaway without leaving the mixture to stand.  I had prepared my apples in advance causing the juices to run and dilute the batter producing a dense clafoutis like result rather than the more cakey texture of the prizewinners.

Tension relieved, we were able to enjoy the rest of the show. The main event is the Battle of the Flowers, a competition for floats decorated with flowers, both artificial and real.  Here are two of my favourites:

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Both took first prize in their respective classes and the Viking Longship was the overall Battle of the Flowers Champion.

It’s time I gave you the gâche melée recipe.  We all enjoyed testing it and it definitely has potential to become a family favourite – quick and easy to make, the children enjoy it and it makes good use of apples, (both cookers or eaters work).

Recipe for Gâche Melée

Ingredients

1 and 1/2 lb apples peeled, cored and chopped
3 oz granulated sugar
2 oz suet
4 oz self-raising flour
1 beaten egg
1/2 teaspoon powdered cinnamon

Combine chopped apples, sugar, suet, flour and cinnamon in a bowl.  Mix thoroughly then mix in the beaten egg to form a softish batter.  Add a tablespoon or so of milk if it seems to stiff.  Spoon into a prepared baking tin – a rectangular 6″ by 7″ metal baking tin lined with baking parchment is recommended. Sprinkle the surface with a little additional sugar and cinnamon  Bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 180 degrees C or until the top is a deep golden brown.  Serve with cream, custard or ice cream or just enjoy it on its own as a cake.  It transports well for picnics.

Guernsey: the Lobster Saga Part 2

August 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Big Day had dawned: I was going to prepare (euphemism of course for kill) my first lobster and then prepare the classic dish of Homard a l’Américaine for the very first time. I planned to follow the elaborate instructions given in classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck and Julia Child. Volume I of this magnum opus gives the recipe and Volume II gives magnificent anatomical instructions and drawings.

First catch your lobster.  Arthur and I checked the bus timetable and chose the 8.30 commuter service into St Peter Port, travelling with the pinstripe-suited bankers and back-office workers who make up a high percentage of Guernsey’s population.

We soon arrived in Town, as St Peter Port is universally known, and made our way to Seafresh Fishmongers where we were fast becoming regular customers.  We picked up our lively lobster, a good size weighing in at just over 3 lb, female.  We christened her Les (for the alliteration) and sadly she soon became known as Fat Les…

A request to have her packaged for our return journey resulted, in no-nonsense Guernsey style, in our being handed a second plastic bag.

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We took the opportunity to enjoy a quick cappuccino on the harbourside and a read of the papers – full of coverage of England’s Ashes victory the day before – before hopping back on the bus with lobster quietly  on the seat beside us.

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On our return back to the apartment, we unwrapped Fat Les from her inelegant double plastic bag and stowed her gingerly in the base of the fridge loosely wrapped in paper.  She seemed pretty calm.

After spending the afternoon on the beach, surf lesson and swimming, we returned to the apartment ready to do the deed and despatch Fat Les to the cooking pot.  She still seemed pretty lively after half a day in the fridge as the following video clip demonstrates:

The recipe I’d chosen, Homard a l’Américaine, didn’t allow for the cheat’s option of merely dropping the lobster into boiling water but demanded the Full Monty, severing the spinal cord with a sturdy kitchen knife.  I won’t dwell on the details but it wasn’t pleasant.  Intent on being certain that the lobster had been properly despatched, I nearly removed the poor creature’s head in an executioner’s strike.  Nevertheless the muscle spasms which followed (which Mastering the Art of French Cooking warns you to expect) were still alarming.

We’d done most of the advance preparation for the recipe, the mise en place as chefs call it, earlier in the day.  You can see from the following picture that we’d improvised with a couple of ingredients we come to hand.  Fish stock is hard to come by when you are cooking on holiday so we boiled up some winkles gathered the day before from Lihou island.  Wild fennel grows nearby in abundance and as its herby aniseed flavour works well with fish, I decided to flavour the sauce with it.

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I can’t pretend this recipe is simple: it took an age to butcher the lobster and I learned that a bit of simple brute force is the best thing to crack those tough claws.  The claw crackers in the kitchen drawer  were feeble in the extreme and didn’t even make a dent.  A rock from the beach was an inelegant but effective substitute.

Following the admirably clear and detailed instructions in Mastering the Art of French cooking, the frankly rather disgusting looking grey green mush inside the lobster (which is in fact the liver or tomalley) was turned into a delicious enrichment for the sauce.  I was mystified at first by the abundance of a second type of gunge in the body cavity, this one a dark moss green.  I worked out that this must be the roe and confirmed this by heating a little in a small frying pan whereupon it was miraculously transformed by the heat into a familiar firm red form.  I was jubilant to have discovered a small mistake in the normally word perfect recipe – the recipe refers to the roe as being a bright orange red which of course is only true when it is in its cooked state.

