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Robert Thompson's guide to the Isle of Wight

Robert Thompson's guide to the Isle of Wight

by Great British Chefs 18 April 2018

Don’t let this island’s small size fool you – it’s home to a thriving food scene, with contemporary restaurants, dedicated artisans and some very special tomatoes. The island’s top chef Robert Thompson shows us round his favourite spots.

A lot of people will tell you that visiting the Isle of Wight is a bit like going back in time. And when you step off the catamaran (which is operated by Wightlink and sets off from Portsmouth, taking you to Ryde), there is a certain element of bygone charm as you make your way along the pier to the seafront. But the second you scratch the surface and look past the tea rooms and cookie-cutter pubs that cater for the coachloads of tourists, you’ll find a fantastic mix of producers, chefs and artisans making the Isle of Wight an incredible place to eat and drink.

One of the key figures in making the island a foodie destination is Robert Thompson, a chef who’s worked at all of the Isle of Wight’s top restaurants. He won the island a Michelin star at The Hambrough and now owns his own restaurant Thompson’s. Who better to introduce the island from a foodie perspective?

‘I’ve heard people ask whether you need a passport to visit the island before – it’s crazy how isolated some think it is when it isn’t at all,’ he says. ‘It’s just twenty minutes from Portsmouth on the fast foot passenger boat. The food scene here has really grown in the past few years, and a lot of chefs are now gunning for recognition in the Michelin Guide and things like that. The produce is incredible too – not many people know we grow great asparagus here, for instance, and the tomatoes are next level. There’s still a way to go, and I think in five years we’ll have become a really big food destination, a lot like the South West.’

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Robert spent a day taking us around the island to some of the producers, restaurants and sights that have helped to create a unique and exciting food scene on the Isle of Wight. Here are his top picks.

Producers

Isle of Wight Tomatoes

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The Isle of Wight is officially the sunniest place in the UK, and at The Tomato Stall they make the most of this by growing some of the most amazing tomatoes you’ve ever seen (and tasted). The giant glasshouses – some of which date back to the 1960s – boast their own ecosystems, with bees and other insects introduced to help pollinate the plants and keep pests at bay, and the perfect amount of CO2 and heat is pumped inside to ensure the tomatoes are as perfect as they can be. The dozens of different varieties are harvested and sold fresh at markets, in farm shops and even M&S during certain times of the year, and they really are a world away from the watery, tasteless varieties usually on offer. The company also produces juices, sauces and jams (among many other products) from their colourful crop.

Robert says: ‘Having access to tomatoes of this quality is such a bonus, especially because there are so many different heirloom varieties to choose from. They’re available year-round but the taste really builds as you get into the summer months because there’s just so much sunlight. We use their tomato juices too – the spiced one is perfect for Bloody Marys and Bloody Caesars.’

For stockists on the island click here. thetomatostall.co.uk

Isle of Wight Cheese

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No one was creating artisan cheese on the Isle of Wight until Richard and Julie Hodgson set up their business in 2006 (although a few other creameries on the island have popped up since then). Twelve years later and The Isle of Wight Cheese Company now produces five incredible cheeses (plus a few seasonal varieties only available at certain times of year) from its own herd of fifty-two cows, kept at the dairy next door. Isle of Wight Blue is probably the most well-known, winning multiple awards at various competitions including being named Best English Cheese at the World Cheese Awards, and rightly so – it is mild, incredibly creamy and with a beautiful blue rind. Do keep an eye out for Borthwood too, a new Brie-style cheese that’s beautifully oozy with a strong salty mushroom flavour.

Robert says: ‘Richard’s cheeses are great and we have them on our cheeseboard at Thompson’s. He recently bought the Queen Bower Dairy next door so he’s got his own herd now which ensures a good supply of local milk, and I’m really glad he’s produced two new cheeses this year (Borthwood and Blue Slipper) because it means there’s something new to offer people.’

Queen Bower Dairy, Alverstone Road, Sandown, PO36 0NZ. isleofwightcheese.co.uk

Island Bakers

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Chefs-turned-bakers John and Helen Fahy have an incredible amount of experience between them. After meeting when cooking for the Royal Family, they’ve worked at places like Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, The Waterside Inn in Bray and Tante Marie cookery school in Surrey. After discovering a love for all things baked, they decided to settle down on the Isle of Wight in 2010 and launch The Island Bakers. Since then they’ve moved into larger premises, as the demand for their bread, doughnuts, cakes and other baked delights increased all over the island. And quite right – their sourdough is pretty incredible, with the starter culture going since 2009, and everything in their shop in Newport is seriously special.

Robert says: ‘We use The Island Bakers’ bread in the restaurant because it’s just so good. The focaccia, the pumpernickel and the sourdough are all incredible. It’s a proper serious bakery that produces some fantastic stuff. The bread is only half of what they do though – go to their shop in Newport and you’ll find some amazing doughnuts, croissants, brownies and turnovers. They also make the best sourdough cheese toastie – using cheese from The Isle of Wight Cheese Company – and are moving into things like raised pork pies. Because John is self-taught if he wants to do something he just gets on and does it.’

89 St James Street, Newport, PO30 1LB. theislandbakers.com

Isle of Wight Distillery

What would a local food scene be without a distillery thrown into the mix? Luckily for the Isle of Wight, the very talented Xavier Baker and Conrad Gauntlett head up the Isle of Wight Distillery, which creates island-inspired spirits made using local botanicals. Its Mermaid Gin makes the most of rock samphire foraged from the island’s cliffs and Boadicea hops grown in Ventnor’s Botanic Garden, while its vodka includes local sea salt for a subtle smoothness. There’s whisky on the way (it’s still ageing at the moment), and all the distillery’s spirits are made with Isle of Wight spring water for even more local flavour. If you’re on the island you can visit the distillery and take a look at how they’re all made for yourself.

