Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Forge




A corrugated shack propped against the seawall, the oysters sheltered by a makeshift awning, scruffy chalk board menus and a scattering of local ales, books on the history of the oyster, salt 'n vinegar and the odd tabasco.

Add some lazy deckchairs scattered across the shingle, and bar stools on the promenade with the seawall as a makeshift table, starlings and gulls swooping in for a catch of leftovers. Trays of oysters out in full view.

For under £10 you can enjoy a half lobster and chips. A good lobster too - fresh and unpretentious served up in the same way as the cod and chips, in a fold up disposable box.  There's scampi, bacon rolls, mini bottles of wine and Whitstable ales.

I lie back on the deckchairs, hands wrapped round a steaming coffee and watch the candyfloss world of seaside pass me by; sailboats and ice-cream vans, squawking gulls and kids with ruddy windswept faces.
Just walk along the promenade and you can't miss it,  its just next to the Sailing Club. You won't be disappointed. You'll probably think you've stumbled on a hidden treasure and promise to tell all your friends about it.  Your experience of the Forge is, however, weather dependant. Best not daydream too long - the clouds roll on in and when the skies open, there's nowhere to hide.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Shangri-La, Whitstable


There’s several Indian restaurants in Whitstable but only one Thai, the Shangri-La,  its inconspicuous jade facade facing out onto Oxford Street. It’s easy to miss, lost amongst the tight businesses that squeeze together.

But like most venues in Whitstable it stretches back, and there’s an outside  courtyard. An oasis of calm with its hanging lanterns, smiling Buddahs, and water features. Sitting outside is always a plus for me, as long as it’s not raining.

The tables are laid with linen covers and tea lights. Service is polite, respectful - the waitresses bow with their hands  in a prayer position to greet customers and to say goodbye.

Thai food is aromatic, and known for its blend of three to four taste senses in each dish or the overall meal: sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. I find it fresh, exotic, colourful and light. There’s a beautiful  blend of chilli, coconut, coriander, mangoes, basil, anise and lime served with tender fishes and meat.
The Shangri-La serves simple starters, of  tiger prawns and spring rolls with a sweet chilli sauce, chicken saytay and prawn in blanket. The main courses include lamb mango, roast duck curry and curried seafood. There are stir fries, Thai salads, Thai soups. I go for the lamb mango every single time because I love the combination of mango, squash, coconut and lamb which dissolves when you put it in your mouth.




I’ve been to the Shangri La a few times in the last couple of years. I had no idea how good it was and then someone fortunately recommended it as one of their favorite restaurants in Whitstable. I’ve never taken anyone there who has left disappointed.

My last time there, a Friday evening in late August, the air was just turning and I could tell that we would not be able to sit outside much longer. Next to me where a couple who were quizzing each other in the way you do when you’ve been sent on a blind date. I am guessing it must have been because they left before the starters arrived. Another couple moved inside as the sun went down, so my friend and I had the courtyard to ourselves, with nothing other than the Buddha and his ever watchful, benign gaze.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Salt Marsh

I have trouble making up my mind. Think about it, choice is not always a great thing, and sometimes there’s too much. There are times when an endless list of variations, stretching way down to the infinity of a menu do nothing but dazzle. And I chose by a mixed up process of elimination, guess work, and a desperate plea to the waiter for some enlightenment.

This is the beauty of the Salt Marsh’s tapas menu –it’s all done for you. You don’t chose, they do.

I was there last Thursday evening and a band was playing in the Duke, which shares its premises with the Salt Marsh. I was sitting outside after a day at work, listening to live music, enjoying sun-downers and the best tapas, ‘Salt Marsh’ style in town.  For £25 a head the waitress brought out platters of salad, diced tomatoes on bruchetta, sea bream, roast potatoes, creamy garlic mushrooms with toast (absolutely breath taking), spicy lamb, chicken and roast vegetables followed by coffees and a choice of home-made desserts.


So I went back on Saturday night. The menu was slightly different, and King Prawns in garlic butter had made their way into the mix. Desserts were not part of the menu on Saturday, but there was Irish coffee.

I wanted a break from the Salt Marsh, much as I love it, but it’s not to be. Friends are coming down this week and they want to go back there again.