An hour or so of chopping, frying, sieving and boiling later, the finished dish was ready, served with steamed long grain rice and lightly cooked French beans.  It was absolutely delicious but had been hard and harrowing work.  Here is the finished dish:DSC00937

Here is the recipe taken straight from Volume I Mastering the Art of French cooking.  For the detailed lobster preparation instructions and wonderfully instructive drawings by Sidonie Coryn, you’ll have to get hold of  copy of Volume II for yourself.

Recipe for Homard a l’Américaine

For 6 people

Three 1 and 1/2 lb live lobsters

Split the lobsters in two lengthwise.  Remove sand sacs in the heads and intestinal tubes.  Reserve coral and green matter. Remove claws and joints and crack them.  Separate tails from chests.

2tbl olive oil  A heavy 12-in enamelled frying-pan or casserole

Heat the oil in the frying-pan until it is very hot but not smoking.  Add the lobster pieces, meat-side down, and sauté for several minutes, turning them, until the shells are bright red.  Remove lobster to a side dish.

1 medium carrot, finely diced            1 medium onion, finely diced

Stir in the diced carrot and onion, and cook slowly for 5 minutes or until almost tender.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F., Mark 4.

Salt and pepper
3 tbl. chopped shallots or spring onions
1 clove mashed garlic
1/8 pt cognac
1 lb. fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, juiced, and chopped
2 tbl. tomato paste
1/2 pt fish stock
3/4 pt dry white wine or 1/2 pt dry white vermouth
Optional: 1/2 tbl. meat glaze
2 tbl. chopped parsley
1 tbl. fresh tarragon

Season the lobster, return it to the frying-pan, and add the shallots or spring onions, and the garlic.  With the frying pan over moderate heat, pour in the cognac.  Avert your face and ignite the cognac with a lighted match and shake the frying-pan slowly until the flames have subsided.  Stir in all the ingredients and bring to simmering point on top of the stove.  Cover and place in the middle part of a pre-heated oven.  Regulate heat so that lobster simmers quietly for 20 minutes.

3 oz softened butter                 A 5-pt mixing bowl
The lobster coral and green matter

While the lobster is simmering, force the lobster coral and green matter with the butter through a fine sieve into the mixing-bowl and set aside.

When the lobster is done, remove it to a side dish.  Take the meat out of the shells if you wish.  Place frying-pan with its cooking liquids over high heat and boil down rapidly until sauce has reduced and thickened slightly.  It will acquire more body later when the butter and coral mixture is added.  Taste very carefully for seasoning.

(*) Recipe may be completed to this point, and finished later.

Return the lobster to the sauce and bring to simmering point to reheat the lobster.  Beat 1/2 pint of hot sauce by drops into the coral and butter mixture, then pour the mixture into the frying-pan with the lobster.  Shake and swirl the frying-pan over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes to poach the coral and green matter, but do not bring the sauce near simmering point again.

A ring of risotto or of steamed rice
2 to 3tbp. chopped parsley, or parsley and fresh tarragon

Arrange the lobster and sauce in the rice ring, decorate with the herbs, and serve immediately.

Guernsey: the Lobster Saga part 1

August 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

When we visited Guernsey the previous year (summer 2008) I had imagined eating spanking-fresh seafood daily, acquired after haggling with gnarled fisherman clad in salt-encrusted Guernsey sweaters down by the harbourside. Fish and shellfish were certainly available in abundance – there were lobster pot buoys off every rocky headland and lobsters featured on every restaurant menu – but where on earth did you buy the raw materials? We discovered the answer on the last day of our holiday – Seafresh Fishmongers on St Peter Port’s harbourside – “Guernsey’s only traditional fishmonger”. This year, I was determined to cook one, maybe two lobster dishes, a simple one  using cooked lobster to start and, if this went well, one of the classic lobster dishes such as Thermidor or Américaine. I’d pre-ordered a good sized cooked lobster whilst we were still in Sark to be ready for collection in St Peter Port as soon as we disembarked en route to our holiday apartment at Vazon Bay.

Here is Seafresh fishmongers, authentically situated right by the water on the approach to local landark Castle Cornet.  Refurbishment is under way hence the scaffolding: DSC00925

Inside is a fantastic wet fish counter and a tank, replenished daily, for live crabs and lobsters. A magnet for small boys!

