Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside ...

Well the snow finally disappeared but last weekend was bitingly cold with bright clear skies and a sharp wind. What better time for a trip to the seaside? I was not after a bucket and spade experience however but, rather an oyster and seafood pick me up. I had never previously been to Whitstable which, for those of you unfamiliar with UK geography, is a small fishing town on the Kent coast, not too far from Canterbury. It has apparently been famed from Roman times (according to the information in the car park) for its oysters.

I set off from the outskirts of London at around 11am on Saturday with my son in tow. He was not madly keen on the trip but the other option was rowing on a practically freezing Thames – Whitstable was definitely the lesser of two evils. Driving there was a little like driving through a Dutch winter landscape – the sun was low and bright and the leafless trees were silhouetted black against the horizon like some survivors of a forest fire. It really was lovely (save in those moments when I was driving blind because of the glare).

It took about 75 minutes to get to Whitstable. It is clearly a town where food is important. Whilst I am sure they are lurking somewhere, I did not see one supermarket. Instead, the high street of Whitstable appears to contain a selection of independent shops with butchers and greengrocers well represented. Also there is a lovely old fish and chip shop (V.C. Jones) with a sign advertising “Fish Luncheons and Suppers”. Whilst I didn’t eat there it looked fantastic and as if you could step back in time simply by crossing the threshold.

Having parked the car we headed for the harbour and the fish market. The inner harbour is very compact and sheltered about three or four fishing boats. Not that the boats looked like they were in need of much shelter. They were small but stocky and reminded you of boxing gloves that would have little difficulty punching through any waves that the English Channel could throw at them.

The fish market was relatively small and housed, on the harbour side, in a black painted, two storey wooden building. The market itself was on the ground floor and above it was the Crab and Winkle restaurant. Fortunately, as we did not have a booking, the restaurant was not busy on a freezing February Saturday and so we easily secured a table near the window overlooking the punchy little fishing boats. The restaurant serves both a set and à la carte menu comprised almost entirely of seafood. There were also one or two specials on the board and a separate blackboard of shellfish options. We ordered some Whitstable native oysters (both raw with shallot vinaigrette and battered) to get us in the mood. They were small but perfectly formed – possibly the best oysters I have tasted and definitely best when eaten raw.

Next we were brought some delicious home made breads with butter and a smoked fish paté. Again, delicious and the paté was a lovely touch. I was by this point half way through a glass of St. Veran and rapidly beginning to regret having driven!

After the bread the first courses arrived. I had ordered a shellfish bisque with rouille, croutons and gruyere cheese. It was warm, salty and reviving but I don’t think the French or the Belgians need worry too much about the competition from Whitstable on this course. My son had a salmon mousse wrapped in smoked salmon which was rich and light at the same time – a good choice by him. For my main course I had grilled mackerel served with braised puy lentils and tiny roasted carrots. The fish was absolutely delicious and the lentils were perfect as an accompaniment to the oily fish. My son ordered the battered Coley fillet. This had seemed a bit safe to me but when it arrived I realised he had again hit the jackpot. The batter on the fish, which took up most of a large serving plate, was perfectly crisp and golden and the fish inside was pure white, flaky and moist. This was served with a small bowl of fries, mushy peas, tartare sauce and a piece of home pickled cucumber. However the fish was the definite star of the show and the accompaniments, though each individually delicious, were only ever going to be, at best, in a supporting role. I can confirm that the pickled cucumber was delicious. It was the only thing that my son did not eat in its entirety.

To end the meal I had a plate of three farmhouse cheeses (chosen from a list of about six) with oatcakes. Whilst delicious and from interesting smaller producers, I am afraid that I did not do them justice after the large main course, and the bread, and the oysters …. My son had a white chocolate pannatone bread and butter pudding which he declared to be delicious. Again, I have to take his word and contented smile for this.

All in all the meal was delicious and a treat for an otherwise boring, freezing cold February Saturday. We ended our stay in Whitstable with a quick visit to the fish market to pick up some mackerel for freezing at home and a brisk trot along the high street before fashionable, but hardly warm, youth clothing dictated we return to the car and home.

I shall be visiting Whitstable again very soon (possibly without a car or overnight!) and commend you to do so too.


Candy Girl said...

It sounds like you had a great food/road trip. White chocolate pannatone bread pudding sounds fab!

TonyM said...

I wish I could confirm that from the position of having actually tasted it - however it was consumed so quickly I just have to take my son's word for it!

Lynda said...

Tony, thanks for visiting my blog all the way over in sunny Africa ! I'e just popped across to yours & enjoyed what I read - I love your take on food (a fellow food lover, I see !) & your sense of humor ! Will definitely be back for more soon ....
Lynda, Kilimanjaro, East Africa