Are you OK browsing – or would you like a gin and tonic?’ It was midday on a Monday. Ammonite Fine Foods in Lyme Regis is a gourmet grotto with a savvy sales pitch and more than a pinch of local knowledge (ammonitedorset.co.uk). As well as Conker Gin, Dorset’s first gin distillery in the backstreets of Bournemouth (local botanicals include elderberries, samphire and gorse flowers), it stocks Black Cow Vodka.
Made by Beaminster dairy farmer, Jason Barber, this is an inspired example of farm diversification; the milk is separated into curds and whey, the curd used to make sweet, nutty Black Cow Deluxe Cheddar, the whey fermented into beer and then distilled and triple filtered to create a distinctly creamy vodka.
I knew I was going to like Dorset: plied with gin before lunch and buffeted along the Cobb like the French lieutenant’s woman on a squally, grey day. (Novelist John Fowles lived here, in fact; his elegant home, Belmont, is now a Landmark Trust holiday let). I liked the higgledy-piggledy streets, the pastel-coloured beach huts, the corny puns (‘thick skate – the clever ones swam away’) scrawled on the blackboard of the Wet Fish Shop (wetfishshop.com) and the Alexandra Hotel with its olde-worlde Chamomile Lawn-vibe and breakfast room painted in shades of the sea.
From whelks in Weymouth to oysters from Wyke Regis, seafood is a must-eat. For lunch I made a beeline for the Hix Fish & Oyster House (hixoysterandfishhouse.co.uk). Despite his London restaurants Mark Hix is a local boy, down here fishing most weekends and running cookery courses in his home in nearby Charmouth.
The restaurant, perched above the harbour, has a cool, coastal vibe, with panoramic windows and a menu packed with sustainable seafood. The sun was starting to break through as I popped Burry Bay cockle popcorn (breaded shelled cockles) into my mouth and slurped Cornish pastis with Lyme Bay shellfish soup a crab-rich bisque served with a sweet, brioche-like bun.
It’s more a case of food footsteps than food miles. You can see the fishing boats from the window, my crab was caught by Lobster Alan and, in the summer, the mackerel run comes so close to shore you can catch them from the beach. The ‘leaves’ (restaurant-speak for salad) are grown by Ashley at Trill Farm just inland on the Devon border (trillfarm.co.uk).
Trill Farm is also the nearest b&b to River Cottage HQ (rivercottage.net), home of campaigning food hero and Dorset champion Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The farm straddles the marginal ground between Dorset’s downs and the dairy country of Devon, and offers a range of courses from cheese-making and beekeeping to gluten-free cookery along with a calendar of dining events and seasonal fairs.
The original River Cottage farm was near the little market town of Bridport and West Bay, one of the locations used to film crime drama Broadchurch. In fact, Dorset has seen more than its share of screen stardom over the last couple of years. The film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd shone a spotlight on Dorset’s bucolic interior, which is where you’ll find the sleepy market town of Sturminster Newton; and another passionate foodie couple.
Michelle and Rob Comins opened Comins Teahouse in an old Georgian building a couple of years ago, after being inspired by a visit to a tea estate in Darjeeling (cominsteahouse.co.uk). They sell 28 of the finest single-estate leaf teas (unblended, no herbals) online, and in their modern British teahouse, ranging from black to white (the most popular) via oolong and green tea. ‘We’ve created a destination for tea in a tiny market town.’ Don’t come here for a cappuccino – this is a tea-only zone – although you can tuck into afternoon tea with local clotted cream and blueberry scones.
Michelle guides me through a tea ceremony, pouring hot water onto Indian silver needle leaves. These need to steep for three minutes at 80 degrees. Then the tea is decanted into a cup and water is poured onto the leaves six to eight times; drink through the infusions to get the whole experience.
Heading south, I made my way to the Jurassic Coast. The country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular fossil-hunting spot, this stretches 95 miles from Swanage to Exmouth. Landmarks such as Durdle Door, Lulworth Cove and 18-mile Chesil Beach jump straight out of a geography textbook. I went for a long and blustery walk along the latter, before swinging into rustic little Hive Beach Café at Burton Bradstock for a Portland crab sandwich (hivebeachcafe.co.uk). In the summer the queue stretches out of the door but out of season it’s easier to grab a table.
My bed that night was an hour’s drive east at The Pig on the Beach in Studland Bay, one of a mini-chain of hotels created by Robin Hutson, founder of Hotel du Vin. This one perches on a clifftop, surrounded by sweeping lawns – and fields full of pigs (Oxford Sandy and Blacks), chickens (Legbars and Burford Browns) and sheep (Dorset Horn). There’s also a walled kitchen garden where the hotel grows both traditional and sea vegetables.
Foraged food is also on The Pig’s 25-mile menu. Sicilian chef, Giuseppe Sinaguglia is the Pig’s forager, with his own cookery school nearby (olivetreecookeryschool.co.uk). I went mushroom foraging with him in Wareham Forest, scrabbling through the undergrowth to collect brown birch boletes (the same family as ceps), orange and common hedgehogs, winter chanterelles and pretty amethyst deceivers. Taking our basket back to The Pig, foraged mushrooms on toasted sourdough were now on the menu.
Later, sitting in front of a fire in the bar, I nibbled on piggy bits (saddleback crackling and apple sauce) trying to decide whether to start with garden beetroot and Dorset Blue Vinney salad with compressed pear, or home-cured Arctic Char with spiced fennel dressing. I already knew what I wanted for my main: Purbeck pigeon and hot smoked pumpkin with Dorset buttermilk, toasted pine nuts and red chard. And, to finish, russet apple open scrunch pie with garden sage ice cream. But first, more decisions: Purbeck cider or Conker gin with a lightly floral elderflower tonic?
How to do it
Return flights from Manchester, Glasgow and Jersey to Bournemouth cost from £50 (flybe.com). Car hire starts from £15 per day (carrentals.co.uk). Double rooms at The Pig on the Beach cost from £129, room only (thepighotel.com) and at The Alexandra Hotel from £180, b&b (hotelalexandra.co.uk). For more info on Dorset, see visit-dorset.com.
Written by Lucy Gillmore. First published April 2016