Thursday, December 30, 2010

The party's nearly over!

I awake with a sigh, my little foray across the Solent is nearly at an end. At least I can see the sea today from my balcony as I watch the last vestiges of the sunrise disappear, perhaps my camera will have a happier day. At breakfast all the guests are fascinated by the red squirrels flitting back and forth outside the windows. None of us have ever seen a red squirrel, well in the flesh as it were, their beefier grey American cousins have put paid to them almost entirely in England, they fare slightly better in Scotland and Ireland however. I see the grey ones everyday, they're generally running up and down the trees outside my windows, chattering away. They are pretty bold, street-wise city squirrels and seem to show no fear. These slighter, more delicate, shyer long-eared red ones seem to be a lot more cautious and never linger but for the merest moment in one spot lest something should pounce. I make it my mission today to shoot one. I hasten to say with my camera only. Knowing I have nothing remotely resembling a true telephoto I'm going have to try a bit of sneaking up on them whilst they gorge at the handy nut feeders positioned near to the house. Hmmm, I wonder how successful that plan will be. But first it's back to the beach.

My first shock is that there's scenery, a lot if it, both to the left and right. Yesterday it was just walls of white. Today there are kites flying and dogs cheerily chasing crows and splashing about in the water.

There is a slither of blue sky this afternoon, not enough "to make a sailor a pair of trousers" so I doubt it will improve.

The golden sand with an artful piece of driftwood being gently caressed by the frothy waves will sadly have to be an image solely in my head. The reality is a whole lot more stark, wintery, lacking the warmth and the light quality I crave so I will have to resort to a touch of Photoshop wizardry to juzz them up a bit!

On returning from the beach I see if I can get one of those red squirrels in my sights. I find a couple cavorting in the trees near the house, but it's clear they are not going to let me get too close. In the end I decided that showing one of these flighty creatures against the backdrop of one of the perfect chocolate-box cottages would be very fitting.

After the photography 'expedition' it had turned a little chillier (more like the weather I had at home before I left) so I had the perfect excuse to make myself cosy in front of the roaring fire. And after picture editing, writing, blogging and reading (a wonderfully chilling holiday afternoon) I decide to check out their afternoon tea. Somehow eating cucumber sandwiches and strawberry jammed scones seems too quintessentially English summer to consume in front of a crackling fire in mid-December, I tried adding a seasonal glass of mulled wine but it was still a little incongruous. But the smoked salmon and crab sandwiches were wonderfully fresh and appropriate for being so close to the sea, and the fruitcake did seem to make it feel more wintry. I would have rather liked something like a warm cheese scone (memories of Hoste Arms in Burnham Market on an incredibly rain-drenched August afternoon) but a non cheese scone slathered in strawberry jam is more afternoon tea. My only problem is now that it's not many hours until dinner, well that's easily dealt with I'll push back my table for tonight. I'd originally hoped to catch the dramatization of Nigel Slater's Toast as I don't have the luxury of Sky+ here but that's why they invented the heady combination of an iPad and BBC iPlayer I guess! Isn't technology a wonderful thing?

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A white Isle of Wight

Today the white has descended! The Isle of Wight is truly white finally, but not with snow but with a swirling mist.

I try to see if I can still see the sea from my balcony but it's shrouded in the low cloud. However I still decide to venture down to the Priory Bay's private beach as it was too drizzly yesterday to check it out and perhaps I'll be luckier with the weather when I get there. But unsurprisingly I can stand on the beach, hear the waves crashing, but barely even see anything other than what's at my feet. I want to capture some shots as I know this is a truly a picturesque spot but the elements are conspiring against me. I manage to fire off a couple of slightly more interesting photographs of the wintery trees when the sky bruises as the sun we hadn't seen at all today disappears for good. However generally not a great photography day, I think it's back to chilling in the lounge of the house before dinner.
I've been reading up on the history of the Priory, they have a wonderfully eclectic collection of buildings, ruins and architecture making up the Priory Bay Hotel we can see today. A monastery originally stood on this site and the oldest surviving buildings are the two remaining tithe barns from the old Priory Farm dating back to 1100. But I learn something even more impressive about the Priory Beach on which I had stood amongst the sea-washed pebbles and seaweed earlier. It seems this has been a popular spot for many years or only at least a mere 345,000 years to be exact as stone age axes from this era have been discovered on that very beach. Which means one of the earliest settlements in Britain. And that's old!
As this is my third visit to this elegant dining room I'm starting to work my way through the menu so I am also kindly offered the Oyster Bar and Grill menu in case I wish to mix it up a bit. The risottos and the fresh tagliatelli are appealing but I'm really hankering for the scallops and after being so très désolé regarding the proliferation of the dreaded tomatoes on their menu so far, I wonder if they could serve them another way. My waitress originally suggested salad which didn't thrill me so much but then with the chef's acquiescence we came up with cunning idea of a small mound of the rather delicious Cauliflower Risotto from my Bream dish on Monday.

Tonights amuse bouche is a little meaty morsel of Croute topped with Duck Rillettes and Cranberry, it's less quirky than the last two nights, but perhaps tastier.

After the earlier machinations my starter ended up being Roast Native Scallops with Cauliflower Risotto, and this was a wonderful marriage. The cauliflower risotto was more delicious than Monday, it was creamier, more unctuous and complemented the burnished scallops beautifully and to complete the pretty-as-a-picture dish was a light scattering of the ubiquitous micro cress.

