Days Gone By
Bearing in mind the mild climate of the Isle of Wight and the abundance of seafood that would have been available early Isle of Wight man probably didn’t go too hungry – his existence depended on what food he could catch or forage and the sea formed a well–stocked larder!
But with the invasion of the Romans bringing with them herbs and vines and an appreciation of carefully produced meals, food became more palatable and enjoyable.
And so it continued with the Normans. Amongst other things it was the Normans who introduced rabbits to the island – no doubt as sport for their noblemen who enjoyed hunting with dogs and hawks. Or maybe they just wanted to introduce a ready supply of fresh meat. Rabbits being rabbits probably escaped and started breeding. They certainly flourished and with no foxes as predators, would quickly have become a plentiful source of protein for everybody living on the island.
Further afield too: Isle of Wight rabbits, or coneys as they were called, also graced London tables. Coneymen would travel to the island, buy the creatures and sell them in the capital.
Pheasant and partridge were caught by Henry III’s hawks, but woe-betide any commoner who poached them. Deer were abundant in the forests – Charles 1 hunted them when he lived on the island.
Sheep also were brought to the island as much for their wool as food, and grew fat on the Downland grass.
Records reveal that there were an unusual number of water and windmills on the island, many or all of them grinding corn. The island became an important flour producer both for London and further afield. It supplied the Royal Navy with flour as well as merchant ships and the convict ships bound for the other side of the world. Supply could not always keep up with demand and corn occasionally had to be imported from the mainland.
Beer and cans
Beer brewing goes back for centuries and the Isle of Wight, with its abundance of spring water, was no exception. The island’s farm and estate owners would have followed the custom of brewing their own beer – beer being part of a labourer’s wages. By the early 17th century there were brew houses aplenty on the island supplying more than one inn. One entrepreneur increased his wealth by selling his beer to ships anchored in the local harbour.
But what the Isle of Wight really can take credit for appears to be canned beer. At the end of the 19th century Mew-Langtons, a brewery based at Newport, came up with a new way of storing beer. The brewery was already supplying the army but when it came to shipping it out to the troops in India there were problems. Glass bottles broke, or the beer went flat. Earlier that century the means of manufacturing tin cans had already been discovered but by fitting them with screw caps Mew-Langtons solved the problem of how to export their India Pale Ale to India so it arrived in peak condition.
There has long been speculation as to who invented doughnuts. They might not be amongst the front runners but the Isle of Wight also has a claim. In all honesty it is more likely that Dutch or German emigrants to the USA took their homeland’s deep fried dough tradition with them. However, the special Isle of Wight doughnuts have been around for a long time. They also appear to be unique as they did not have jam in the centre, but instead used plums (raisins?), or sometimes currants or candied peel and lemon zest. They were then fried in lard before being dipped in sugar, as opposed to sugar glazed.
The island farmers concentrated more on making cream and butter, consequently leaving only the skimmed milk for the production of cheese. The resulting cheese has fallen out of favour as it was hard, dry and not very palateable.
Forest House Pudden
Like Chokedog cheese Forest House Pudden, (pudding) has also fallen out of favour. Hardly surprising as the only ingredients were flour, water and suet!
Kidney in an Onion and Vectis Pie claim to be Isle of Wight recipes. For these, and a modern take on a Rabbit Stew go to Isle of Wight recipes.
What does the Isle of Wight offer Today?
With such a rich foody heritage the Isle of Wight maintains the tradition today. Hardly surprising as its mild climate and rich farmland plus some 67 miles of coastline yield an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, quality meat, milk and seafood all helping to put the island on the gastronomic map. Many restaurants pride themselves on trying to use only ingredients from local farms and waters. There are also plenty of excellent food shops and farmers’ markets selling local produce.
Fame of the island’s asparagus spread to London and in April of this year farmer Ben Brown was kept busy organising the cutting of his asparagus for the Royal Wedding. Apart from being involved with Farmer Jack’s Farm Shop Ben also grows squashes and sweetcorn along with the now famous asparagus on the Arreton Barns farm as well as supplying the island with other seasonal fruit, veg and herbs and salad leaves.
The Priory Bay Hotel
Set within the grounds of a 70 acre estate adjoining the spectacular beach of Priory Bay, the Priory Bay Hotel has its own beach, tennis courts, swimming pool, falconry and, reputedly, the best six-hole golf course in the South of England. Located between the famous sailing towns of Bembridge and Seaview and only a few miles from Portsmouth and Cowes, the area provides some excellent boating and yachting opportunities.
