Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A Trip to the Seaside

First things first: I must say an enormous Thank You to Tania Kindersley at Backwards in High Heels who has nominated me for a Beautiful Blogger Award. I am deeply grateful and quite shy-makingly overwhelmed and I shall give due thought and consideration to this in my next post, once I’ve mulled over my own nominations etc.

Ok, onwards (she mutters, wiping a tear from her eye). We spent the weekend in Whitstable. I should explain it’s one of the things we do – a weekend at the seaside each year, in a spirit of both holidaying at home and satisfying the deep inner need in me to spend some time near the sea each year. I know not where it comes from (actually I might proffer a guess that growing up in the very very middle of England – as far from the sea as you can be might have had something to do with it), but suffice to say our two-year-plan is to move ourselves to Dorset where I can be within a drive of the coast at all times.  It’s my only brief. That and space for a dog or three. I should also point out that due to the fact we stupidly left the camera at home, I couldn’t take any pictures. I tried with my mobile, but the sun was so fearsome everything came out completely bleached, so in lieu of our own and to put the below in context, see here for imagery – keep it up in a separate browser window for ultimate effect.

So, Whitstable. We spent the weekend not doing much more than walking, sitting on the shingle beach (shingle beach is a much more pleasing concept than pebble beach, no? Perhaps something to do with the onomatopeic qualities…), eating and talking – we even bought raffia mats, although MCD drew the line at a shrimping net and bucket and spade, as he does every year, the meaner. The Whitstable Oyster Co is right on the beach and does a mean pint of local cider. Right next door is The Pearson’s Arms, a gastropub by any other name, but here in Whitstable, it’s just a really nice pub serving some excellent food. Try the lamb-ham – cured leg I would guess, which came with fresh raw podded peas (which made me feel like a kid again), pearlescent slices of pickled turnip and spiky notes of radish and watercress. MCD’s potted crab with thick sourdough was singingly fresh, although I personally would have liked a little chilli. Roast turbot came in portions not usually affordable in London with samphire, clams and brown butter. Day-boat cod was coated in a crisp brown batter accompanied by the largest chips I have ever seen. I think they might have just cut King Edwards in half and deep-fried them, but they were indeed cooked through. We could manage no more than a shared portion of elderflower sorbet with some strawberries afterwards and had to aid the digestion of that with a stroll after dinner. Truly lovely.

Make sure you take time to wander the fish market on the harbour. A fillet of hot smoked mackerel in a bun with a schmear of chilli sauce followed by a punnet of cockles or whelks should see you through to 4pm and an ice cream from Sundae Sundae on Harbour Street.

You might have heard of Wheeler’s – it’s a micro-model of Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s in London, if that’s not offensive to either party. At the front is a cold fish and oyster bar where you can perch and order at will. I’d booked a table for an early dinner – last orders at 7pm – and, given its reputation, was expecting, I don’t know, something along the Corrigan line. I’ve never been more surprised. We were shown through from the oyster bar to what looked exactly like someone’s front parlour. Four tables in the dim light with one other couple choosing from the plastic menus. I briefly wondered if I’d got the wrong Wheeler’s. We quickly worked out it was BYO (the clue would be in the lack of wine menu) so MCD was barely to be seen flying out the door in the direction of the wine shop opposite to appear back with a bottle of Touraine rosé which seemed singularly appropriate to the seafood feast we were expecting, but which required a corkscrew to open – a moment of panic while the waitress couldn’t quite find one…

And then the food. Given the simplicity of our surroundings I was expecting it to be reflected in the food. Oysters, fish and chips, steamed puddings. Bring it on, I thought, albeit on one of the hottest days of the year. But no – think brill and crayfish lasagne with a Parmesan cream and asparagus tips; prawn and lobster raviolo with a smoked salmon and lemon cream and a dice of fennel. Mains were no less finessed. Baked hake with sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and crushed potatoes, crisp squid rings and razor clams were a coincidentally Spanish choice and sounded suitably rustic. What I got was three rondels of perfectly cooked hake wrapped in spinach and Serrano ham, a large quenelle of said crushed potatoes with olives et al, two wispily delicate squid rings and a razor clam shell filled with a mirepoix dice of mixed peppers and razor clam meat with a moat of basil oil. MCD’s roast halibut was delicate and I couldn’t begin to tell you what it came with because I wasn’t allowed any, so you’ll have to take his word for it that it was stunning.

We didn’t think we could manage a pudding, but I was persuaded by the cleansing properties of Lemon – three ways. A wee lemon crème brulée with a puddle of lemon sauce at the bottom; a marshmallowy meringue filled with a lemon cream and raspberries and a lemon curd ice cream. MCD just went for the knickerbocker glory – enough said, but it did come crowned with a cherry dipped in caramel. It was cooking of the highest order; by the time we’d finished all four tables were full with customers who were clearly in the know and wanted to keep it secret.

Just as a side alley to the above, rarely have I had the pleasure of meandering up and down such a well-kept, well-served high street; Mary Portas would immediately adopt it as her paragon. I counted no less than three butchers, one fishmonger, three greengrocers all advertising local fruit, various haberdashery and hardware stores, proper cafes, a wee museum as well as the pretty antique and tourist-y shops down Harbour Street. The proliferation of independent shops warms the cockles, indicating as it does a lack of chain-store hyper-malls nearby to drain the life from the high street.

We stayed at Copeland House – a B&B with the most fabulous breakfasts and friendly landlady, Georgina. Go there or rent a holiday cottage (which is our next plan, having been inspired by India Knight’s wedded bliss to the concept) and have an oyster by the sea for me.

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