NEVER having been to Jersey before makes my short flight over the English Channel from Southampton all the more thrilling: it is a clear day and visible from the air are the coastline of northern France and the tiny landmass of Alderney, as well as Guernsey and Jersey. In my mini-aeroplane, I feel I’m embarking on a Blyton-esque adventure.
I’ve always thought of Jersey, 14 miles west of the Normandy coast, as ever so slightly staid and the kind of place wealthy people retire to. On landing it does indeed feels compact and self-contained; a micro-universe where the street names are in French and the residents speak English.
But I am soon to discover it is much more nuanced than that. For this small island of 44 square miles and around 100,000 residents has big ambitions.
The first revelation is that Jersey has three Michelin-starred restaurants (Ocean at the Atlantic Hotel, St Brelade; Ormer; and Bohemia at the Club Hotel, both in St Helier). The food scene here is very active, with 350 restaurants and a network of independent producers – hardly surprising, given the abundance of dairy and beef farms, agriculture and seafood – and a progressive, youthful chef scene. As I’m to discover, very little produce is imported, although the island has lucrative export deals for the likes of its prized Jersey Royal potatoes, which go straight to the UK, and famous Jersey cream products much in demand around the world, including China.
Food tourism is the phrase du jour in every forward-thinking country. Jersey is embracing it, the better to exploit its vibrant food scene and attract international visitors outwith the traditional summer season. Scotland, take note.
At the capable hands of Patrick Burke, owner of the Atlantic Hotel (a member of the Small Luxury Hotels Group and blessed with breathtaking views over the bay at St Brelade, pictured above), the concept of food tourism has taken a bold step forward with the launch of the Eat Jersey festival. I visited the second event last November 2016 just as the main tourist season was coming to an end – an apparently successful initiative aimed at lengthening the season and giving producers more to chew on, as it were.
Scotland, where food tourism is still in its infancy, could learn a lesson or two from Mr Burke. He managed to persuade all the top chefs from not only Jersey but across all the Channel Islands to come together and work with his executive head chef Mark Jordan* at the Atlantic to create a gourmet dining experience that was unique (though the event is to be annual). The presence of Andrew Fairlie, of the double-starred Michelin restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles Hotel, added an extra frisson: more than one chef told me they were queueing up in the kitchen to cook with him and grasp the opportunity to “learn from the master”.
A combined total of five Michelin stars, a Michelin Bib Gourmand and 23 AA Rosettes from the Channel Islands and the south of England made for a remarkable line-up of culinary talent and some exquisite menus over the three-day event.
But first, a walk from the Atlantic Hotel to the headland overlooking the bay is invigorating and informative: I can see the outline of Guernsey to the north-west and get a better understanding of where I am.
Burke, whose father Henry built the hotel in 1970, took over in 1985 after stints in London at the Carlton Tower, Knightsbridge, and the Intercontinental at Hyde Park Corner. His boutique hotel won its first Michelin star in 2007, and has gained several accolades including four AA red stars, four AA rosettes and the title of best independent hotel in the 2014 Cateys Awards.
Back in my gorgeous all-white room I watch the sun setting from the balcony overlooking the bay and start to prepare for dinner.
The menu tonight is a joint effort, each course prepared by a different chef. Levin Wines, the boutique, family-owned organic winery in the Loire Valley, have provided a thoughtful and quite thrilling selection of paired wines made using modern organic techniques and biodynamic viticulture practices. Nicholas Valmagna of the Tassili at the three AA Rosette Grand Jersey Hotel serves a starter of local crab: with yuzu gel, bisque dressing and crab espuma it’s clean, fresh and modern. We sample this with a glass of the first pouring of a small-batch Errazuriz single vineyard Chilean pinot gris 2015. It’s unusual with crab but utterly delicious.
A dish of salmon with spiced lentils, Parma ham and muscovado by Simon McKenzie of the Old Government House Hotel in Guernsey (and formerly of the Isle of Eriska hotel on the west coast), is followed by Mark Jordan’s honey-roasted breast of Gressingham duck with celeriac puree, compressed apple and vanilla jus, served with a glass of Louis Jadot Gevrey Chambertin Clos St Jacques 1er Cru 2008. Next up, a stunning mojito dessert of Albinao chocolate ganache, mint ice-cream, kalamansi foam and Bacardi jelly by Jarek Nowakowski, head pastry chef at the Atlantic. This is paired, again unusually, with a small production Canadian riesling icewine, where the grapes are picked frozen on the vine and the flavour is intense.