The elegant Virginia creeper-clad country retreat built on land once owned by medieval monks, Tudor farmers and Georgian gentry offers a range of accommodation restored to create a “country house hotel by the sea”. The hotel offers spectacular views to the mainland and East Solent. The extensive grounds are a haven for wildlife including rare birds of prey, owls, red squirrels and dragonflies. The lawns and terraced gardens were designed by Gertrude Jekyll. Queen Victoria once sat beneath the magnificent magnolias growing on the south wall of the hotel. Children can wander safely and freely within the grounds and enjoy the sheltered sandy beach
The hotel also provides the kitchen team under the direction of Head Chef Bryn Edwards with access to the herb and vegetable gardens and the landings of fresh fish, crustacean and shellfish from the local fishermen’s daily catch. The chefs, if not too busy, are happy to cook any prawns, cockles, crabs or mackerel caught off the beach.
Guests dine can in The Island Room which offers an à la carte and Tasting Menu or The Priory Oyster, specialising in seafood and fish dishes. See Foody Traveller Home Page illustration, and above.
Visit www.priorybay.co.uk or call 01983 613146. Please mention The Foody Traveller.
Why not try creating Head Chef Bryn Edwards’s popular Blackberry Gateau for yourself? Head over to our recipes section and get creative!
Also on sale at Farmer Jack’s, and other outlets including their own Dairy Deli, are cakes, desserts and the award-winning ice creams from Jill Cawood (Calbourne Classics of Three Gates Farm) – the only yoghurt and clotted cream producer on the island.
Other award-winning ice creams are produced by Minghella Ice Creams. The company was founded in Ryde by Edward and Gloria Minghella in 1950 and prides itself on not using artificial ingredients. The range of flavours in these gourmet ice creams and sorbets is just astonishing.
Tomatoes have been grown in the Arreton valley for many years but it was only in 2001 that Isle of Wight Salads began selling their crops to the public at farmers’ markets – including London’s Borough Market. Apart from the fresh product The Tomato Stall also sells a wide range of tomato juice and sauce, as well as a variety of different style roasted tomatoes plus a tomato ketchup, all made from natural, additive and-preservative-free tomato products.
Chockdog cheese may have fallen out of favour but the Isle of Wight Cheese Company’s Blue and Soft cheeses are very much in demand; hardly surprising as the company won the Best Cheese award in 2007. No mean achievement bearing in mind the company only began in 2006. They also produce a curiously named unpasteurised cheddar-like cheese called Gallybagger along with a couple of very limited special edition cheeses.
From oak-smoked to elephant the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm can supply them all. The Garlic Farm came into being some 30 years ago and has gone from strength to strength – and that’s not just the garlic! They can even supply you with seed garlic to grow at home. Enjoy garlic dishes in their café, stay on the farm, celebrate the festival and visit the shop.
Seafood restaurants abound on the Isle of Wight thanks partly to the number of fresh fish suppliers. Depending on the season diners can indulge their passion for crab and lobster, prawns and whelks to say nothing of Dover sole, turbot, plaice, wild bass, red mullet and more.
Raise a Glass
Beer lovers will be delighted to learn that the Isle of Wight currently has three breweries – the Island Brewery, Yates and Goddards. Many of the beers are available year round but there are seasonal brews too.
Goddards Brewery based at The Brewhouse, Barnsley Farm, near Ryde, which itself dates back to the 18th century, is a revival of traditional farmhouse brewing. Today’s brewery might be housed in an ancient barn but there is nothing antiquated about the stainless steel vessels and high tech that goes into producing the award winning products which rejoice in splendid names like Fuggle-Dee-Dum and Scrumdiggity.
Yates’ Brewery started off beneath the St Lawrence Inn and now produces several real ales, including the popular Undercliff Experience.
New boy on the block is The Island Brewery set up by Tom Minshull. Nipper was one of the first of the range of beers and was evidently so popular it sold out in one day following its launch.
Apple juice and cider producers include Sharon Orchard, near Ryde, and Godshill Cider Barn.
Sharon Orchard which was only established in 1997 is now home to some 20 different varieties of apple – over 4000 apple trees. Within a week of picking the apples are transformed into a variety of juices and cider. Pear juices are now also available.
Godshilll Cider comes chiefly from apples picked at their own orchards. Apple varieties, which include the intriguingly named Taunton Fair Maid, Town Farm no 59 and Tremlett’s Bitter & White Alphington, go to produce unfiltered, dry to medium sweet cider.
Adgestone Vineyard claims to be one of Britian’s oldest vineyards. As it is sited close to the Roman villa at Brading Down where it is believed the Romans planted vines it seems a reasonable claim. In 1994 their wine was featured at the dinner for the Queen to celebrate the Anniversary of the D-Day Landings.
Rosemary Vineyard, one of the largest producers of English Wine, covers 30 acres and produces wine, liqueurs, juices and ciders made on the estate from grapes / apples grown on the estate. Relax and enjoy a taste of the good life in this peaceful setting.
Rossiters Vineyard. Rod Thompson, a retired professor from the medical school in Southampton, began growing grapes as a past time, but the hobby soon turned into a successful commercial operation. Today Rossiters Vineyard, near Yarmouth, produces red, white and rosé wine.
So raise your glasses and toast the island – the very lovely, very special – Isle of Wight.