Long since renowned for its white sand beaches, turquoise seas, relaxed pace and simple pleasures the Isles of Scilly has something new to add to its repertoire – food and drink that rivals the very best.
From the moment you arrive at the airport to catch the Skybus or await the departure of the Scillonian III on the quayside in Penzance you feel as if you are about to embark on a very special adventure. Just 30 miles off the coast of mainland Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly may only take a few hours to get to but when you arrive you could be a world away. There is a very distinct feel to Scilly that is like nowhere else I have ever been too. The air is clean and clear, tinged with the sweet note of narcissi through winter to early spring, the heady scent of gorse in early summer and that unmistakable smell of bracken combined with the salty sea breeze that transports me to heaven every time I inhale it. It’s not just the olfactory senses that are in for a treat when you visit Scilly as the clarity of light is almost blinding. When the sun is shining the sparkle of the white sand beaches set against the clear blue waters creates a magical, be-jewelled setting. I think it must be the combination of the clear waters, unique maritime climate and fresh sea air that is creating a taste sensation on Scilly.
The islands boast an eclectic mix of food producers, growers, fishermen and farmers that serve up their catches, crops and creations to the wonderful selection of pubs, cafés and restaurants. On a recent trip I was lucky enough to sample some of Scilly’s foodie finest ahead of this year’s Taste of Scilly Festival that happens throughout September.
Our first stop is the delightful St Mary’s Hall Hotel, which is to be our home for the duration of our stay. Breakfasts here are hearty and the selection sumptuous. I choose the full Cornish breakfast while my wife can’t resist the egg and soldiers – well, who wouldn’t as they are from free-range happy St Mary’s hens!
With full tummies we head out on our first foodie foray of the trip that takes us across the water to the island of St Agnes. We make our way to Tamarisk Farm that has been in the Hicks family for generations and for the last 12 years has been an organic farm growing fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs. Run by Tonya and Ben Hicks, the produce is available to buy from their roadside stall as well as being sold to local cafés and guesthouses and St Agnes’ famous pub, the Turks Head. New potatoes are just being harvested alongside bunches of sweet-smelling basil and ripe, juicy blackcurrants.
Just down the road we meet father and son team, Tim and Sam Hicks (Hicks is a very popular surname on St Agnes!) at Troytown Farm, the only dairy farm on Scilly. Their milking herd of just nine cows provides the tiny on-site dairy with milk that is also used to make butter, clotted cream and their heavenly, small batch ice-cream. They also raise a small number of animals for meat, available from the farm shop.
Having worked up an appetite we head for lunch at the Coastguard’s Café. This cool, family-owned café sits just above Santa Warna Cove and we are treated to fresh crab sandwiched between slices of soft bread, baked on the premises. We also get a chance to sample some of Troytown’s delicious clotted cream smothered over freshly made scones – jam first of course! Basking in late afternoon sunshine we look back at a day where we have experienced food footsteps rather than miles.
The next day and I’m up early for a run around St Mary’s. Everywhere I go I see evidence of fresh produce, from crops growing in the fields to little stalls outside houses selling freshly baked cakes or newly laid eggs. And, of course, the fishing boats landing their catch on St Mary’s harbour. Crabs and lobsters abound as well as boxes of iridescent mackerel, so fresh they shine as blue as the waters from where they’ve been caught. Lunch today is on St Mary’s as we pay a visit to Juliet’s Garden Restaurant. I remember coming here as a child when it opened some 35 years ago. Back then it was a small tea garden and has since grown into one of the islands’ most-loved establishments with many visitors returning time and time again. It now boasts a very smart, architect-designed interior but it’s still that breathtaking view across the harbour that captures my heart. We tuck into a sharing platter of prawns, St Mary’s crab and smoked mackerel paté and finish with a Troytown ice-cream which is one of the creamiest I have tasted.
After a long walk around the coastline we retire to our hotel to freshen up for dinner. I’m beginning to wonder if you can overdose on shellfish but I just can’t resist sampling the Scillonian crab cakes and am very pleased I do, they are delicious. A warm beetroot salad, served on a bed of local leaves, is declared a triumph by my wife. After a wonderful night’s sleep – a combination of a comfortable bed, fresh air and fine food – our time on Scilly is nearing its end. In the morning we just have time to catch the boat over to St Martin’s to make the acquaintance of baker Barney McLachlan at The Island Bakery.
After holidaying for many years on St Martin’s, Barney and his family moved down from Wolverhampton to set up the bakery. Baking a selection of organic breads and rolls each morning during the season Barney uses simple, age-old techniques. The homely smell of freshly baked loaves hits us as we step into the bakery. Alongside the bread, Barney also makes traditional Cornish pasties and a selection of cakes and pastries. I can’t resist sampling a Chocolate Cola Cake that is heaven on a plate. For those staying on St Martin’s you can also order takeaway pizzas that are baked using Barney’s signature sun dried tomato pizza dough.
It is with heavy hearts but full tummies that we say a fond farewell to Scilly. In our short time there we meet some wonderful people and sample some amazing produce. I feel we have only just scratched the surface of the food Scilly has to offer and can’t wait to return to sample some more!