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We collected our 3lb lobster, still warm from the enormous pot where the live shellfish are cooked on the premises each morning, and it shared a 20 minute taxi ride with us over to Vazon Bay on Guernsey’s west coast.

We collected the key to our apartment, unpacked our bags and then unpacked our handsome lobster, now christened Laura.  She was definitely female – you can tell both from the presence of roe and from the anatomy of the swimmerets:

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A lobster is a challenging creature to prepare, even when it is already cooked, as most of us don’t eat them very often.

With this in mind, I’d brought a photocopy of the illustrated instructions from my trusty copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.  Mine is the Penguin edition (though the original first appeared in the US in 1961). I’ve had this book for ages and it has become the reference work I turn to for any aspect of French cookery or technical skill.  The text is clear, accurate but never dry.  The illustrations, black and white line drawings by Sidonie Coryn (what a wonderful name!) are so much more than a technical diagrams – they are beautiful in a botanical illustration kind of way.

The book didn’t let me down – within 20 minutes or so, the lobster meat was extracted and cut into chunky pieces and the greenish blue liver was reserved for enriching the sauce.  Sadly I had no use for the roe today.

I was now ready to prepare my recipe – spaghetti with lobster – a simple pasta sauce of my own devising, comprising lobster, garlic, chopped parsley and olive oil. It is a good way of making one lobster serve several people.

Here is the finished dish:

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Recipe for Spaghetti with Lobster

For 4 generous main course portions

Ingredients

Meat from a 3lb cooked lobster cut into bite size chunks
If liked, 2 teaspoons lobster liver  to add to sauce
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped parsley

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Enough dried spaghetti for 4 people – best quality you can find to do the lobster justice

Warm 4 bowls.  Put the spaghetti into ample boiling salted water.  In the time it takes to cook (8 minutes or so) you will have time to prepare the sauce.  Fry the garlic in a sauté pan big enough to hold the cooked spaghetti with its sauce.  When the garlic turns golden and aromatic, add the dried chili flakes and the lobster liver (if using this) and let it all sizzle in the pan for a few seconds, then add the lobster pieces, parsley and seasoning to taste.  Turn off the heat and wait till the spaghetti is ready, maybe another minute or so.  Drain the cooked pasta, add to the sauté pan, toss, adding more extra virgin olive oil if necessary and a squeeze of lemon juice, then serve in the warmed bowls. Please, no parmesan which is not right with fish.

Finally, here are contact details for Seafresh:

Seafresh Limited
Castle Emplacement
GY1 1AG

Tel 01481 722707

Two days on Sark at La Sablonnerie

August 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Sark is a mysterious and rather magical island.  If Herm with its sparkling turquoise sea has a rather jolly Kirrin Bay feel, then Sark is just a shade darker with its rocky cliffs and inky blue waters hinting at pirates and smugglers.

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Sark famously has no motorised transport except for the ubiquitous tractor.  Like everyone else, we hired bikes at Avenue Cycle Hire on Sark’s main drag.  It has a wild west frontier town feel with white clapboard shops and houses lining the dusty Avenue.

15 minutes later we were crossing the Coupeé, the precipitous strip of cliff which separates Sark from the almost separate island of Little Sark.  The road signs wisely tell you to dismount and walk across and you would be rash to ignore them.

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Back on our bikes and in another 5 minutes (Sark is only 3 miles long) we turned into the yard of La Sablonnerie, a most inviting looking small hotel, its white rendered walls gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine:

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We took a look at the inviting looking menu displayed on the board outside and made a mental note to choose the lobster:

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We settled in to our room – in fact not just a room but a whole cottage just down the road, perfect for the four of us.  After exploring the garden we unpacked, showered and headed back to La Sablonnerie for dinner.  Apéritifs are served in the cosy bar and owner the effusive Elizabeth La Perrée was playing the part of the perfect hostess, chatting to each group of guests and keeping the team of handsome young gap-year waiters on their toes.  From the snatches of conversation floating through the kitchen hatch I would guess that the kitchen staff are French whereas the waiters are a slightly more multicultural bunch from Austria, France and England.

Both Tim and I chose the grilled Sark lobster with lime and ginger butter – an inspired combination.  We felt very much at home in the cosy dining room with its various nooks and crannies.

Breakfast the next morning promised much but didn’t quite live up to the standard set the previous evening.  Elizabeth La Perrée was not on duty that morning and the staff sat back a little as a result.  My porridge was a little undercooked, almost muesli and I had to ask for the Sark cream and brown sugar listed on the breakfast menu.  The waiter seemed equally bewildered by an order for smoked salmon and scrambled eggs though that too was plainly listed on the menu.  Neither the bread nor the marmalade were home-made which would have been a classy touch – after all what else is there to do in Sark during the winter other than make marmalade?

