Isle of Wight food producers
On the Isle of Wight, food and drink tastes just how it used to... full of flavour and memories. Emma Caulton discovers the stories behind three producers growing, catching and making the tastiest produce
Variety is the spice of lifeOriginally from Winchester, Vicky Gregg and her husband spent so much time visiting friends on the Isle of Wight that they decided to move to the Island. Most of us would consider moving to the Isle of Wight an opportunity to enjoy a gentler pace of life. But not Vicky. Instead, introduced by friends to Lady Helen Lowe, Vicky bought Lady Helen's business Island Mustard Preserves, established in 1981 using old family recipes from the Victorian era.Vicky still uses the old recipes and the secrets and tweaks needed to create the tasty mustards. Using only natural ingredients, they're gluten-free as these old recipes didn't use wheat flour as a filler. Vicky has also used them as a basis for developing the range. The original textured mustards are now complemented by new additions - some are smooth, some mild (for example those using local Godshill Cider and Rosemary Vineyard wine) and some are even hotter. Altogether there are 15 mustards as well as relishes, chutneys and pickles.Inevitably Vicky has had to extend her premises at Weaver's Yard, Bembridge, into the property next door. And then, at the beginning of last year, she unintentionally acquired the shop at Duver Marina, St Helens.It's an old-fashioned harbourside shop next to the harbour master's office. Here the yachties come straight off their boats and into the shop for essentials and treats such as hot bacon rolls and Vicky's homemade quiches and cakes.
"I'm a foodie, I'm passionate about food and I love cooking," she says by way of explanation, as though every foodie among us has the energy and desire to run two food-orientated businesses simultaneously. And this is a shop that, depending on the tides, can be open "from 8am until we run out of customers".Her mother was a cook and her father a river bailiff on the River Itchen, so Vicky was raised on homecooking and local produce - such as eels, brown trout and salmon.
"I don't want you go to away thinking I'm superwoman, I do have a great family and a great team of people to help me, including Angie Hammond and the rest of my family."Island Mustard Preserves, Lane End, Bembridge. Tel: 01983 875949Duver Marina, St Helens (Park at nearby National Trust car park or Duver Car Park).
A real food heroWhoever coined the phrase 'food hero' probably did not intend it to be taken literally. But that's what Geoff Blake is - most days battling the sea to bring back sweet local crab and lobster. In summer Geoff can be up at 3.30am to get the early tide. Even in December they can be going out by 6am."You have to make judgements in the dark at 5am on what the barometer is doing and what the weather forecast says. The sea tries to kill you every day. There are no subsidies and there are no second chances. "But when the weather is heavy, the crab fishing is very good and you get a buzz out of it."His ancestors have always been watermen making their living off Ventnor Esplanade: fishing, smuggling, boat trips for holidaymakers... Geoff is not just a waterman, he's an astute businessman, too, responsible for the VentnorHaven Fishery, which opened March last year on the Esplanade - the fruits and the future of a business he's developed since leaving school in 1980.He was fishing long before then - by the age of 13 he'd fitted out his own boat and was catching crab and "bits and pieces" before school.In developing his own business he's shown an entrepreneurial streak. In order to command a price and create a competitive edge, he didn't just catch crab, but cooked and prepared it, too, and sold it direct to consumers and retailers from a shack on the seafront. His timing was perfect - Geoff's ready-prepared crabs found a ready market among what he terms the Island's new 'super pubs' whose menus increasingly featured crab sandwiches and crab salads. Unsurprisingly he and his wife, Cheryl, quickly outgrew the crab shack."That's when our business was born - it needed the pubs becoming family-orientated rather than just a men's drinking place after work."
But two other local factors have helped his business thrive.The first is his Isle of Wight-built catamaran fishing boat, designed and developed by Cheetah Marina.Light enough to launch from the beach (this was prior to the fishery being built), they don't use much fuel and can also withstand what Geoff describes as the "race conditions" off Ventnor - these are exposed waters, deep with strong tides."They're superb sea boats," says Geoff. "Cheetah Marina needed someone to be the first customer to place an order so they could build the mould and we had the balls to do it. Now they're exported all round the world - designed and developed off the back of our working conditions.
"Without their boats we, as fishermen, wouldn't have a hope of making a living. We get inclement weather with 30 to 35 mile winds every day - you need a superb design just to keep you alive. And we burn very little fuel to catch produce. This wasn't a problem five years ago, but it's everything now."The second factor was the opportunity to build new premises - which arose when the Council was regenerating the seafront. There was, however, only enough money to build the sea walls. Keen to support the local fishing industry and help create jobs, the council offered the Blakes land on the shore side for a retail outlet. But with Ventnor facing south, this meant any shop would be open to the sun.The problem of creating a 'cool' retail outlet on the Esplanade seemed insurmountable until Geoff had what he describes as his Eureka moment - why not sling a building on top of the piles needed for the berthing pontoons? It's cooler out on the water, and the shop would face north. Plus the catch could be hauled up straight from the boats.Built to the Blakes design - it has an attractive New England style appearance with veranda and shady overhanging roof. More importantly the fishery has opened up the market in London as the Blakes can now prepare crab all year round on a scale that makes it viable to run in to London. This creates valuable winter trade - important on the Isle of Wight where trade is seasonal.
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With some satisfaction Geoff says: "I sold my shares in Tesco to build this fishery. These big corporate companies will run this world, but while we can we'll fight. And we can offer what they don't - charm and quality."We've created something that will hopefully last a few generations and will be the future of fishing on the south coast of the Isle of Wight."Ventnor Haven Fishery, Esplanade, Ventnor. Tel: 01983 852176.
Something in the waterUnusally for a brewery, Ventnor Brewery is on the high street, pretty much in the centre of town, and looks comfortably old-fashioned and shabby. It gives the impression that this is where real ale is brewed in the traditional way - and it is. It has character by the keg-load. There's even a brewery dog, Fluke, to meet and greet (or growl) as you enter the shop which is a cosy cavern of ales, wines and ciders.There's been a brewery here since 1840, although the Baker family have only been in charge since 2000 - and very successfully in charge, too, winning CAMRA's Island Beer of the Year award for six consecutive years. Xavier Baker is the young head brewer who is creating such a stir. He trained under acclaimed master brewer Fred Martin of King & Barnes Brewery, Horsham, Sussex, and has introduced some innovative ideas to the business.Success is also due to outstanding natural ingredients in particular their very own source of St Boniface natural spring water.In fact, as general manager Irwin Glenfield-Brown explains: "There's no mains water on the site, Ventnor spring water is unique to the brewery and since ales are 85 per cent water, the quality of water has everything to do it."This old brewery uses old techniques and traditional processes to create up to nine cask ales, three bottled ales and one ginger beer. The three bottled ales give an example of the diversity of the bitters. Sand Rock is a smoked ale created at a time when many said a smoked ale couldn't, or shouldn't, be done. Oyster Stout, one of only a few in Britain made with fresh oysters (most use crushed oyster shell or oyster essence) gives a very smooth, rounded stout. And Admiral's Ale is the bottled version of Ventnor Gold, the brewery's top draught beer."Oz Clarke makes a beeline for us when we're at the NEC," says Irwin, "He loves our beers and likes what we do..."Ventnor Brewery, High Street, Ventnor. Tel: 01983 836161.