While England is itself part of an island nation, there are numerous smaller islands around the coasts of the British Isles and one of the most notable is the Isle of Wight.
This is among the most immediately recognisable parts of England. It is separated from the mainland by the stretch of sea known as the Solent, and is a distinctively shaped island off the south coast that is roughly 20 miles across. Wight is a popular tourist destination and features a remarkable range of landscape and scenery, ranging from the chalk ridges that make up the backbone of the island to the oak forest of the north. There are also some pleasant river landscapes created by the rivers Yar and Medina that run through the island.
Wight has long been an important settlement in English history. There is plenty of evidence of settler activity on the island during the Early Bronze Age, and it later formed an important part of the Roman territory of Britain when the Emperor Vespasian occupied it in 43 AD. Following the departure of the Romans, the island became part of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex before being occupied by the Danes. It also earned a place in the history books as the site of the imprisonment of King Charles I at the end of the English Civil Wars, and was later the site of a holiday residence of Queen Victoria.
The English climate, while temperate, is often harsh and damp, but the Isle of Wight boasts a mild climate, which has helped it to attract visitors from around the UK. Newport, at the head of the estuary of the Medina, is the capital of the island, but it is arguably the port of Cowes that has a greater claim to fame as it is the island’s main sea faring town and a globally renowned yachting centre.
Wight features many holiday resorts, including the towns of Freshwater, Yarmouth, Ryde, Sandown-Shanklin and Ventnor, and the local economy has diversified over the last hundred years to include aerospace, marine engineering, arable crop farming and various forms of light industry. And, as you might expect, the island’s rich maritime history and it’s geographical separation from the mainland has led to the development of a distinctive culinary tradition.
Not surprisingly, sea food has played an important part in the cuisine of the Isle of Wight for centuries, but the crab pasty is a tasty dish with a more recent backstory. It was created by a crab fisherman called Jim Wheeler who came up with the idea as a way of incorporating one of the island’s most famous foods into a light and easily transportable picnic meal. The pasty is formed from the best Wight crab meat that is contained inside a light and flaky puff pastry with the result being a delicious and filling lunch food that is perfect for a day at the beach or exploring the countryside.
Black garlic is one of the island’s most famous food exports. It is produced through the method of cooking garlic bulbs for prolonged periods at low temperatures, which leads to a jet black, sweet and syrupy ingredient with hints of tamarind and balsamic vinegar. Black garlic is often served as a savoury accompaniment but is versatile enough to be part of an ice cream sundae. Black garlic ice cream layered together with chocolate brownie and chocolate sauce is a distinctive but memorable dessert that is popular on the island and with tourists.
Gallybagger cheese souffle
Twice-baked cheese souffle is a delicacy highly regarded by many food connoisseurs and the Isle of Wight version is a particularly tasty take on the twice baked souffle, made with the local cheese. Gallybagger is a cheese that is quite similar to cheddar and is aged for up to five months on wooden shelves, which helps to create the rind and the distinctive flavour of the cheese. The Royal Hotel at Ventnor is particularly well known for serving delicious Gallybagger souffles with a white onion puree, which should be high on anyone’s list of local delicacies.
Isle of Wight tomatoes
In contrast to most of the rest of England, the Isle of Wight enjoys plenty of sunlight and this makes it the perfect climate in which to grow tomatoes. In fact, tomatoes from the island have a reputation for their rich flavour and the Arreton Valley is known for its many greenhouses featuring row after row with hundreds of tomato plants laden with their crop. You can find many varieties of tomato on Wight, along with some popular dishes, such as yellow gazpacho, which is served with coriander oil.
Another local tradition is beekeeping and much of the honey made on the island is produced on a small scale not very far removed from the methods of the original bee-keeping monks who lived in the island’s monasteries. Honeycomb is a well known and classic seaside treat, but the dessert makers of Wight have transformed it into an even more indulgent food in the form of honeycomb doughnuts. These are extremely light in texture and feature crunchy local honeycomb as well as a salted honeycomb cream filling, which goes down very well with tourists and locals alike.
The island offers ideal growing conditions for a number of crops, including asparagus, and Wight produces some of the first asparagus to appear in the UK each year, much of it grown in the Arreton Valley. Asparagus is popular throughout the island, thanks to its flavour and low calorie count, and it forms part of the traditional local breakfast, along with toasted local bread and a poached egg. You will find many cafes and restaurants serving asparagus across the island and genuine Wight asparagus should definitely be high on your list of foods to sample.
Beef and Ale Pie
The beef and ale pie is a classic pub dish enjoyed throughout England, and Wight is no exception, with numerous contenders for the crown of the best beef and ale pie on the islands. One of the most renowned local examples is the Taverners Pub in Godshill which is renowned for its pies. They are made using flaky suet pastry and tender local shin of beef that is first braised in house beer and then served up with homemade chips, making the perfect comfort dish.
The Isle of White has long been known as a major producer of new potatoes, as the warm dry climate allows an earlier start to the growing and harvesting seasons than on the mainland. New potatoes from Wight make an ideal accompaniment to many dishes, either hot or cold, but they tasty enough to be served simply, with a little mint and butter.
The island has long been the location for a thriving trade in rock samphire, and during the 19th century, rock samphire was shipped in bulk, contained in casks of seawater from Wight to London, around the end of May. Not to be confused with the more commonly available Marsh Samphire, the Rock Samphire is a coastal grass that provides a hot and spicy flavour, making it an ideal partner for seafood dishes.