After a day spent exploring just a fraction of Sark’s coastline – it may only be 3 miles long but the coastal path going up and down rocky cliffs and into tiny bays and inlets is many miles long – we had built up an appetite for dinner.  Local mackerel was my more frugal choice for this evening – perfectly fresh and delicious.  I am not usually a pudding person, even less a chocaholic but my choice of chocolate crème brûlée was to die for.  Just the right-sized portion in a tiny white porcelain ramekin, dense, creamy, chocolatey with a wafer thin caramel crust.  Sark is famous for its cream as well as its lobster and the placid Guernsey cows who produce it are happy to be photographed.

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After breakfast, we left in style in a horse-drawn carriage waved-off by Elizabeth and her staff.  It felt like having spent a rather splendid weekend away with a favourite aunt.  That is until the bill arrives…

La Sablonnerie
Little Sark
Guernsey GY9 0SD

Tel 01481 832061

www.lasablonnerie.com

Three days at the White House Hotel on Herm

August 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

This was our second visit to Herm and the White House Hotel.  Last year (summer 2008) we were newbies and booked a whole week here.  Herm is only one and a half miles long and, even with two daytrips to Sark, we were suffering from severe cabin fever after a whole week.  Three days, however, is just about perfect.

Herm has both rocky cliffs (with superb shore fishing) and fabulous white sandy beaches:

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The White House Hotel is pretty much the only game in town as far as places to stay on the island go. Herm hit the headlines last year when a 40 year lease of the island and its various properties was put up for sale at £15 million by outgoing tenants the Heyworth family who had run the island for the last 28 years.  There were concerns that a luxury hotel group might buy the island, build a helicopter pad and golf course and turn the White House into a luxury hotel and spa.  In the event, a charitable trust led by Guernsey residents John and Julia Singer acquired the lease in September 2008 saying “we’re just going to keep it the same”.

Indeed they have – not a penny on sorely needed refurbishment appears to have been spent since last year.  The place deserves a facelift and both the public rooms and bedrooms need redecorating, but I suppose all of this needs money.

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The White House is a funny old place, still insisting rather stuffily that one dresses for dinner.  We were forewarned and forarmed but couldn’t resist a snigger at the men caught out who had to put on one of the hideous jackets and ties kept in reception for this purpose.   It’s also one of those hotels where you are given a table and expected to keep that table for the entirety of your stay.  Fine if you have a sea view in a bay window but intensely frustrating if you’ve got a manky table in the corner next to the swing doors into the kitchen.

The hotel restaurant has pretensions but frankly is a bit stuffy and disappointing.  It comes with all the trappings – big burgundy leatherette four course menus, wine waiters, and a troupe of hosts, hostesses and waiters but seasonality and local food are not at all in evidence.  This is all the more sad given the abundance of seafood and fresh salads and vegetables that are so clearly in evidence in the Channel Islands in high summer.

On the first of our three evenings I chose salmon tartare (oK but a bit flabby and there are not many salmon regularly landed on Guernsey) followed by lobster bisque (this tasted like an afterthought), then belly of pork. This is not what you search out on a menu in summer but was nevertheless delicious – meltingly tender meat, crispy crackling and a hint of citrus. As a result, I had high expectations of the South African milk tart I’d chosen for pudding.  I had imagined an unctuous dulce de leche type confection but what arrived was like lumpy blancmange on a soggy pastry base, the whole coated with an extremely thick layer of of powdery cinnamon – more volcanic ash than a light dusting.  The accompanying chamomile ice cream didn’t improve the dish and was just plain weird.

The belly pork and the milk tart were for very different reasons the most memorable dishes I ate at the White House.  Dinner on our second and third evenings followed the same 4 course pattern but the food was not that memorable, either in design or execution (looking at my notes I read pork fillet, chicken supreme, steak, key lime pie, cold (yes cold) chocolate fondant…).

It’s a shame as there is clearly competence in the kitchen but no-one with a sense of what’s right for summer, what combinations work and what’s seasonal and local.  With the new owners delegating management to hired hands, I imagine standards aren’t going to improve in the near future.  With an effective monopoly on the island they don’t need to try too hard as the visitors will keep coming anyway.

To conclude, one final picture of my son George paddling in the crystal clear waters surrounding the island which, for now at least, remain Herm’s main attraction:

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