A growing reputation for gourmet foods

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The yacht being towed to Gosport. Credit: GAFIRS

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The Isle of Wight, an island better known for sandy beaches, has a growing reputation for gourmet foods - producing Britain’s most prolific crop of tomatoes, world-beating cheese, succulent free-range meat, top notch shellfish and dairy ice cream that’s second to none.

So, armed with the new Wight Taste Trail booklet, I had a crack at tasting the best of the island’s culinary treats and worked out that the sunny climate and long, warm growing season has a lot to do with it.

First port of call was the Isle of Wight Farmers’ Market, held every Friday in Newport, right next to stately Newport 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.

This reveals Royal connections with Queen Victoria and King Charles I, whose daughter Elizabeth died of a broken heart after his execution and is buried there.

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 heritage vegetables to sell in their farm shop and serve in its café with a sunny tea garden.

Food may have been the reason for our visit, but the rose-coloured abbey is unmissable – its network of arches and vaults 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, while the 200-acre abbey grounds are a treat for anyone with green fingers.

Next day we set off for nearby Bembridge, a harbour-side 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 local dressed crab or lobster.

Here we heard that we could eat fresh fish on the beach at Bembridge Ledge, a vast rocky limestone ledge rich in rare marine flora and fauna.

This provided the perfect incentive for a long beach walk from the harbour to this important Site of Special Scientific Interest - with the promise of herons, curlews and little egrets to spot and rock pools full of rare seaweeds to explore.

The day’s final destination was Priory Bay Hotel 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 several Michelin-starred restaurants.

The highlight of our meal at his restaurant was 70-day old Kemphill Farm Beef served rare with a charred exterior.

Next day we had one stop to make before returning home. We cruised over high Arreton Downs to the fertile valley below and Farmer Jack’s Farm Shop in Arreton Old Village.

Stocking up on more island treats, we bought owner Ben Brown’s local strawberries, intriguing ‘Wild Island’ spicy fig and lemongrass dips made with island rapeseed oil and award-winning hand-raised pork pies.

Then we headed back to the ferry while the sun still shone.

Chris Higham travelled to the Isle of Wight with Wightlink (0871 376 0013 or wightlink.co.uk) on its car ferry between Portsmouth and Fishbourne and stayed at the Seaview Hotel & Restaurant.

It’s one of eight new Taste Trail Break options featured by Wightlink in the Wight Taste Trail, available free. Two-night breaks at Seaview Hotel start from £153 per person, including B&B accommodation and return car ferry crossings from Portsmouth or Lymington.