My waitress thinks I should check out their beef dish so my main tonight is the Fillet of Island Beef - Parisienne Potatoes, Pancetta, Carrots, Mushrooms, Onions, Red Wine Jus. I'm really trying not to compare the Priory Bay's beef dish with Robert Thompson's but I can stop myself, it was only three nights ago and the ringing endorsement I gave it are still very much on my mind and I daresay my taste buds. To be honest this isn't just quite as fabulous, the pancetta is there for the welcome porky hit but the Boxing Day Parma Ham rosette and the accompanying beef had the edge. The best bits are the Chantenay carrots which are perky and sweet, adorable caramelised nuggets of teeny, tiny Parisienne Potatoes, a pool of winey jus contained in the rather wonderful swirl of the deep, rich onion puree. But sadly after the stupendous starter it just doesn't quite match up.

After everyone queuing up for the Orchard Plum and Cognac Soufflé - Plum Compote, Star Anise Ice Cream last night I thought I better join the throng. I don't always see the point of soufflés as they can verge on style over content, they can be all air or too custardy in the base. It considered the classic "don't cook to impress" or "attempt on television" dish as a flop is often lurking round the corner. I've never made soufflé intended for dessert, I've only whipped up cheese, potato and other savoury goodies. I liked the soufflé, it stayed pert until i broke through its defences and doused it in the ice cream. It had a delicate plum taste and the star (excuse the pun!) was the lightly spicy star anise ice cream.

And I thought it was all over but I was offered the petits fours for the first time. Even if I couldn't possibly eat another thing it's always fascinating to see a tantalizing glimpse into the chef's mind in the final flings of a feast. It's their opportunity of leaving you with those lasting memories of their culinary artistry with sweet manifestations of delicious witticisms. Tonight we get to enjoy a Pistachio Macaroon and a square of Kirsch Cherry and Pistachio Nougat. The nougat is sticky and spiked with (always to my mind) redolent of cheese fondue Kirsch. I've saved the best until last. The macaroon performs just as it should, the tiniest nibble breaks the crisp curved outer layers and a light pistachio cloud envelopes my mouth, surely the taste of happiness. Today has undeniably been cloudy but ending with macaroon induced sugar alchemy will always be a good thing!

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Too many tomatoes in the world!

Tonight there's a new special starter of duck liver parfait (ah that rings a bell, I had really enjoyed its smooth creaminess earlier) but inexplicably it comes with yet another tomato concoction since my first taste of it so now it seems three out of the five starters have tomato in them. The fourth has blue cheese so I guess it's Hobson's choice of Cured Organic Salmon Plate - Braised Fennel, Lemon, Parsley and Caperberry Purée. I really enjoyed my Galantine of Local Game Birds once it had been de-tomatoed so perhaps the scallops can be rescued from their tomato drowning tomorrow, it's worth asking.
The amuse bouche is another quirky dish of Carrot and Ginger jelly with Ginger crumbs and watercress. When presented it did look scarily like a half of tomato but clearly my obsession is affecting me now and I'm seeing things. It could also be compared to an egg yolk deprived of its white. It's firmer than a jelly, and it slices into pleasing golden crescents which work well with the Ginger crunch.

The Cured Organic Salmon Plate - Braised Fennel, Lemon, Parsley and Caperberry Purée wouldn't necessarily be a dish I'd normally choose off the menu. I'm not entirely sure why, I love salmon but its treatment in this case sounds a tad austere. I suspect the thought of the strong tang of the caperberries makes my mouth pucker slightly in my mind. The salmon was really good though, a small slab of translucent moist flakes revealed in every mouthful. They was nicer than I thought but the accompaniments were still a little too feisty for my sadly delicate tastes. But it's good to try something new so I far from regret it.
I can only assume this aversion to bitter, tart or spicy is due to eating rather mild food as a child. At home we'd have something as exotic as even garlic very, very occasionally so my abiding memories of family dinners consist of simple comfort food, cauliflower cheese, fish pie, cottage pie, roast beef with boiled potatoes, sprouts and unusual yet very distinctive untainted-by-meat gravy, boil-in-the-bag cod in butter sauce, Findus crispy pancakes (just wrong but enjoyed at the time I guess!) meat and potato pie (from the chippy), mash potatoes (made from Smash invariably - oh the shame!), bacon butties in white floury 'oven-bottoms', in fact white bread doorstops thickly buttered featured heavily also. Because of regular trips to Paris and my parents many French friends and associates, I think we occasionally dabbled in more French bistro food than my peers, home-made quiche Lorraine with cheese pastry, French onion soup, pâtés, omelettes, soft cheese possibly Boursin, chocolate mousse, thin crêpes and those very fine-crusted apple tarts. We also had a metal rotary cheese grater from Paris, several fondue sets and all the necessary accouterments for consuming snails! This was considered very daring and the mere thought of such decadence to my grandparents would be greeted by a screwed up face and a loud declaration of "foreign muck!" But then they seemed to believe that good clean food came from a can, a mere whiff of tinned boiled potatoes, those flaccid slightly slimy tinny ovoids will instantly transport me back to regimented meals of Goblin steak & kidney pudding (if you ever get the chance, just say "no!"), butterscotch Angel Delight, tinned carrots, being forced to "just have five" tinned grey pea bullets and slices of flabby ham edged with a nasty jelly (you've guessed it from a can). I never had a very happy relationship with milk, when I drank it at home it had to be really cold and not a trace of cream. M would carefully pour off the top layer from the silver topped bottle and squirrel it away for her next coffee. If someone shook the bottle to mix up the cream and the milk, then that bottle wasn't for me. Gold top was always too creamy full stop! Hmmm do I sound rather fussy? School milk was so repellent I struggled daily to get the merest sip down. But my grandparents went one ghastly step further and only had sterilized long-life milk; Which pushed me well over the edge to total milk avoidance. Their attempts to initiate me in the fine art of drinking tea hit a large UHT brick wall. It was until decades later I discovered that black very weak Earl Grey is also tea, so I can join in this tradition now.
Apparently my grandmother used to be a decent cook in her time but by the time she had to feed a reluctant granddaughter for those long summer holidays she had hung up her apron and it had become all about convenience and the dullest grey most undemanding foods. It wasn't until adulthood that I dared to even try a pea again (and still never tinned) and an offer of mushy peas would probably make me run a mile!
Her one saving grace in the culinary arts was a fresh very nutmeg-y and voluptuously wobbly custard tart (maybe you couldn't get those in a can!) and also (possibly out of desperation) she permitted me to have a possibly unnatural amount of strawberry jam sandwiches. She bought only the thinnest of sliced bread which the jam would pleasingly seep through, stain and generally make me very sticky fingered! Some fond food memories but definitely not good preparation for forming an adventurous palate in later life!

