Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Food, glorious food. Or not

Knights and ketchup
It was the best of England; it was the worst of England. It was a reminder of why we should take more breaks in the UK – and a reminder of why we don’t.

With The Other Half in recuperative mode, and both of us having ditched the tobacco, we decided, at short notice, to grab a long weekend away from London – to somewhere where we might stand a chance of breathing clean air.

It perhaps says something about pollution in the Metropolis that we chose a spot not far from a nuclear power station.

We had picked Rye on the basis of a Saturday morning conversation over coffee, which had started with me musing: “Where was it that the BBC filmed the Map and Lucia that they showed last Christmas?”

Google has its purposes. The location for filming turned out to be Rye, where Map and Lucia author EF Benson had lived for some time and even been the mayor.

Not only that, but the Tilling of those stories is Rye, with Mallards being Lamb House, where Benson himself had lived, and which had housed the American author Henry James before him.

So, literary credentials, plenty of opportunities for walks, the sea close at hand – what was not to like?

Well, one of those downsides of UK holidays is rather obviously the weather. In this case, our four full days in Rye saw two of soaring temperatures and azure skies, with the following two being almost entirely the opposite.

But on a break like this, that wasn’t too bad and more of what we did in later posts.

On our first full day, the Friday, we took a walk down one side of the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, ambling through sheep-dotted salt-marsh pastures all the way to Rye Harbour itself.

There, we took tea and magnificent homemade blackcurrant cake, still warm from the oven, in the delightful Avocet Gallery and Tea Room – but more of art in the area another time too.

Refreshed, we set off for Winchelsea Beach, aiming to be there for lunch. There are two routes: one, along what passes for the front, while the other appeared to pass through the reserve, alongside one of the bodies of water within it.

I say “appeared”, because we were relying on Google maps and were having to do a certain amount of guess work given the lack of information on footpaths.

We should have taken the lessons of Google maps in Bavaria in March, but hadn’t. So instead of proper maps, we were stuck with the computerised version again.

The Other Half plumped for the latter route, thinking that it would offer us more to see.

In the event, we discovered that the reserve is, in effect, split across the middle by an area of private land, which prevents you getting near any of those bodies of water.

By the time we realised this, it was too late to turn back. We were walking due west, with the sun pouring down on us straight from the south, with nothing to provide any shade.

Unaccustomed to British seaside stays in the summer as we are (Brighton or Bournemouth in June or February for work does not count), I had forgotten any sun screen.

We were dressed sensibly enough for walking, but by the end of the trip, one side of me was pretty much beetroot red.

However, although we were prevented from seeing the sea by a sizable ridge – a secondary part of the local sea defences – there was plenty more to catch the eye.

Is beans on toast really so difficult?
This included masses of common blue damselflies or azure damselflies, darting just above the gravel path, their vivid, electric colour

There were also brown hawker dragonflies – flitting far higher up, often very near you, and vast, at 7cm or just over.

Flowers abounded in the shingle and the scrub, bringing flashes of unexpected colour to catch the eye.

A battered boat, sitting next to a large tree, provided one wonderful photographic opportunity.

We saw hardly anyone and the few who did pass us exchanged greetings.

When we eventually reached the beach area, with it’s caravan parks, we were in need of lunch.

Those caravan parks – indeed, the beach – might suggest facilities. A simple eatery or two, perhaps. But that’s where the ‘worst-of’ stuff kicks in.

We ate a Mr Whippy simply to keep us going as we continued the hunt. And it was some time before we came across a single café at the far western end of one camp site.

By that stage, we would have been prepared to eat almost anything.

Now in such an environment, I do not remotely expect anything fancy. I don’t want haute cuisine. Pies and chips and the like are eminently acceptable.

But this is not an excuse for such dishes to be poor. They are not inherently poor food, but they need cooking properly, while decent ingredients are as important as elsewhere.

Frozen chips and cheapest-possible frozen scampi will not produce a feast. And nothing will ever be helped by a pile of grey-green tinned peas that are barely even warm.

After that, we trudged back eastwards to get a bus. When we eventually caught one, less than two miles from Rye itself, it cost £2.50 for a single fare. That’s £2.50 each, remember. For a single fare on a short journey. Perhaps London’s constantly-rising bus prices are not quite so bad after all.

In that, then, you have another reason that we head across the Channel for breaks: public transport. The Other Half can drive, but I never have. We don’t have a car. Neither of us has a licence.

Hake with popadom
In the UK, this means that you will: a) get shafted by the cost of public transport; b) discover that public transport is very limited in being able to deliver you to more remote rural spots.

The latter has been experienced on previous UK holidays, on Skye and in the Lake District, where we had to rely, respectively, on local taxies and the generosity of the co-owner of a B&B in order that we could do any decent walks.

That evening, after a rest at our B&B, we headed to The Ambrette, an up-market restaurant in the old town that came highly recommended.

It serves a fusion of local produce with Indian spicing. The menu was mouth-watering.

Unfortunately, what we were served was rather less so.

The spicing was far from subtle and dishes seemed essentially to be slightly deconstructed and poshly-plated curries.

For my starter, part of my pigeon breast was raw and the whole was pretty much covered in a rather sludgy, brown sauce, which was miles for being the hoped-for fragrant.

An afternoon scone  with Earl Grey in Rye – not bad
For a main, I had opted for the fish of the day. It turned out to be hake – and came covered in something that bore little obvious difference to whatever had smothered the pigeon, and a piece of popadom that had lost its crispness by being in contact with the sauce.