It’s a laid back, feel-good kind of place that epitomises Whitstable. It’s a place to sit outside on the garden patio on a warm summer evening around wrought iron tables. There’s an olive tree, a scattering of terracotta pots, tin cans, coffee posts and glass wear and wooden boards with strange fish like designs painted on. Its bohemian and informal.

About a year ago I booked the Salt March (again) for a group of about 20. They have an indoor section, at the back of the Duke and can accommodate large groups fairly easily. They brought out platters of seafood, salads, vegetables, mushrooms, and a variety of cooked meats so everyone could load up their plates with whatever they liked. It suited meat eaters, vegetarians, and lovers of seafood.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

V.C Jones Fish and Chips, Whitstable


There are some places that we go to routinely and no matter how bad the weather, or how bad we’re feeling on the day, they somehow make everything ok. Sadly, it’s normally only after we move away from an area that we realise how badly we miss them. If ever I move away from Whitstable I will remember V.C Jones and my fish and chips on the beach.
V.C Jones is my local ‘chippy’ and I’m eternally grateful to it for feeding me throughout the year. There’s a take away counter serving traditional cod and chips, scampi, mushy peas, pies, with all the soft drinks and sauces like mayo and ketchup that we love.  There’s also a restaurant at the back for when it’s cold. And if you order a cup of tea they ask if you want your tea in a mug, just like you probably do.
The only problem with V.C . Jones is its popularity. When the sun is out there’s a queue stretching down the length of Harbour Street, past several shops, as sunburnt tourists wait patiently for their fish and chips to take to the beach, open or wrapped. It’s delicious, perfectly flavoured, seaside ‘crispy on the outside – soft and fresh on the inside’ chips.

Everyone has their favourite fish, they’ve got cod, roe, plaice, haddock and skate at V.C Jones. You chose. But if you are not sure how to enjoy it, here’s a tip – smother it in salt and vinegar and whatever sauce you like. Wrap the fish up to keep it warm. Turn right out of V.C Jones and walk on down a few meters until you get to Red Lion Lane. Turn right into it and carry on past the Pearson’s Arms to the beach. There’s a bench and some wooden tables on the beach were you can sit down and enjoy your fish. Squirt mayo all over the paper to dip your chips in. And don’t use too many napkins, lick your fingers. If it’s a good day with a breeze there is bound to be a sail boat race on the estuary.

V.C Jones is a family run restaurant which has been trading since 1962 and features in many of the older black and white photos of Whitstable. The staff are always friendly and despite the long queues, the service is great. Its situated in Harbour Street.
Below are some pictures of my friends and I enjoying ourselves at V.C Jones and some other pictures of this lovely town.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013


In spite of an abundance of fabulous restaurants in Whitstable, I wanted a British meal on Good Friday. Since living in Whitstable I have come to realise that British food is underestimated. I remember many moons ago, when living in France, reading a detailed analysis of why British food is so boring. The conclusion was something along the lines of this;  countries with hot climates have limited resources, hence the need for imagination in the cooking of repetitive ingredients. Britain, on the other hand has an abundance of natural resources, with plenty of rain and good soil, so we never bothered to make anything tasty or interesting because we didn’t have to, there was plenty to eat. Conclusion, our cuisine is pretty boring.
Samphire is situated in the heart of Whitstable and serves modern “British” food. The menu changes throughout the year depending on what is in season.  It doesn’t serve mushy peas, boiled fish and overcooked mince pies. Samphire is one of those places which reassures me that ‘British’ can be classy. We still know how to serve fine kippers, to slow roast pork belly,  pork sausage with light and buttery mash that no other country can master. Sorry, not even France.

When I want to indulge myself on a weekend morning, I breakfast at Samphire. I’m in love everything on the Brunch menu; the creamy ‘Eggs Benedict’ which I take with an Americano, and the morning paper; the egg fried bread with sugary cinnamon; smoked  kippers and brown toast to be taken with black coffee while reading the New Yorker; ‘Lamb Fry’, pan-fried lambs liver in a thick brothy sauce, bacon and mushrooms ( I add in wilted spinach when in need of iron) and pass the time staring out the window as Whitstable life passes by.