My main dish was today's special - Rump of Lamb with Pistachio Cream, Prune Jam, Crusted Potatoes. The lamb was tasty but tricky to cut as a rump can be, perhaps I should have requested a steak knife and saved my fingers battling to produce bite-sized morsels. There was a pleasing subtle crunch to the prune jam which I later discovered was due to the inclusion of figs which made perfect sense when explained as the texture couldn't have been mere prune. The dish had a great flavour and I rather relished the slightly quirky pistachio cream and prune/fig concoction but I do wish I hadn't had to go five rounds with the lamb before it relinquished any meat. Maybe that serves me right for remarking on the bream dish being "almost too easy to eat" yesterday, today I'm exhausted!

After missing out last night I was determined not to be thwarted tonight and I secured an Assiette of Priory Orchard Apple - Apple Tatin, Apple and Blackberry Crumble, Blackberry Sorbet. Though typically tonight it's all about the Orchard Plum and Cognac Soufflé which every other table seems to be eagerly awaiting to emerge from the kitchen. I hear 'sotto voce' repeated apologies and explanations for the delay due to some recalcitrant oven whilst I tuck into my dessert which hasn't sufferered a similar fate. The Tatin tastes as they normally do, with the pastry being a little soaked by apple juice and caramel for the pastry to add the pleasing crunchy texture to the dish I had on Christmas Eve. But then normally the pastry doesn't protrude beyond the apple-y mosaic so of course it will serve as a sponge for all the fruity oozings, which I'm guessing the Tatin sisters had in mind after all. Maybe my recent tatin was an impostor! Tyler has anticipated my craving for crunch and there's a tasty autumnal treat of a darkly berried crumble with an abundance of biscuity topping. There's also a damn fine punchy blackberry sorbet which it's delectably smooth. this is one of the stars of to tonight's meal, the others being the Pistachio Cream and the Prune Jam. Maybe I'm having a purple and green moment!

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Ghost story

Today has been mostly drizzly, what a perfect excuse to lounge in the drawing room, writing, reading and relaxing. There are plenty of options for reclining, comfy squashy sofas, elegant high backed chairs and even a piano stool if so inclined. The fireplace has the extraordinary feature of an eight-sided window cut through the enormously thick wall above it. The chimney is thus split to run either side of the window though sadly this makes it somewhat impractical as a fully-functioning fire thus rendering it more a decorative feature than a warming one. But it is undeniably very striking and the Priory Bay is so toasty warm I wished I'd packed something more spring-like so not be able to light it works for me. As well as heat this country house has a lot if something else, Christmas trees. There is a veritable forest of conifers all decked out in their festive finery, different toning colours for each room. And there are very few pine needles about, either they have obliging trees or else the Christmas tree elves are busy hoovering them away.
I've also learnt to my delight that there's supposed to be a ghost here, the legend goes that a young teenage girl used to run around lamenting of her lost dog. A life-size portrait of her used to hang in the Priory and she was depicted in a blue dress with her favorite King Charles' spaniel at her feet. A dog, possibly hers, had been stuffed and used to reside by the stairs. When many years later new owners (the ones that introduced the eight-sided windows) cleared out some of the old items they didn't require the hauntings began. The newly installed staff were resigning in their droves and on enquiry claimed their desertion was due to the baleful cries of the desperate blue dressed girl bemoaning her missing dog having so very much disturbed them. The new owner keen to not let any more of her faithful retainers slip through her fingers resolved to get to the bottom of the matter and thought the dog might be the key. When the astute American woman managed after placing notice in the paper to eventually track down the moth-eaten dog in an antique shop, the restoration brought peace once more to the Priory. I'm sure her portrait is long gone but there's a black and white photo of the girl and faithful dog in the drawing room. I can't vouch for any evidence of the ghost however!

