IT IS asparagus time on the Isle of Wight and green spears, fresh as the wind that whips around the famous Needles, are cropping up on menus across the island.
At The Essex, in Godshill, where chef Steve Harris only uses locally-sourced produce, the asparagus come with humous and salad – while over at the chic Hambrough Hotel in sleepy Ventnor, prime local spears accompany the brill with fennel.
Forty minutes across the Solent, the Isle of Wight is experiencing the sort of food revolution that previously put Cornwall and Whitstable on the gastronomic map. In this tiny microcosm of England – with 500 miles of footpaths and bridleways, and lanes that echo to the clippety-clop of horses – fresh home-grown food is the new mantra.
I’ve come to the island synonymous with rock music, retirement and regattas to see the changes everyone is talking about, and sample the new cuisine.
I was here that night in October 1987 when a hurricane blazed a trail of destruction. When I awoke the following morning, the island wasn’t looking its best. Returning years later, I discover a triumph of Victorian architecture and suburban town planning: pretty manicured homes, many with sparkling sea views. And, for the price of a flat in London, you could get something pretty enough for the top of a chocolate box.
No surprise that designers and media people desirous of character, open spaces and access to London, have discovered the quaint towns of the west and far south, where ornate Victorian villas have wrought iron canopies and gardens of vibrant perennials.
Stepping into the lobby of the Hambrough I could sense the change. No chintz or seaside tat – instead, pale walls and cool music in a pattern-free environment. The scale of my room was only upstaged by the sheer expanse of sea, sky and brilliant light pouring in from the balcony.
I ask the manager Jo Dos Santos his views on the island’s cuisine. He explains that young islanders are tired of seeing their produce shipped out and are working to promote an Isle of Wight cuisine. “There’s been an infusion of new blood.”
At Newport’s Saturday Farmers Market, in the lee of St Thomas’s Church, asparagus grower Ben Brown tempts shoppers with steamed spears drizzled with butter and speckled with ground pepper. Beekeeper Mary Case explains the subtle differences between Atherfield Early honey, and Iddlecombe Mid-Season.
Elsewhere there is unpasturised Buttercup Milk, island lamb and delicious blue cheese made by 27-year-old Richard Hodgson, one of the stars of the new wave of local food heroes.
A year ago Richard was a television film editor. Today his small, state-of-the-art factory in Sandown has rich Guernsey milk piped through a wall direct from the milking hut. Four months after production began, Richard’s blue took top prize at the World Cheese Awards. The Hambrough serves it but I buy mine from Farmer Jack’s, in Arreton, a great place to stock up on Luccombe Farm jam and Calbourne Classic ice cream.
Colin Boswell’s Garlic Farm, in Newchurch, grows dozens of varieties from Purple Kazakhstan to Solent Wight. He grows asparagus, too, and is proud his land was farmed during the Iron Age (he has the excavated evidence to prove it). If you can’t be bothered to set out across the field with a trowel, stay in the shade and enjoy a plate of garlic sorbet in the café.
With the exception of Saltys, in Yarmouth, where owner John Edwards’s own fishing boat supplies the kitchen, nearly all the new blood is in East Wight.
At the refurbished Seaview Hotel, in the town of Seaview with its dazzling views across the Solent, the appointment of chef Graham Walker comes with a bid to win the island’s first Michelin star.
A couple of miles south, Mark Young, at the St Helens Restaurant and Bar on the edge of a wonderful village green, admits he wanted to leave until the chance came to have his own place. Its interiors are funky, with pale blue panelled walls and pine furniture, and a menu that’s a celebration of island fare: wild sea bass off the Captain Stan, moored down the road in Bembridge, and duck from Brownriggs Farm.
All in all, I can’t think of a better place to take a sizeable shopping bag and a healthy appetite.GETTING THERE: Wightlink (0870 582 7744/ www.wightlink.co.uk) operates three car ferry routes to the Isle of Wight from the mainland: Portsmouth to Fishbourne or Ryde, and Lymington to Yarmouth. Five-day return tickets start from £51 for a car and up to four passengers.The Hambrough Hotel (01983 856333/ www.thehambrough.com) offers doubles from £115 per night (two sharing), B&B.Pond Café (01983 855666/ www.thepondcafe.com) offers main courses from £13 per head.Isle of Wight Tourism: 01983 813813/ www.islandbreaks.co.uk