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Gourmet goldmine on a treasured island; Famed more for its coastline and sandy beaches, the Isle of Wight is fast gaining a reputation for providing top-notch food.

Byline: CHRIS HIGHAM

Forty-eight hours is far too short a time to find out why an island better known for sandy beaches has a growing reputation for gourmet foods.

But, armed with the new Wight Taste Trail booklet, it was sufficient to have a fair crack at tasting the best of the Isle of Wight's culinary treats and work out that the sunny climate and long, warm growing season has a lot to do with it.

Landing early at Fishbourne after a 45-minute cross-Solent crossing on the Wightlink ferry from Portsmouth, the sun was already shining.

We plotted the route for our first day's food tasting with the help of the 44-page illustrated booklet, available free from Wightlink, and were spoilt for choice because there are more than 50 farm shops, delis, restaurants, pubs and cafes where local food is served up.

First port of call was the Isle of Wight farmers' market, held every Friday in Newport, right next to the Minster.

The pedestrianised St Thomas' Square is an attractive setting for the market and a visit to the striking Victorian church is not to be missed either.

We would have lingered longer but the market was calling. Here we found Tomato Stall's eye-catching crop of red, yellow and orange tomatoes, honey from beekeeper Mary Case - who doubles as Isle of Wight High Sheriff - and a diet-busting array of artisan bread, cakes and pastries made by the Island Bakers, a husband-and-wife team who met while working as chefs at Buckingham Palace.

Impossible to resist, we stocked up on supplies from all three and indulged in a mid-morning feast of what is known as bostock.

Helen Fahy, of Island Bakers, explained that this is buttery brioche soaked with orange and brandy syrup and topped with almonds and frangipane. She also told us their hand-made bread - sourdough, focaccia and multi-grain varieties - is available at the island's top restaurants, The Little Gloster among them.

Driving north from Newport, we plumped for a scenic route through Parkhurst Forest for the chance to see the island's red squirrels.

Beyond the woodland, the road led to the seaside village of Gurnard and a touch of Scandinavia. The Danish origins of Little Gloster chef and owner Ben Cooke are evident in the modern British food served in a big glass-encased dining room with lovely sea views.

When we arrived, the restaurant was already heaving but we secured a table and not only tried the Island Bakers' delicious bread but also Bembridge crab, a delicacy that's on the menu throught the year.

From Gurnard, the intrepid can walk off lunch by taking the coastal path to Thorness one way or Cowes the other.

We stretched our legs but decided to forgo walking in favour of a leisurely drive to our hotel.

Driving past Fishbourne and the ferry terminal we had left only hours before, we stopped at Quarr Abbey, where head gardener Matt Noyce and a community of Benedictine monks grow vegetables to sell in their farm shop and serve in the cafe and tea garden.

Food may have been the reason for our visit but the rose-coloured abbey is unmissable - its network of arches and vaults are reminiscent of the artist Escher's woodcuts and every bit as geometrically complex.

The building is the finest work of French architect Dom Paul Bellot, a member of the Benedictine order and a pioneer of 20th century expressionism.

Our weekend base was the seaside village of Seaview, a favourite haunt for sailing enthusiasts.

At its heart is the Seaview Hotel and Restaurant, an island institution for almost 30 years. Here, the food served is largely local and mostly grown on the hotel's own farm near Carisbrooke.

The menu looked tempting with Newclose Farm venison, beef, pork and poultry to choose from - and the food arriving on the packed tables surrounding us was equally so.

Our succulent, simply cooked venison proved a good choice.

Next day, we set off for nearby Bembridge, a harbourside village famous for crab and lobster.

We arrived mid-morning to find The Best Dressed Crab In Town, a family business on a floating barge in Fisherman's Wharf, where those in the know go early for fresh seafood. We had been warned they sell out fast and were there to order crab to take home the following morning.

After a walk along the beach, we dined at Priory Bay Hotel, which is on a 70-acre private estate with its own beach between Bembridge and Seaview.

This is where island-born chef Oliver Stephens has returned after years cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants including London's Roussillon and Noma in Copenhagen.

He brought with him a passion for foraging and leads his kitchen team on a daily treasure hunt through gardens and woodland on to the beach.

The highlight of our meal was 70-day old Kemphill Farm beef, served rare with a charred exterior.

Next day at Farmer Jack's Farm Shop in Arreton, we stocked up on owner Ben Brown's island fayre before headed back to the ferry laden with gourmet goodies.

Travel info

Chris Higham travelled to the Isle of Wight with Wightlink (0871 376 0013 www.wightlink.co.uk) on its car ferry between Portsmouth and Fishbourne and stayed at the Seaview Hotel and Restaurant, one of eight new Taste Trail Break options featured by Wightlink in the Wight Taste Trail, available free by calling 0871 376 1000 or online at www.wightlink.co.uk/wighttastetrail

Four-night breaks at Seaview Hotel start from PS278 per person (based on two sharing, PS473 per person for seven nights) including&B and return car ferry crossings from Portsmouth or Lymington.

"We indulged in a mid-morning feast"

CAPTION(S):

FRESHBAKED goods on a market stall

ROOMS The Seaview Hotel in Seaview

SCENIC The Isle of Wight's Alum Bay
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 21, 2013
Words:1010
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