I didn't feel like lunch after the excess of recent days but fancied a glass of mulled wine and a little savoury something in the afternoon, I didn't really want afternoon tea so had some Duck Liver Parfait with Toasted Walnut Bread and Soused Sultanas instead. The parfait was smooth, rich and velvety and just what the doctor ordered, the walnut bread toast sadly was a tad too dry and just kind of shattered on contact with the knife. I'd had walnut bread at dinner last night and found it verging on hard also, I think I'm missing the straight-from-the-oven bread I've been enjoying recently. But actually, considering my next meal is looming on the horizon (story of my life on this trip, but hey next year can all be about lettuce!), just having the parfait and salad is a wise idea!

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Monday, December 27, 2010

A view of the sea from Seaview

My room is up several flights of stairs and I'm very grateful I have help lugging all my luggage up there. There's extra because I couldn't bear to part with some of the more portable items from last night's Hambrough hamper, plus the wine and Champagne I didn't drink which certainly add to the weight.
My room is huge, it has a corridor and a kind of ante-room, sitting room or possibly even dressing room. There's a balcony to admire the view from and the most enormous king size bed. My only niggle is that I wish it looked more like the rest of the house or the pictures I've seen of the other bedrooms on their website. Don't get me wrong it's a lovely, generous, spotlessly clean room but it's reminiscent of what a retired naval captain may spend his twilight years in. There's a crow's nest like balcony with a brass telescope to keep an eye out of the ships at sea (I suspect ferries really!), the walls are a pale (Tiffany?) blue tongue and groove with the odd exposed beam like a mast protruding through all the wood. There are old (treasure?) chests dotted around riveted in brass and the nautical bathroom has a few starfish decorations and shell pictures. A part of me would have like a little more of classic Regency charm I saw in the lounges and drawing room. Perhaps dark wood paneling and a rich red upholstery, or even something chintz (and I thought I'd never say that) but I'm just being greedy maybe such fripperies require an upgrade! So this seafaring haven will be my home from home for the next four nights and I'm very happy to be here. The Priory Bay hotel certainly has a lot to explore; I know, hidden from even my vantage point, is their private beach and I'm hoping for some fine photographic opportunities, weather be kind to me please!
I'm not sure if I descended the same way I arrived, there seem to be pale mustard clad carpeted flights of stairs everywhere but it gave me a chance to explore more of the building before finding where I was going to eat. The dining room is very country house, with extravagantly swagged silk curtains framing the impressive bay window overlooking the terrace, grounds and the sea beyond (if the evening permitted such a view). The three remaining walls are entirely covered with murals of what I can only assume are local scenes of Seaview. There's an intriguing map of the Isle of Wight painted above the grand fireplace, it's either an artistic impression of the island's shape or the Isle of Wight has changed drastically since it was recorded on these walls. Coincidentally a couple of months ago (whilst queuing patiently to get into Karl Lagerfield's quite peculiar photographic exhibit in Paris) I was listening to an old radio broadcast of Dave Gorman's Genius where prospective genii pose inventions, stratagems and crackpot schemes in the vain hope of being recognized as the true genius they believe they are. One such deluded believer had postulated the random scheme of making the Isle of Wight even more symmetrical than it is! To further encourage tourism if I recall. His barmy plot involved erasing Ventnor entirely and possibly attaching it somewhere else on the coast, maybe nearer Yarmouth. The idea was rejected (particularly by the head if the Isle of Wight tourist board who apparently lives in, you've guessed it, Ventnor!) At the time I would had been hard pushed to draw the outline of the island, I'd never considered the geography of this part of our country, but I was informed by the show that it was a flat diamond shape - almost, and clearly not quite enough for the failed genius! Since then finding myself planning a trip here I've done more research and can indeed vouch for the shape and vague layout of the island. For those as unfamiliar as I was I've included a handy map on my first post on December 24th. Ventnor is the 'bump' beneath Shanklin. It's not shown on this particular map as the island's considerable rail network has been decimated over the years and the now one remaining train line takes you in vintage London Underground tube trains from Ryde to Shanklin only. There is a bit of a steam railway but it's for pleasure rather than transportation purposes.
I've heard good things about the new chef here - Tyler Torrance, let's hope his food lives up to the surroundings. On first glance at the menu my horrified eye fell on the word "tomato", twice in the first four dishes. I mean, it's December, very nearly January, they refer to them as "late harvest" on the menu but despite the Isle of Wight's microclimate I have to ask what sort of freakish tomatoes are they cultivating here? Tomatoes should be long dead, they have no business hanging around like gatecrashers to the winter menus. Clearly I'll have to keep my tomato radar honed in case one sneaks up in me, Tyler clearly is a fan of them!

I have the tomato confit excluded from my starter and make my choices. A small very thin wooden cone is brought as an amuse bouche containing I'm informed Cahoon chicken with Gremolata. The chicken is encased in a delicate slightly spicy batter, like a popcorn chicken. It's an intriguing start and I'm looking forward to what's next.

And what's next is the Gallantine of Local Game Birds - Priory Garden Leeks, (Confit Tomatoes), Sauce Soubise. The Gallantine (a cold version of its warmer cousin Ballantine) consists of tasty morsels of Partridge, wood pigeon and grouse bound with a little chicken. Wonderfully devoid of tomatoes but the strong leek taste of tenderly nurtured (very) local vegetable. The sauce Soubise is a lovely subtle onion sauce accompaniment.