Here we were on 29th March, when the weather should be turning, one day before our clocks sprung forward into  ‘summer time’ and it remained, (and still does as I write this just over a week later) witheringly cold.
So I booked a table at the Samphire, for Good Friday, with my oldest friends, all of us hoping to consume something which would put colour back in our cheeks and dull the numbness in our fingers. I’m not sure about any of you out there reading this, but I’m fed up, so damn fed up with this persistent cold.

In the spirit of Good Friday, we opted to share a large starter platter and bottle of red wine. We chose well,  chicken liver pate, salami, grated carrots, blood orange and goats cheese, smoked mackerel and marinated olives.  It was brought through on a wooded board, with each ingredient presented in terracotta ramekins, slices of chunky slices of toasted bread thrown over the top.
A main course gnocchi and goats cheese on beetroot mousse with walnuts satisfied my need for carbohydrates. The gnocchi were feather light with the perfect consistency of flour,  parmesan and eggs which is both rare and illusive.  If anyone out there reading this thinks that gnocchi is not for them, try them home made at least once before ruling them out. I’ve never been happy with gnocchi I’ve brought. Most of the time if I’m honest, it’s rubbery,  tasteless mush. While you can get away with fresh pasta bought over the counter, not gnocchi. The potato pasta has to be home made. My gnocchi were perfect.

We also ordered the fishcakes and roast chicken and liver and slowly worked our way through the meal reminiscing on old times in the sort of way you can only do with people you’ve known for more than half your life.

Samphire is a good choice for a meal out, whatever the occasion; brunch on your own, Sunday lunch with friends, a romantic meal for two in the evening. The menu will not disappoint, its quirky, rustic and original taking the best of what we have and preparing it with some imagination. Not everything is ‘hard core’ British, even if the ingredients are local. I’m almost certain that gnocchi was not invented in the UK, although who knows for sure.
Samphire is in the centre of Whitstable, on the High Street. It’s about a minute’s walk from the seafront. After a delightful meal we layered up and headed down to the beach, bought steaming coffees from a kiosk and watched cloud formations over the estuary.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Stream Walk Community Garden

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee'

Last  Saturday I put my gardening skills to the test at Stream Walk, a community garden growing organic fruit and vegetables. My gardening skills have never really been tested, at least not  since primary school when I grew a bean under damp cotton wool. Today, years later, the plants in my house survive more through luck than skill.  Despite this, I was hoping that I could be put to good  use on Saturday.

The community garden is situated on a large plot of land surrounded by houses, just off the Streamwalk footpath by the railway station. It is shared with the Whitstable Volunteer Centre and a local charity, the Kent Enterprise Trust. Their aim is to create a beautiful space for people to learn about growing fruit, herbs and vegetables in an environmentally friendly way. This is a new project, barely two years old. The garden is well on its way, from the empty, overgrown place it once was it to an allotment with sections carved out for lettuces, potatoes, leeks, turnips, artichokes and the like. Pathways crisscross the borders. There are lavender bushes waiting for the warmth of summer, scented rosemary and golden oregano.  By the entrance is a garden shed surrounded by potted plants and an impressive compost toilet made out of shingle. 

 On Tuesdays and the third Saturday of each month, Stream Walk takes in volunteers to help with its maintenance.  My first task was to plant willow alongside the north facing wall.
The willow before being planted
The stems stood at over six feet tall and can be weaved into baskets. We planted the darker stems at the back, twisting them 12 inches down into the soil, then, in the middle,  yellow green ones, the colour of an African grass snake. We placed the fire red stems at the front where they will stand out.  

Once planted I pruned them down. It felt like an act of vandalism, but is, I believe, the most effective way to help them root. After planting the willow we got to work clearing a mound of surplus earth from a vegetable patch ready for planting. When the excess soil had been removed, I took up a hoe, swinging it up and down to break up the damp clumps while earthworms struggled in the soil.

 Saturday was icy and wet day. It rained down without a stopping, that cold rain laden with ice. The pond was close to saturation. Mud squelched up my wellies and squelched its way into my hair. The scarecrows at the far end slouched forward, sodden.  A couple of hours in we stopped for hot drinks and chocolate beetroot cake. We stood huddling in the shed, packed together closely with our fingers wrapped around steaming coffee cups.

 In spite of the weather and my apparent lack of gardening skills there was a therapeutic feel to working the soil and watching my area slowly transform. I arrived tired after a week at work, thoughts and worries swimming in my head like trigger fish caught in a bowl and I left calmer, ready for a weekend free of all that. I suspect our sanity may depend on places like this one, where we work close to nature growing what we need to eat, bringing life to empty spaces.

