Think of Jersey and what immediately springs to mind is sunshine, cows, potatoes and – I’m just going to get it out of the way – Bergerac.
While John Nettles is no longer zipping along the highways and byways of the island, the sunshine and the tatties are still going strong. Jersey may well sell itself as the warmest place in Britain and, statistically, they’re not wrong. But it’s not the only thing they have on offer.
The Jersey Food Festival aims to get us to connect with our local food producers – even if, for us, “local” means across the English Channel.
Kicking off the week with a food fair in front of the Radisson Blu at the harbour in St Helier, it’s plain to see that not all the produce had far to come. And while the oysters on offer haven’t exactly been landed in front of us, their beds are only a mile or so away. The fair offers everything from les merveilles – an island speciality that’s like a twisted doughnut, to fudge made with the richest possible Jersey cream. It was also my first introduction to black butter. I’m normally game to try most things, but I hesitated before tasting this. It looks exactly as you would think – like black, bitter, burned butter. But when you taste it – wow. It’s a traditional farmhouse delicacy made from apples, cider, sugar, liquorice and cinnamon. It’s normally used like a jam – but those of an adventurous bent serve it with cheese or use it in sauces.
In the evening, we went for dinner at The Boat House in St Aubin. Watching the sun set over the harbour, we could see right along to St Helier and – in a setting so beautiful – expectations were high from the off. The chef, David Cameron, is well known in Jersey for using the best of local produce. Salt and pepper squid with a beautifully spicy mayonnaise and battered cod with chips and crushed peas shouldn’t really have left any room – but no one would have been able to resist the beautiful Jersey cheeses or local ice-creams.
The next day we explored the food history of Jersey – in the shape of the ormer, a kind of sea snail. Local to Jersey waters, ormers used to be eaten regularly by locals. Similar to an abalone, they were generally cooked in stews. However, they grew so popular that overharvesting very nearly led to their complete extinction. They are now strictly regulated – so much so that the world’s first ever underwater arrest took place with the local constabulary donning their flippers to catch a felon in the act of illegally diving for ormers.
What is definitely more accessible is the Jersey oyster. Waterproof footwear is a must for a guided walk in the Royal Bay of Grouville which will educate you on the history of oyster farming on the island and the intricacies of how science can tell a Jersey oyster apart from a Pacific oyster. We walked through the oyster beds and watched as the baskets – full of oysters at different stages of maturity – were turned. The sun shone and the water sparkled, and it looked like quite a nice job. But, as we were reminded, this work is tide dependant, and often the oyster workers are out on the beds in the middle of the night. Not quite so idyllic. The guided walk ends in the best possible way – with a huge plate of oysters and a glass of beautifully chilled white wine at the Seymour Inn.
The Seymour is one of the many places to eat beside the sea. There are, apparently, another 40 eateries dotted around the coastline, ranging from beach huts to modern cafes. All have local produce in common – plus views.
Even when you go inland, the scenery is still quite something. Samares Manor is world famous for its herb garden. Laid out in a detailed and formal way – there’s a viewing platform to let you fully appreciate it – there are more than 100 different herbs, used for cooking, cosmetic and medicinal purposes. Don’t worry if you feel a little overawed by the varieties on offer – there are talks each weekday which not only take you through their various uses in cooking, but also how you can grow them yourself at home. Herbs are also for sale at the manor’s nursery.
The one drawback of the food festival is when you are packing to go home. You’ll have to start ditching clothes in order to make room in your case for the herbs, potatoes, fudge, cheese, butter, oysters, cider, merveilles and black butter. Lots and lots of black butter.
The Jersey Food Festival runs from 18-25 May. See www.jersey.com; fly directly to Jersey from Edinburgh and Glasgow with www.flybe.com from £80.