My main tonight is the Fillet of Bream - Cauliflower Risotto, Priory Garden Chard, Clam and Saffron Velouté. I think I'd struggle to really discern the saffron but that is fine as I occasionally find the more-expensive-than-gold crocus spice too metallic, dry and grassy on my undeveloped Indian food taste buds. A mound of clams, the tasty little nuggets of the sea, can be rather challenging in numbers but undeniably they add an attractive decoration to a dish. The sea bream was delicate and cooked to perfection and atop of the soft chard and unctuous risotto was a very posh nursery tea. Such as that it was almost too easy to eat, you barely need to chew and after what seems like a moment you glance down at your scraped clean plate and lament "all gone!" Note to self - eat slower!

My waiter recommends the Assiette of Priory Orchard Apple - Apple Tatin, Apple and Blackberry Crumble, Blackberry Sorbet for dessert but that will have to be for tomorrow night as they've all been snapped up by the other eager diners.
Having to have the Chocolate Praline Finger - Swiss Meringue, Chocolate Mousse, Rich Chocolate Ganache instead is far from a hardship however. It may defy all attempts for me to photograph it beautifully, the black hole properties of all that chocolate coupled with the ever decreasing ambient lighting, but it tastes delicious, light yet richly chocolaty.
So definitely so far so good I bid farewell to the attentive restaurant manager feeling pleasantly full, at least I can work a little off climbing those stairs!

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The last hurrah!

There's a large part of me that doesn't want to pack up all my sparkly stuff and head forth to my next destination. My second hotel over in Seaview sounds very nice but I've been so happy here and sad to leave these foodie delights behind and what if the food isn't as good at my next hotel. But the Hambrough has a cunning plan. To ensure Michelin star-struck guests don't linger after their gourmet Christmas they see us off, take down all the glittery stars, pack away the sparkly chocolate and turquoise baubles and close the hotel until the end of January. I have been known to go for 'just one more meal' to prolong the eventual departure from a place I've really enjoyed. I can't stay for lunch (as there will be no-one to cook for me) but I can avail myself of one of their very fine cooked breakfasts (adding the ’no tomato shall darken my plate’ caveat). And it is a perfect send-off, succulent sausages and moist black pudding (this is often little crispy nuggets) and a perfect runny egg. The chef patron Robert Thompson helps me with my luggage down the stairs and I can take the opportunity to heap my praises on his alchemy in the kitchen. I have really enjoyed my Christmas here, the food, the room and entire experience. This a diamond fork place, my three fork plus accolade. Just one last look and a promise that I’ll be back, hopefully next year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Second helpings!

As I returned to my hotel (Robert Thompson at the Hambrough) shaking the sand off my boots after the now customary appetite-inducing tramp along the beach and around the little winding streets of Ventnor (also witnessing the Charity Boxing Day Swim - though frankly it's less of a swim more of an endurance test for who can survive in the freezing waves) I am assailed by the intoxicating perfume of truffles. Not chocolate truffles (which have a heady cocoa aroma of their own) but those elusive diamonds of the fungi world. I was convinced I couldn't eat the tiniest bit of food despite my exertions this morning but that exotic aroma gets me going every time - thankfully!
On returning to the sea green dining room for what would be the last time (sob) now less windswept from my walk I can hear the excited murmurs from my neighbouring diners over the big decision of choosing the menu options.

Amongst today's difficult choices are:

Champagne and Canapés
Ravioli of Lobster, Scallop and Salmon with a Crab and Lemongrass Bisque
Parfait of Rougie Foie Gras with Comice Pear and Aged Port
Lovage Linguini with Pink Oyster Mushrooms, Braised Celery and Shaved Walnuts
Velouté of Parsnip with a Hazelnut Cappuccino and Bitter Cocoa
Roast Fillet of Scotch Beef with Artichoke, Potato and Truffle Madeira Jus
Pan Roasted Halibut with a Fricassee of Sprouts and Chestnuts
Chestnut Pasta
Glazed Tart of Leeks with Truffle and Poached Quails Eggs
Dark Chocolate and Griottine Fondant Pistachio Ice Cream
Glazed Rum Baba with Citrus Fruits Vanilla Ice Cream
A Selection of Fine Cheeses
Coffee, Mince Pies and Petit Fours

It's a tough job but someone got to do it so I make my selection and sip another glass of Champagne. I've sussed out the canapés now so eat them in order of preference: the squishy, finger-licking truffle and goats' cheese sandwich first, the smoked salmon, soured cream and caviar blini next and then the unctuous slow-cooked veal shin cigarette in paprika mayonnaise. The feasting has begun again!
The yummy Cheddar gougères and delectable hot-from-the-oven focaccia (other breads are available!) appear as if by magic next. Maybe I should check that they're as good as the last two days - oh yes they are!

My starter choice is a nod to the influence of the salty sea outside the windows and I opt for the Ravioli of Lobster, Scallop and Salmon with a Crab and Lemongrass Bisque. The wafts of the heady scent of lobster and crab heralds the arrival of the dish. And it tastes as fabulous as it smells, a plump silky cushion containing juicy morsels of the lobster, scallop and salmon nestled in a circle of iron-y crunchy kale, napped with the delicate foam and a swirl of the intense moreish bisque. Again I hanker for more of that luscious liquid, it may have not looked as pretty on the plate in the quantities I would have happily polished off but it tasted way too toothsome not to crave more.

