It was in June 2006 that I first visited Bournemouth. It’s not difficult to remember the date because it was also the first year in which, thanks to the Catalan Dragons, I had visited France.
In fact, that trip to Perpignan (and Barcelona) had been just a few weeks before. And after experiencing the wonderful food out there, one of the things I’d been enormously looking forward to had been trying food in a seaside resort in England.
Expecting much, I was severely disappointed. Not only was nothing we ate even close to being in the same class as what’d we’d eaten on that holiday, it was pricier.
In the interests of strict accuracy, I should say that I had actually been to Bournemouth before. But that was on a family holiday – and I have no memories of food at all, apart from that we were self catering, which in my mother’s case, meant an awful lot of an awful lot of mornings were spent dragging the rest of us around supermarkets to buy food.
The only thing I really remember about that holiday was meeting Tom O’Connor in a TV shop.
But subsequent trips to Bournemouth since 2006 have seen gradual improvements in the fodder I’ve been able to get my gnashers into.
And in many ways, this year’s food was, in general, possibly the simplest as well as the best.
When you’re at the seaside, you really have to have fish and chips. At least once. We did it twice – on our first night and on third.
In both cases, it was at the hotel – once in the restaurant and once in the bar.
On both occasions, the fish was excellent and the batter top notch – crispy and light as a feather; an utter joy to eat.
On the first, the chips were a hand-cut tower (apparently they like them like this in the House of Commons too) and there was a very minty streak of pea purée, plus a generous dollop of good tartare sauce.
As a bar dish (slightly cheaper) the chips were not so obviously hand cut – although they were served in one of those miniature frying baskets that are so popular these days and are rather fun. It came with the same minted pea purée.
Supposed fish ‘n’ chip specialist Harry Ramsden’s, which is just on the other side of the pier, could learn a thing or two. On the basis of my visit there, the last time that I was in town, two years ago, the hotel was not only far better quality, but also a fairer price too.
The Highcliffe is one of the very few hotels I’ve stayed in where the food is worth eating – and breakfast is not excluded from that equation. Okay, there might not have quite been the egg station of Brighton’s Metropole, but there was a cook on duty making fresh fried eggs.
And unlike some places I could mention, nothing that you served yourself from under the heaters was crozzled to death from having sat there for hours before service even started.
Efforts to have 'Healthy' lunches were mostly dashed by eating on the go – and the best lunch of the week came a rather a surprise.
It could hardly have been more simple: with only minutes to spare before going back into the conference hall to report, after my jaunt to see the Oceanarium’s otters, I grabbed a Cornish pasty from one of the conference centre snack outlets.
Now, I don’t know if it really was Cornish – and therefore fulfilled the EU rules on protected origin status – but my expectations were low. In the event, instead of taking just the few bites I had imagined simply to sustain me, I scoffed the lot – and was disappointed the following day to find they’d all gone before I got there.
But as for dinners, the treat of the week came on Monday night.
Slumped in the hotel lounge (that’s a posh word for a bar) after a long day, we mused on where to eat.
A couple of similarly working trips to Bournemouth in the past, I’d lunched at an eatery on the sea front. I couldn’t remember its name, but I did remember that I’d had plaice and that it had been very, very good.
Indeed, it was probably my first decent culinary experience in the town.
The internet had, for once, provided me with nothing that I was sure was what I remembered, but in the hope that whatever it was was still there, I suggested we wander down.
In the event, it was there. WestBeach is its name.
We secured a table without a reservation – and given the number of people who came in while we dined, that was lucky.
WestBeach is a slightly unconventional cross between a restaurant and a bar. For instance, some people were only coming in to sit at a booked table for a drink, and there were TVs showing that night’s football (sound off, though).
The décor is all blond woods and rushes, giving it a hint of the sea-washed, which is very relaxing.
The food is excellent.
I started with rollmops: according to the menu, an appetiser, but my pair of rollmops were two fillets from a pretty substantial herring. It was delicious – and, at £3, damned good value for money.
And then came my culinary treat of the week: a whole – well, cracked – Lymington crab.
It arrived in a beautiful display; on a bed of ice, with a lime mayo that complimented the sweetness of the flaky meat quite gloriously.
There was a vast – ridiculously so – bowl of fries and another of salad.
Even after being pre-cracked, it still took some, err, cracking. But it was so, so worth the effort. Super taste and texture.
And to finish, I enjoyed three balls of Purbeck ice cream – this is, after all, the Purbeck coast.
Vanilla, chocolate and raspberry – all very, very good. But the raspberry was to die for. I wish I'd just order that.
Now, take the fries and salad out of the equation, and you have perhaps the closest I've come to a meal that is comparable in size and construction to what I so loved in Barcelona.
I am, indeed, specifically thinking of the wonderful Els Barrils, a Galcian fish restaurant, not far from Gaudí's crazy Sagrada Família, where I ate my first lobster, sandwiched between a course of padron peppers and one of sublime orange and chocolate ice cream.
And, most to the point, that is a restaurant where I have never felt overwhelmed by the amount of food served to me; where I could roundly polish off all three courses; a restaurant where the quality of the oh-so-simple food was such that I still dream about it.
Is that enough of a compliment to pay to WestBeach? Well, I do mean it.
The Other Half, having paid perhaps a greater amount of attention to Raymond Blanc's Very Hungry Frenchman series than I had, spotted a wine he'd recommended on the menu; a 2010 pinot gris reserve by Joseph Cattin of Alsace. And that was delightful too.
Nothing for the rest of the week came close.
But my faith in Bournemouth food – and in south coast English seaside food – was revived.
If you're in that town any time – try it. No. it isn't the cheapest, but when I compare it to my other culinary experiences in Bournemouth, it's no more expensive (that whole crab was under £20) and it was so, so much better.