A couple of months back I took my first trip to Guernsey and discovered a burgeoning artisan food and drink scene alongside beautiful beaches (especially Cobo Bay), picturesque countryside ideal for walkers and the pretty harbour town of St Peter Port, with its cobbled streets and Regency architecture. When invited for a gastronomic weekend (with fellow food writer, the lovely Tom Flint), I jumped at the chance to return.
Thanks to the Brighton and Hove Food Festival team, there are strong food links between Sussex and Guernsey. Many of our greats from Sussex (including Ridgeview wines and Blackdown spirits) are heading out to join friends as part of the Guernsey Food Festival in September (see details below). One of the Festival’s sponsors is First Central who employ 600 staff in Sussex.
I heartily recommend Guernsey for a gourmet getaway, especially given the mere 50-minute flight from Gatwick. It would be quicker to fly to Guernsey than get a train to London at the moment, but that’s for one of Maarten’s Anger Management articles…
Here’s a taster of what to expect.
After a straightforward morning flight my Guernsey experience kicked off with lunch at The Pavilion restaurant, which is overseen by executive chef Tony Leck, chair of Taste Guernsey. Tony is passionate about the local produce, and having worked all over the UK decided to make Guernsey his home – this is in itself an indicator of the culinary inspiration provided by the island’s produce.
The Pavilion is part of St. Pierre Park Hotel. The decor is a little ‘corporate’ in its styling, but the hotel is a good value choice for business events and nestles comfortably in beautiful grounds.
Before lunch we were treated to a cocktail-making masterclass by the charming and quirky James Le Gallez of ‘Aperitif’, a mobile bar and cocktail consultancy.
James is heading up the forthcoming Guernsey Cocktail Week and was entertaining and knowledgeable. Unlike many cocktail experts, James explained the reasons behind certain techniques, as well as the history of the equipment and ingredients he used. We had fun making two interesting and unique cocktail creations using Guernsey produce (including a lovely damson gin – more on that later).
On to lunch. We were treated to a selection of small plates representing different elements of the menu. Tony, a ruggedly handsome man, presented us each with a copy of his cookbook
‘Pavilion on a Plate’, which has received a number of accolades including winner in the Gourmand World Cook Book Awards 2012. Flicking through I was struck by the accessibility of the recipes in the book – fine dining made easy (much like my dinner party go to: ‘Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets’).
A Crab Florentine stood out amongst a platter of antipasti followed by a taster of desserts, which included a well-made warm apple and almond tart.
Next up, a trip to try some Guernsey cheese. Mandy and Peter Gerrard at Guernsey Golden Goats supply cheese, milk and meat from home reared golden goats. Not only did we taste a lovely fresh tangy and creamy goat’s cheese, but I even got to cuddle a baby goat! Mandy and Peter live in idyllic countryside where goats roam freely in what is basically their back garden. Once I’d torn myself away from some extremely cute baby goats, off we went for booze this time courtesy of Haut Maison Liqueurs.
Katherine and Stephen Payne welcomed us to their Haut Maison, which turned out to be a huge stone farmhouse where they distill liqueurs from an outbuilding using berries and other ingredients grown on their land. These include loganberry, raspberry, boysenberry and a damson gin (used earlier by James to make our cocktail). We walked through the gardens tasting the berries as we passed, before sampling the finished product. My favourite was the horseradish vodka.
This would be good in a Bloody Mary or to accompany a beef carpaccio or salmon starter. I was also rather partial to their espresso vodka – ideal for making espresso martinis. I was beginning to feel thankful for bringing a large suitcase for this trip…
Somewhat unsteadily, I ventured next to cocktails at the Old Government Hotel. There l tasted their chicken liver parfait - smooth and creamy with good brioche. The bar exudes old world glamour, with impeccable table service (reminding me of my favourite line from the film Arthur “aren’t waiters wonderful, you ask them for things and they bring them to you”). They have an excellent gin selection all served in large goldfish bowl glasses with the correct garnishes. I enjoyed The Botanist with sprigs of thyme and lemon. This is an ideal pre-dinner destination – although in fact it was a prelude to what would turn out to be a major gin extravaganza back at the Belle Luce hotel.
My goodness, Belle Luce is impressive. Firstly, the building itself – a large period stone house tastefully converted to a luxury boutique hotel. It is both elegant and informal. “Luxury with its shoes off ” as owner Luke Weadon describes it. The bar area feels like a country pub, there’s a lounge area /snug making the most of the original period features and decorated in muted colours – all very (early) Hotel Du Vin. The hotel is now part of the prestigious ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ club and I can see why.