The soup of the day is Velouté of Parsnip with a Hazelnut Cappuccino and Bitter Cocoa. This may all sound too sweet but this parsnip is a distant cousin to the golden roasted parsnip we enjoyed on Christmas Eve, this is slightly more reminiscent of celeriac with a purer more ethereal taste. The potent chocolatey nutty foam bathes it all in a delectable blanket just to ensure it doesn't taste too virtuous!
I fear I may run out of superlatives before the main event and I'm pretty sure this will be an absolute stunner.

This time the intoxicating aroma is my own plate of Roast Fillet of Scotch Beef with Artichoke, Potato and Truffle Madeira Jus wafting towards me. And it is indeed a thing of beauty. But enough of the admiration, I pick up my steak knife and plunge in. Firstly it's that sublime bisected rosy fillet of melt-in-the-mouth beef, just perfection! And for me the ideal marriage is the crunch of the Parma ham rose which is baked or sautéed to intensify the baconiness. This instantly transported me back to ghosts of Christmas past. The original D could never tolerate poultry and turkey was a definite no-no. Beef was his meat of choice and when I first decided to jazz it up a bit inspired by a treatment I'd seen Jamie Oliver do I slathered some truffled parfait onto a fat fillet of beef and then wrapped the lot in a dozen overlapping slices of Parma ham before roasting rare. This made the Christmas joint sensational and M's inevitable pickings the next day an extra treat (she never really liked her meat hot). And this duly became the family favourite.
But coming back to the present we never accompanied our beef with the soft yielding caramelized artichoke that unfurled each petal or leaf on the gentle probing with my fork. The truffled Madeira jus is sensational, but anything that smells that good has to be. Maybe a mound of the butteriest mash potatoes would have been gilding the lily, but I just love mash so secretly wish there was some. But if Robert has added this extra indulgence I probably wouldn't be able to do his dessert justice, and that would be utterly criminal!

The pre-dessert of a little clementine posset With vanilla foam replaced my licked clean main plate (well I would if I could!). The posset's foam cap was not the usual pert piped crown tonight but seemed to have have slipped and neutralized the Space Dust lurking below somewhat. The clementine was however still a refreshingly tangy palate cleanser.

And finally, they had me at "chocolate" and again at "fondant" so my dessert of choice just had to be Dark Chocolate and Griottine Fondant Pistachio Ice Cream. An unusually discrete Versace dessert plate displays the dark chocolate and vibrant green creation.
My surprise as to the uncharacteristic subtlety exercised by Versace is probably based on my 2008 Christmas present from M - a place setting of the Versace Dedalo range which believe it or not was one of the tamer designs!

The alchemy between deep, rich chocolate and the verging on unnatural green pistachio has been well documented and here was no exception but this has an extra dimension or two, the oozing fondant, the hit of Griottines (Morello cherries in Kirsch), the delicate crunch of the filigree wafer, the ice cream melting with the chocolate and the texture of the crushed pistachios. In the last two meals despite two very fine illustrations of the patisserie's art I was defeated by the crisp pastry of the Tart Tatin of Apple and the light Clementine Steamed Sponge, but had no such problems today. Another scraped clean plate, scrumptious!
There's still tonight's hamper but the final festive feast at the hands of Robert Thompson at the Hambrough is over. I came to Ventnor, to the Isle of Wight for this gourmet mission, meeting fellow epicurean pilgrims on the way, being lavished with exemplary food and wonderfully attentive but not overbearing service, languished in this beautiful, elegant hotel - what more could foodie diva desire? A very, very merry Christmas to me!

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Pudding!

To give the staff some semblance of Christmas celebration the kitchen is closed tonight. Previously they had set up a sumptuous buffet in the dining room but the guests were presumably still too stuffed from Christmas lunch to descend and avail themselves of the goodies. This year they decided instead to offer hampers that can be enjoyed at leisure in the comfort of our rooms. I couldn't see myself being famished any time soon but long time readers of my blog will know that the magic word "hamper" holds particular allure. I'm not sure if it's the Lilliputian size of the items or the surprise factor as each element reveals itself but I've loved a hamper ever since my first tiny one where I'd carefully pack away my doll's tea set after playing with it. And even now when the fat catalogues from Fortnum & Mason, Harvey Nichols, Harrod's and Selfridges plop onto the mat each year I never tire of poring over my "hamper porn". Though I have noticed a distinct change, when I blogged extensively about the latest hampers in November 2008, I mentioned the extraordinary decadence of F&M's Snow Queen (which actually was a plethora of pale wicker hampers) which was retailing for a mind-numbing £25,000 (no, that's not a typo!) and now the top of the range is the Imperial at a still crazy but considerably cheaper £5,000 but all the extravagant satin, cashmere and silver doodads have been removed! But as wonderful as these hampers are you don't generally have a complete meal. Many may contain chutneys, Gentlemen's Relish, exotic teas, jams, preserves, shortbread, water biscuits, nuts, Christmas pudding and cake, chocolates and other items to fill the store cupboard with. The more elaborate box that doesn't have to travel as far may contain a side of smoked salmon or indulgently a cooked ham. I suspect this one, however, will have the emphasis on fresh and eat tonight and not provide accoutrements for the rest of the seasonal eating.