All chefs are given a standing ovation at the conclusion of their magnificent efforts (some illustrations below), continues .../
Next day, while the chefs are prepping the evening meal, I head for St Helier to see the covered food and fish markets. A bus journey from our hotel into St Helier would take too long, so a taxi is our preferred mode of transport.
Even though relatively expensive, it is worth it, since the driver acts as tour guide, pointing out the guns clearly visible from the roadside and the entrance to the war tunnels dug into the hard shale hillside by slave workers using gunpowder and handtools, intended as a barracks and ammunition store and hospital, and now a museum detailing Jersey’s occupation, resistance and eventual liberation. Jersey endured a five-year German occupation during the Second World War, and it’s clear the island is unwilling to eradicate this traumatic part of its history.
L’Marchi a Paisson, or Fish Market, is filled with all kinds of fresh fish on ice, and well attended. Its sister, the Central Market, is likewise a Victorian market hall complete with a central fountain and a vast selection of fruit, vegetables, meat and flowers. It does make me wonder why we can’t have something similar in Edinburgh or Glasgow.
After my whirlwind trip I’m whisked off to Faulkner Fisheries at Le Vivier, a wonderfully atmospheric converted wartime German bunker at L’Etacq in St Ouen, founded by Jersey-born Sean Faulkner (below) in 1980. Continues .../
Here I see tiny rooms, once ammunition stores, converted into water tanks in which lobster, spider crabs, oysters and mussels are growing to be supplied to restaurants and shops as well as the fish market in St Helier, and on sale here in season. The station enjoys the third highest tidal wave in the world, with a 10m range on a high tide. Water from the tides is piped directly into the Le Vivier.
Produce can reach the Atlantic Hotel in 10 minutes and it’s here that Fairlie sources his shellfish for his signature dish of home-smoked lobster with warm lime and herb butter. (Continues .../)
The shellfish grow large at Faulkner Fisheries ...
At the organic kitchen of the Durrell Wildlife Park, Andrew Fairlie admires the gourmet salad grown and prepared on-site for the pampered primates ...
A visit to the classic herd farm, at Manor Farm in St Peter’s Village, is also an eye-opener. Darren and Julia Quenault are the island’s only independent dairy farmers milking and making fresh dairy products on site. They make butter, cream, cheese and ice-cream, but also produce beef and pork for Mark Jordan at the Atlantic Hotel and at his Bib Gourmand restaurant The Beach. A farm shop and tea room is busy and I can’t resist buying a local hard cheese and admiring the non-homogenised milk.
I’m blown away by the technical prowess of the contemporary dinner menu, which includes carpaccio of Chart Farm deer with poached Jersey oysters and sea herbs by Robert Thompson from his own restaurant on the Isle of Wight; 40C-poached Loch Duart salmon with smoked eel and maple roasted foie gras by Matthew Peryer of Lewtrenchard Manor, Devon; a poached quail breast with truffle custard and black pudding crumble; Fairlie’s stunning lobster; and Jordan’s “best of the island” tasting of beef with lobster ravioli, served with a glass of Don Maximiano Chilean cabernet sauvignon.
My gastronomic stay ends with a Saturday pop-up lunch by Tom Brown of Outlaw’s at the Capital, London, and Mark Jordan. Here, raw Jersey scallops, local duck, local hake, mussels and clotted cream are presented to breathtaking effect.
The entire experience is thrown into relief by a long drive north-east to the Durrell Wildlife Park, founded by the famous author and naturalist Gerald Durrell in 1959, and now run as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation charitable trust. We’re informed it’s never, ever to be referred to as a zoo, because its aim is to save endangered species from extinction and to train future conservationists. (Continues .../)
We see fruit bats, gorillas, monkeys, a mere fraction of the hundreds of species who live happily here. The park has its own kitchen gardens and polytunnels to grow food for the animals organically and sustainably. Eat Jersey raises funds for the trust. Which is appropriate, given the island’s ambitions to become known as a centre for gastronomic excellence.
* The next Eat Jersey festival will take place in Spring 2018 following the departure from the Atlantic Hotel of Mark Jordan and the arrival of new head chef Will Holland in October 2017. Meanwhile, visit theatlantichotel.com/dining/eat-jersey
* This feature was first published in The Herald Magazine, August 2017.