Luke is a trained chef and passionate gin connoisseur. In fact he even distils his own gin, a venture so successful that he has now started selling one of his best creations, Wheadon’s Gin. This is distilled with grapefruit and rock samphire (balancing salty and citrus notes), an unusual and interesting combination that has fast become one of my favourite gins. It’s best served, so I discover, with a wedge of grapefruit.
Luke runs gin tasting events as part of the offering at Belle Luce. I attended one, of course. This lasted a good 90 minutes in the beautiful snug with at least 10 gins sampled and compared. The real treat was when Luke brought out some samples of his own creations, hand-labeled in artisan bottles. They were interesting and delicious. Being a chef he has a natural talent for flavour combinations, achieving balance and harmony within the finished product.
The star event of the weekend was dinner at the hotel. I had been looking forward to this having recalled an excellent lunch on my last visit. I wasn’t disappointed. We started with a seafood platter – a luxurious and generous selection of hot and cold fruit de mer. Amongst the highlights were tempura soft shell crab, mussels, scallops, both grilled and ceviche, crab and lobster. All perfectly executed. Next up was an incredible cote de boeuf with sides of truffled mac and cheese (very ‘now’) and triple cooked thick chips (some of the best I’ve had). Naturally the beef was locally reared, and hung in the premises of Belle Luce for over 30 days. It was flawless.
The food was washed down with a rich and elegant Chateau Neuf du Pape. The wine list is impressive here, and has a good selection of quality wines for under £30 as well as more prestige options.
The only slight disappointment was dessert, a chocolate sponge and mousse concoction that was slightly lacking in ‘wow’ factor. But then what had preceded it was always going to be such a tough act to follow. The menu changes regularly making the most of the local seasonal produce from land and sea. I would describe the style of cooking as gastropub at its very best. After this mighty feast I was more than ready to climb the stairs to my comfortable bed.
The next day, I skipped breakfast to make way for lunch at hotel Ziggurat, a Moroccan themed hotel with a roof terrace dining area overlooking the bay. A stunning location from which to enjoy a feast of expertly cooked authentic Moroccan cuisine. Stand-outs were a spiced pan fried sea bass, a lamb shank tagine, sweet potato fries, a fattoush salad, some excellent meze including kofta, aubergine wedges, hummus and falafel.
I could have sat there all afternoon soaking up the sun and gazing out to the sea but there was more eating to be done. Namely, snails at Le Petit Bistro. This was a delightfully authentic French bistro with an all-French team. Here I enjoyed a Crement de Bourgogne rose (a sparkling wine using the same method and grapes of champagne but made in burgundy) and the best snails I have had outside of France. I wish I hadn’t filled up at Ziggurat, the menu reads like the epitome of good value, French classical bistro dishes. This is a place I will certainly return to.
On to the finale of the weekend. And boy what a finale. Afternoon tea back at the Old Government hotel.
This kicked off with a gin cocktail and then a glass of perfectly chilled champagne while we chose from the extensive loose-leaf tea menu. Now I am not usually one for ‘afternoon tea’, which has always struck me as a thing that gets in the way of what could be a much more interesting lunch or dinner. I had intended just to pick at a couple of things. No chance!
This was the best afternoon tea I have ever had. The quails-eggs Benedict was tiny but luscious and delicate; there was more of that wonderful chicken liver parfait, mini homemade smoked salmon bagels and cream cheese alongside the usual sandwiches. And then the Scones. Warm and fresh from the oven with accompanying Guernsey butter, clotted cream and jam. These were light and delicious. Two mini tarts, one a fruit the other a sublime Bakewell, both with excellent pastry crisp and buttery. Even the shortbread biscuits were some of the best I have tasted – crumbly and buttery. The only elements I thought dipped below the stellar standard of the rest were the lemon drizzle cake and mini chocolate eclairs. Everything was completely homemade by award winning resident chef Simon McKenzie (who I have written about previously). I ate the lot.
I departed Guernsey a few pounds heavier in both luggage (Wheadons Gin and Horseradish Vodka) and stomach. But boy was it worth it. Never mind the Lake District, Cotswolds or Cornwall – for high quality cuisine in wonderful surroundings, get yourself to Guernsey.