My reverie is disturbed my a knock on the door and my hamper arrives borne by two of the staff accompanied by half a dozen plates and sets of cutlery. I wonder at first if they suspect I'm having a party and then realized that it would make the bedroom picnic much more elegant not having to mix the savoury with the sweet.
Well unsurprisingly each time I delve into my festive hamper another delicious treat emerges.

From the top:
Roasted Macadamia Nuts
Mixed Olives
Parma Ham on Walnut Bread
Marinated Isle of Wight Oyster Mushrooms
Soft Boiled Quails Eggs with Sherry Vinegar and Thyme
Tartare of Aberdeen Angus
Mosaic of Game
Smoked Salmon and Cucumber
Cheese Selection - Comte, Camembert with Calvados, Bleu de Gex Biscuits, Celery and Grapes
Lemon Tart
Shortbreads - Vanilla, Orange and Strawberry
Mince Pies
Vodka Fruit Punch - Tropical Juice, Apple Juice, Lime Juice and Dash of Angostura Bitters

Where do I start? I'm really not hungry but there are particular delights in here I must at least sample. So instead of a leftover turkey sandwich with stuffing or a few slices of remaining glazed ham others may have tonight I have these morsels of deliciousness to pick at all evening. There's a little stainless steel flask keeping the Vodka Fruit Punch cold so I pour a glass and decide what to taste first. I adore steak tartare but even if I'd eaten nothing else all day I struggle to eat too much of it. This is a dinky portion, meaty, piquant and really excellent. Next a few spoons of the mini pot of pressed smoked salmon and cucumber, which was another winner. I'd predicted they'd be something in the realm of the Mosaic of Game, a gentle forking breaks the slice seductively into soupçons of meaty chunks on contact. A couple of the soft boiled quail eggs with the mild vinegary punch go down well as I ponder what poor soul had to peel all those quail eggs and so many I'm going to invariably waste. A sliver of cheese, a few shreds of the Parma ham, a mushroom or two and a bite of a stunning lemon tart. I'm mortified by so much wanton waste, saving it for tomorrow would be pretty pointless as I have another big lunch to accommodate, and apart from the shortbread and nuts not much will keep for travelling onwards on Monday. In retrospect I should have thrown a party, I had enough crockery!
Despite the barely depleted plates every forkful I had was sheer pleasure, the steak tartare, mosaic of game and the lemon tart being real masterpieces. Now truly and utterly stuffed!

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Christmas with ALL the trimmings

There is an expectant buzz in the dining room. It's that low rumble of contented diners dressed in their festive finery patting their stomachs. I've opted for a slightly later Christmas lunch than most and have been striding up and down the beach and the seafront to give myself a fighting chance to have some room after last night's extravaganza. Thus I'm arriving as the others are reaching their finale and comparing notes on their delicious turbot, sharing reminiscences of Space Dust, discussing whether a pot of peppermint tea would aid them consuming a few more morsels of the steamed clementine sponge and rather curiously pondering the likelihood of a tsunami hitting us before the end of the meal. But then another diner nodded sagely and said "at least we'd die happy!"
Today I'm in the coffee, cappuccino coloured dining room, the blinds look like rich chocolate flakes (only the crumbliest, tastiest chocolate), which is never a bad thing!
We have a lovely view of the salmon streaked sky over the steely sea. I suspect tidal waves are incredibly unlikely and if the worse should happen we are quite high up above the crashing waves. Hopefully the surprisingly sunny weather stays the same for tomorrow, brisk healthful walks on the beach would not be so much fun if the heavens open despite the large golfing umbrella in my room.

Todays menu is as follows:

Champagne and Canapés

Mosaic of Game and Foie Gras with Quince Chutney
Seared Scottish Scallops with Cauliflower and Autumn Truffle
Carpaccio of Beetroot with a Horseradish Panna Cotta

Veloute of Pumpkin with Roasted Chestnut

Roast Goose Traditionally Garnished
Pan Roasted Turbot with a Lasagne of Langoustine
and Gem Lettuce
Gateaux of Potato, Artichoke and Wild Mushroom
Jerusalem Artichoke Cream

Steamed Clementine Sponge Stem Ginger Ice Cream
Agen Prune and Armagnac Parfait
A Selection of Fine Cheeses

Coffee, Mince Pies and Petit Fours

I started in a similar way, this time my linen waterlily contained Cheddar gougères laced with whiskey and my herby focaccia was as good as yesterday leaving those minute traces of sea salt on the lips.
To accompany the Champagne are three mini canapés, a smoked salmon blini with soured cream and a soupçon of caviar, a Perigold truffle with goats' cheese wafer and slow cooked veal shin 'cigarette' with paprika mayonnaise. They were all very fine but the veal shin was the real star, both the words "goats' cheese" and "mayonnaise" scare me generally but the goats' cheese wasn't goaty and reminiscent of ammonia and homemade mayonnaise is an entirely different beast compared to the synthetic Hellman's I so abhor. In fact I have been known on rare occasions to whip up my own mayonnaise, with the help of my Bamix naturally, and generally spike it heavily with herbs and/or garlic but I still prefer hollandaise every time.