We decided to forego a dessert, although while we waited for the bill, we were each given a small glass of guava granita with vanilla sugar, which was light and refreshing and a delight, and left one regretting that that had not been a case with the rest of the food.

At this juncture, I want to mention the mystery of the toast.

Why, at breakfast in our B&B, did the menu say ‘beans on toast’ or ‘egg on toast’ when there was absolutely no ‘on’ to be had for love nor money?

To be fair, the tactic of giving you unbuttered toast alongside your beans or eggs for breckie had hit me in London, where my round-the-corner-from-work caff suddenly started doing this a couple of months ago, and where I now have to stress when ordering that, by ‘on’, I mean ‘on’.

And I’ve since heard that I am not the only one to have experienced this, which suggests it’s some sort of utterly stupid emerging trend. Well stop it. Just stop it. Its stupid and annoying.

On Saturday, the same lunch issues persisted. We found Tambika, a small café that also sells fossils, for lunch. The Other Half had a vast bowl of piping hot leek and potato soup, while I had two large fishcakes and a salad.

To be fair, it was as good as lunches got, although the fishcakes were a bit sloppy, while the accompanying salad was bland to the point of lacking any discernible flavour.

Marino's fish and chips. Overrated
That evening, with hope in our hearts, we headed to Marino’s, which people universally acclaim as the best chippy in town.

If it is, then it doesn’t say much at all for the others.

There had been vast queues outside the take-away part on the Friday evening and we timed it well to get seats inside just 24 hours later.

Both of us ordered medium cod and chips, with mushy peas. And waited expectantly.

The mass of chips were clearly not hand cut. They were not the worst I’ve tasted, but they were a very long way from being the best. The batter on the fish was okay, but the fish inside it was dry. It didn’t flake properly and had the taste that you get from fish that has been frozen.

Nothing had been fried in proper fat. And by that, I mean dripping.

Fish and chips is not rocket science. But it requires decent ingredients and proper cooking. In dripping. Then it’s a joy – which is why I so fondly remember fish and chips eaten in Hull years ago and even in Scarborough in 2011.

On Sunday, after a very pleasant morning’s walk, we found ourselves in the same old predicament.

This time, we ended up at the Café on the Quay. Plus ça change. It’s chips with everything, as Arnold Wesker might have put it. Or everything with chips.

A cheese omelette this time – plastic, flavourless cheese, that is, and the usual British heavily-set egg concoction. With piles more mediocre frozen chips. And another insipid salad that a rabbit would turn its nose up at.

I was longing to go back to Rye Harbour, just for the Avocet. They don’t do cooked meals, but the mere suggestion of the simple crab salad mentioned on the menu was a serious lure for taste buds that were dying.

For goodness sake – Cromer is a mere four miles from Rye, and Cromer crab is famous, yet I saw it on offer nowhere other than the Avocet.

On Sunday evening, we struggled to find anywhere that had space, as the town seemed inexplicably full to its Elizabethan rafters.

Cod at the Mermaid. But those are not proper 'mushy' peas
At this point, we need to briefly nip back to Thursday evening, a few hours after we had arrived. Then, we had dined in the bar of the centuries-old Mermaid Hotel.

We’d had fish and chips: the beer-battered fish was to prove to be the best we had. The chips were far from sensational, but were also probably the best we were to have.

On Sunday then, we eventually wound up in the same place and, having scanned the bar menu, both opted for the local lamb.

When it arrived, it turned out to be a salad, with slices of rare meat atop a mound of pickled celeriac and carrot, and the freshest, crispest salad leaves you could imagine, with a dressing that was light but, at the same time, packed a flavour punch.

Finally, something wonderful
It was a thing of utter joy in every single way.

Afterwards, we booked at the hotel’s restaurant for our final evening – a meal that proved to offer local scallops for the first time, cooked superbly and served with equally-perfectly cooked broccoli and potato dice, followed by shoulder of lamb and veg.

Were that not enough to revive desperate taste buds, we finished with an utterly divine dessert of elderflower and champagne jelly, a stunning raspberry coulis, chocolate soil (here it worked) a small scoop of vanilla ice cream and a wafer-light sablé biscuit.

It had been a difficult menu to choose from, and I was thrilled to see dishes that included sorrel and nettles.

A divine dessert
So the trip ended with really good food. But it would be remiss of me not to mention our last lunch.

Monday was a rainy day on the south coast. As such, we caught a train and headed two stops west to Hastings.

After an initially disappointing start – including but not limited to walking through the hideous Priory Meadow shopping centre, with its blander-than-bland architecture that wouldn’t offend Prince Charles (whose mother opened it in 1997) and which was built over the Central Cricket Ground that had opened in 1864 and remained there until the 1989; and also took in the classic British tactic of putting a bloody big dual carriageway between along the promenade – we found our way to something with character and real interest in the old town.

Just embarrassing
But come lunch time, we were struggling once more. And, yet again, we ended up having to give in to something and chips.

On ordering scampi and chips, this is what was placed in front of me. Few words are needed. No peas; no salad; not even a solitary leaf of garnish.

Germany is not rated as having a great cuisine, but in March, in Bavaria, there was not a single day when we struggled to find cheap, simple and tasty food to sustain our walks.

There were many visitors in Rye last week who hailed from Germany, France, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

I shudder to think what impressions they take away with them of our food.

And that picture should provide ample illustration of one of the major reasons why we do not take more holidays on this side of the Channel.

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