If you are wondering why I started this blog with the opening lines of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ it’s in honour of the sleeping dragon in the far corner of Stream Walk’s  garden.  Before you think I am indeed mad, wander up to the end, and you’ll spot a mound of earth  stretched out in the shape of a dragon. It has the arched back and flat pointed head. Decisions are underway as to how it’ll be brought to life and with what bits and pieces. It is hoped that when the dragon is formed, children can climb on its back, play, imagine they’re flying. There are  many ideas - please bring them along with your gardening skills.  Everyone is welcome.
And if ever you’re tired, stop by to wander around in this magical space, breath and rest.


Sunday, 10 March 2013

Windy Corner Stores

They do things differently at Windy Corner Stores. There’s a deliberate quirkiness about the place. The tip box on the counter asks for donations towards ‘Psychiatrists Fees,’ a request which raises a smile and, if anything, seems to encourage more generous giving.
Windy Corner is a local store, a bohemian cafe with solid wooden tables serving breakfasts, lunches, teas and fresh home-made bread. They don’t rush, breakfast comes when its ready. The store smells of garden herbs, earthy coffee beans and cooking.

There’s a little bit of everything for everyone, free dog biscuits at the entrance, a scattering of children’s wooden toys, sketches and postcards made by local artists, sweets stacked up on vintage fruit and vegetable crates. There’s a notice board with advertisements for yoga retreats, organic food suppliers, local gigs and meditation classes. On the shelves stretching the length of an entire wall are random arrangements of summer holiday conveniences; ales and wines, olive oil,  bread, fruit, marmalade and jams, pickles, ketchup, ice cream cones, baby wipes and washing up liquid. In summer the store offers barbeque packswith the barbeque itself to take down to the beach.

Places like Windy Corner Stores naturally attract a more eclectic mix of customers than the polarised sorts who on the one hand will stick to their local ‘greasy spoons’ with a religious fervour and the others, dedicated to overpriced designer coffee bars. I’ve spotted young and old, writers, builders, foodies and the occasional ‘lunatic’ wafting around inside. And every now again there’s people like me, with my raucous nephews, who unashamedly vandalised the table and a guest with stickers of ‘Pepper Pig’ and his friends.

You get the feel that anyone is welcome, that it’s a place for people, whoever they are and wherever they’re going. But over the few years I have lived in Whitstable, I’ve come to realise that the quirkiness of Windy Corner Stores is not just for show. There’s a serious side to how they operate, rooted in a community, which while appearing idyllic,  like many others around the UK, has to deal with the uncomfortable reality of intolerance. The store, in its own way makes a stand that few others would. This January when protesters took to the streets in an effort to stop the closure of the Cromwell Road post office, Windy Corner Stores provided them with tea and coffee. Last year, after college tutor Norman Maciver was beaten up in a racially motivated attack residents gathered in Nelson Road, to show that racism and other hate crimes will not be tolerated in Whitstable. Windy Corners provided the meeting place, and the teas and coffees.

It's busiest at breakfast on the weekends, but everyone manages to squeeze in somehow – they have just expanded with bar style seating at the back. There’s also the Coastguard’s Ally bench outside on the porch for summer days.

Coffees are strong and robust, excellent with the French pastries,  hot croissants, and cakes on the counter. For the more traditional, try a full English breakfast of fried eggs, fried bacon, sausages, bubble and squeak; and if you are more inclined to the alternative, there is a healthy breakfast of creamy poached eggs, chunky slices of wholemeal bread, mushrooms, beetroot, spinach leaves, fennel and tomato. If you want to pretend you’re healthy, but also fancy something fried like I did, that’s fine too.

‘You mean you want the healthy breakfast with a high calorie option’ my waitress asked.

‘Afraid so, just throw in some beetroot with the fry up and my conscience is clear.’ So she did. Spinach, fried bacon and beetroot. Like I said before, they do things differently.

Windy Corner Stores describes itself as a ‘community’ cafe and general store, which it truly is in all senses of the word. You will find it on the corner of Island Wall and Nelson Road. It looks ordinary from outside, but step in and you’ll see that it’s not.