I ummed and aahed between the Mosaic of Game and Foie Gras with Quince Chutney and the Seared Scottish Scallops with Cauliflower and Autumn Truffle. I even consulted tomorrow's menu which also has a foie gras and a scallop based starter. But in the end my proximity to the sea won as I always crave seafood when on the coast so the scallops had it. Chatting to some fellow foodie pilgrims, who have the edge on me because they've experienced Robert Thompson's talents before, when he won acclaim at Winteringham Fields, and then followed him here, they could very much vouch for mosaic of game and foie gras. I'd rationalized that my hamper tonight (yes, more delicious food to squeeze in!) may have some sort of parfait, pâté concoction and almost definitely no scallops.
The Seared Scottish Scallops with Cauliflower and Autumn Truffle were a good call. The plump scallops were caramel singed at sat atop some pale cous cous. I've never really understood the point of cous cous, naming it twice doesn't make it more interesting to me. This however was more like a minuscule mound of Parmesan shavings and was a cosy nest for the expertly cooked scallops, the cauliflower purée was another masterpiece and I would have happily had much more of it to douse the slivers of scallop in.

The soup today is a wonderful Velouté of Pumpkin with Roasted Chestnut, a rich autumnal elixir topped with chestnut foam and meaty morsels of roast chestnut. As much as I adored the truffled brioche yesterday I was pleased I didn't have to accommodate more bread today, however tasty.

I'd opted for the Roast Goose Traditionally Garnished, a part of me hankered for a little tradition (though definitely not turkey!). However goose is a fine bird and the only time I've tackled the preparation myself for the festive feast involved the loan of a neighbour's oven (one they'd never even used!), rivers of both goosefat and blood, eventual happy guests but neighbours who never spoke to me again! The goose and all the little goodies of accompaniments were utterly faultless but perhaps lacking the culinary fireworks of yesterday's venison. However each individual part was cooked to perfection, elegantly turned roasties dusted in polenta, al dente sprouts, bacon enveloped chipolata, ball of stuffing, the smooth carrot purée with the crowning glory of the delicately pink juicy goose slices drenched in a delicious winy gravy.
Today's pre-dessert was a spiced apple posset with vanilla foam. The Space Dust wasn't a surprise this time but still very welcome, and the spiced apple was rich and delicious.

I'm slightly concerned whether I can accommodate the Steamed Clementine Sponge Stem Ginger Ice Cream without literally popping (wafer thin mint anyone?) Just the words "steam pudding" sound alarming but I shouldn't have feared because of course Robert's sponge is sun-bronzed, light and festively fruity with the welcome juxtaposition of the slight exotic heat of the ginger ice cream sat on a bed of gingerbread crumbs and of course it is a visual stunner also. I've spotted that they have a impressive collection of dessert plates, todays being modeled on a gold ostrich, surely there's not more people out there as obsessive about crockery as me!
For a treat for the hardworking and fabulously friendly staff tonight the kitchen is closing early so hampers are on offer for guests who may succumb to the munchies later. As if I'm ever going to eat again... ever! But isn't it traditional that you feel utterly stuffed like the proverbial turkey on Christmas Day? I'm just being traditional! Gold, frankincense and myrrh anyone?

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Have I been naughty or nice?

On awaking on Christmas morning in my fabulous room in the enviable position of overlooking the chilly sea I was fortunate to catch the remnants of the sunrise and could set up my tripod and fire off a few shots without having to brave the frosty elements.

Despite not leaving out any mince pies nor a tot of whiskey, I had been visited (by a red besuited and bearded man perhaps?), and hanging from my door handle was a bulging red velvet stocking filled with all sorts of surprise goodies: chocolates, dried fruit and nuts, Christmas pudding, festive fragrant herb bag, candy cane and the obligatory satsuma. I've even got some Robert Thompson recipes to try at home. Merry Christmas to me! Not having ever stayed in a hotel at Christmas I don't know if this de rigeur but I thought it was such fabulous touch especially after believing that this particular solo Christmas would be surprise free! I suspect that it's just another reason why this is a special place to stay - thank you Alistair Sawday for the recommendation.

Christmas breakfast were some delicate soft folds of creamy scrambled eggs topped with rosy slices of smoked salmon. I had considered washing it down with Champagne but decided to save that for lunch.
Talking of lunch, if I had the merest hope of being able to eat another mouthful ever again I better don my unusually sensible hiking boots, hats and scarves a plenty and hit that beach. Perhaps if I stroll up and down it for a couple of hours and check out the rest of Ventnor I will be able to build up an appetite. Perhaps!

During the winter the local dog walkers are allowed to release their excitable hairy charges onto the beach, so the surprisingly bright day was full of happy dogs, people wearing red hats trimmed with white fluff, the annual wearing of the festive socks and the whoops of children practicing riding their new scooters and bikes on the deserted seafront.

Ventnor has the customary fish and chip café, bucket and spade shop, ice cream parlor and amusement arcade (all very much with hatches battened down today) but it all seemed rather quaint.

There seemed to be the distinct lack of tawdriness that some seaside resorts have. It's clean and neat, the air filled with crying swooping seagulls and that evocative salty tang to the air.

There is a touch of back and beyond to it all and again I'm intrigued why Robert Thompson chose here to build his gourmet Mecca. But as a much cleverer restaurant reviewer remarked quoting the infamous line from the Field of Dreams - "If you build it, they will come!"

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