Robert says: ‘Xavier used to have a brewery in Ventnor but now he runs the Isle of Wight Distillery which is where we get our gin and vodka from. They’re great because they use botanicals found on the island, and I’ve been talking to them about developing some new spirits which I hope come to fruition in the future.’

The Mermaid Bar at The Wishing Well, Seaview, Isle of Wight, PO33 1PX. isleofwightdistillery.com

The Green Barn

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Along with The Isle of Wight Cheese Company, The Green Barn has produced goat’s cheeses on the island since 2013. The ninety-strong herd is a mix of different breeds and graze outside all year and produce plenty of delicious goat’s milk to be turned into a variety of cheeses, kefir and even fudge. The family-run dairy is also home to a farm shop and tea room, where you can try all of Green Barn’s goat-based treats alongside plenty of other artisanal produce made on the Isle of Wight.

Robert says: ‘Green Barn aren’t very old but they create some amazing products from their goat milk. They’ve just started playing around with a couple of goat cheeses, including a washed-rind, and I hope they continue to move into cheesemaking as it would be fantastic to have a range of goat’s cheeses from the Isle of Wight.’

Main Road, Bouldnor, Yarmouth, PO41 0XN. thegreenbarn-isleofwightdairygoats.co.uk

Restaurants

Thompson's

It would be crazy to visit the Isle of Wight for its food and not book a table at Robert Thompson’s own restaurant in the centre of Newport. By far the most acclaimed and accomplished place to eat on the whole island, it’s where you’ll find dishes such as a ‘mosaic’ of confit guinea fowl, black cabbage and artichoke; risotto of local woodland mushrooms and truffle and barbecued rum-glazed pineapple with a banana and walnut cake. There’s a full-blown eight-course tasting menu if you want the full experience, or an incredibly good value set menu for something more relaxed. And, of course, many of Robert’s dishes feature ingredients made from the island’s many artisanal producers.

11 Town Lane, Newport, PO30 1JU. robertthompson.co.uk

Smoking Lobster

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If you want concrete evidence that the Isle of Wight isn’t living in the past, check out the menu at Smoking Lobster, run by chefs Adam Fendyke and Giancarlo Giancovich (who also own the island’s Mediterranean restaurant Tramezzini). Tempura smoked cod with wasabi tartare; enoki mushroom and beef filet maki rolls with truffle ponzu sauce; kaffir lime leaf panna cotta with pandan churros and coconut ice cream – this isn’t your average beachside fish restaurant. Adam and Giancarlo take the freshest fish and seafood – landed right outside their door on Ventnor Esplanade – along with Isle of Wight beef and combine them with pan-Asian flavours and ingredients.

Robert says: ‘Smoking Lobster is quite a new place and they’re doing something different to everyone else, which is why I wanted to include them in this guide. They don’t take themselves too seriously – they just use cracking produce and use a lot of Asian ingredients to make the most of it. A few years ago you wouldn’t have found anything like it on the island and I think it shows how the food scene here is evolving. I had a blue marlin steak here the other day with a sea herb risotto and a massive grilled prawn on the side and it was beautiful.’

Ventnor Esplanade, PO38 1JT. smokinglobster.co.uk

Don't miss…

Wild garlic

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It might only be around for a few months every year, but wild garlic seems to absolutely cover parts of the Isle of Wight – which is great news for chefs like Robert. At first it looks like grass from the car, but as you get closer you realise the damp forest floor is, in fact, packed with wild garlic leaves. If you happen to be on the Isle of Wight at any point between March and May, do keep an eye out for these delicious leaves – just be aware that a heavy harvest can fill the car with a strong garlic smell quite quickly!

Robert says: ‘This is where I get all my wild garlic from because there’s just tonnes of it. Sometimes it lasts until the end of May if the weather’s right, and it’s in such nice surroundings. I usually come here with the dog and fill a bag full of the stuff to use back at the restaurant. But it’s not just wild garlic you can forage on the island – I collect nettles, wild mushrooms like chanterelles, morels and oysters, and there’s even a guy who brings me Isle of Wight truffles, although he won’t tell me where he finds them!’

Solent oysters

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The Solent – the body of water that separates the Isle of Wight from mainland England – was once home to huge numbers of native oysters and was Europe’s largest fishery in the 1970s. Since then however the population has suffered from pressures of historic overfishing, pollution, disease and invasive species leading to the collapse of the Solent fishery in 2013. That’s set to change in the next few years however, as marine conservation charity, Blue Marine Foundation’s Solent Oyster Restoration Project is reseeding the Solent with millions of oysters. Oysters are ecosystem engineers: they clean the water, provide habitat and encourage other species to thrive. The hope is that by 2021 native oysters will be making a comeback, and so too will the benefits they bring to our waterways. This work will support a sustainable oyster fishery once more, which would mean Isle of Wight oysters would go back on the menu. There’s still a few years to go until then, but in the meantime it’s a fascinating project to follow, and there are plans to line Ryde pier with oyster nets so visitors to the island can see the work being done first-hand.

Robert says: ‘There used to be oyster beds all around the island but they weren’t looked after so they’re all gone now. But this organisation is putting millions of oysters back into the Solent and bring them back. Wightlink (the ferry operators) have come on board and they’re going to hang oyster nets and cages at some of their ports, which is going to look great. It’s a really exciting project and while we’re a while off harvesting oysters to eat, it’s the beginning of something that will bring lots of attention to the island and hopefully help bring attention to our incredible seafood.’

bluemarinefoundation.com/project/solent

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