review by Jeanette Farrell
Leaving the bustle of a busy Waterloo station on Wednesday morning, it’s hard to imagine the bucolic splendour that awaits just a brief train ride away. We board, switch our laptops on with best intentions of finishing work en route only to be tempted away by the view as urban chaos turns to countryside in the blink of an eye.
Stepping off the train at Christchurch in Dorset, we are greeted by an altogether different pace of life. A lilting-voiced taxi driver delivers us to the Kings Arms at the centre of the well-heeled town, nestled amongst cafés and boutiques for a day traipsing from farm to seashore to table.
We’re greeted by head chef Alex Aitken and an introduction to his ’15 Mile Menu’. The menu, he tells us, is sourced as locally as possible, focussing on the best produce from local suppliers and so we hop into cars to be whisked off to sample some of Dorset’s finest offerings. At Sopley Farm we eat plump raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries; we learn about the life cycle of the noble asparagus and the hardy courgette. We pick flowers to tempura later in the afternoon and we succumb to the leisurely pace of plant and grow and wait and pick. We swoon at our sun-tanned-beach-blond guide and note that this is the life for us. And we’re off again, this time to the harbour to collect the day’s catch of lobster, bass and bream. The fish’s silvery skin gleams in the occasional summer sunshine. Alex poses for photos and we admire the prowess of the fishermen, out on the water since dawn.
Back at the hotel, or rather a restaurant with rooms, Alex sets up shop in the function room complete with dining table to seat all of us hungry guests. Bristling with an ego cloaked in the humble-beginnings-story of many well-known chefs, Alex takes us through tales of his first restaurant, Poussin (he has personalised registration plates on his car), through TV appearances, celebrity guests and fans and full circle to his position of Chef Patron at the Kings Arms.
It’s a wonderful afternoon of delicious food. Ceviche made from freshly caught bass is made by Alex at the table and a salad of produce from Sopley Farm with creamy, tart goat’s cheese helps to sate our appetite. Whole bream cooked with thyme and lemon, crab croquettes (a Janet Street Porter favourite, we’re told), those picked-earlier-courgette-flowers stuffed with salmon mousse, juicy lamb and mutton chops and, last but not least, fillets of hake cooked with brown crab meat and Dijon mustard. Although the last dish almost toppled us over into sleep, there was just about room for some ’15 Mile Cocktails’ made with local spirits and botanicals and after much arm twisting – some Dorset sparkling wine, English Oak delivered with aplomb by winemaker Andrew Pharoah.
It is such a special thing to be able to eat locally sourced produce, knowing that the community is supporting traditional suppliers and fishermen without breaking the bank in the process. The ’15 Mile Menu’ represents good value for money and an integrity that’s becoming increasingly important with diners. The slow food movement, an awareness of knowing where our food comes from before it arrives on our plate, makes such ventures possible – and long may it continue.
On an epically beautiful coastline, in a re-imagined boarding house I drifted off to bed, to sleep with windows open facing the picturesque ruins of Christchurch Castle, full, nourished and content.
The Kings Arms, Christchurch review by Jeanette Farrell