Friday, 16 November 2018, 16:00
Chefs often endeavour to tell a story through their menus, and dinner at Guernsey's best hotel was no exception. The dishes were inspired by the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; each a creative reminder of a remarkable piece of history from World War II with which few are familiar, the invasion of the Channel Islands. This was the only time when British territory was occupied by the Nazis.
For the past decade Mary Ann Shaffer's novel (completed by her niece Anne Barrows) has drawn visitors to Guernsey, the island that inspired this compelling and romantic story, told through letters between islanders and an English author and journalist. It has been a bestseller on every continent and sold over seven and half million copies. Most recently it has been made into a film, starring Lily James, and directed by Mike Newell (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame). I found the film to charming, romantic and fascinating.
So, I was happy to accept an invitation to visit Guernsey and its neighbour Alderney for a weekend of discovery, taking in the history, nature and, of course, the food of the island.
A highlight was a themed dinner in the elegant surroundings of The Old Government House Hotel in Guernsey's capital of St Peter Port. It's a building that really resonates history. Understandable really, as from 1796 to 1842 it was the former official Governor's residence for the Bailiwick of Guernsey (the archipelago of islands that includes Herm, Sark and Alderney). It has hosted not only royalty but was requisitioned by the occupying German forces and used as a 'Soldatenheim', a place where officers came to meet, relax, eat and drink.
The chef's pre-starter of Soldatenheim broth, simply served in an espresso cup, was the first dish to be served. It was reminiscent of the homespun recipes during the war years. When the Germans invaded and occupied the islands in June 1940, they took control of food production, leaving islanders with little to eat. All animals were sent to feed the Nazi troops.
Now the islands of Guernsey and Alderney are foodie destinations, recognised for slow food; menus inspired by foraged ingredients; and artisan food producers from pig breeders, dairy farmers, cider makers and gin distillers.
Channel Island dairy is of course world renowned. Guernsey dairy cows, with their distinctive coats of reddish-brown and white patches are said to be among the best in the world. From the artisan butter on the breakfast table, to after dinner cheeses, expect amazing dairy products during a stay on the island. I particularly liked Fort Grey, a soft blue cheese, handmade from full-cream Guernsey milk by artisan cheese maker Fenella Maddison. It's named after the Martello tower fortification found close to her Torteval cheese workshop. While on the coast, I also recommend enjoying a homemade ice-cream; so simple yet so creamy and tasty.
Dinner continues with a starter of Guernsey crab, served with ruby grapefruit and a scoop of refreshing cucumber sorbet. Seafood is abundant here, and with the coast never more than a few kilometres away, it's always fresh-from-the-sea. Whether posh fish and chips, a hearty fish pie of pollack and prawn, or crabs, lobsters and juicy scallops, you can expect to eat well on the islands.
A trip here of course is all about the sea and the coast. Guernsey boasts 27 beaches, and together with the rest of the Bailiwick, there are 50 unspoilt beaches to discover. Guernsey, easily accessible thanks to a short flight from London Gatwick, makes for a good base for island hopping.
Sark, with only about six hundred residents and no vehicles, is an island of peace and tranquillity. It was the first island in the world to gain 'Dark Sky' status, perfect for star gazers. Alderney, to the north east of Guernsey is also the place for 'star parties', with island astronomer Michael Maunder organising events throughout the year.
Many come to Alderney though for the wildlife. Species include the unique blond hedgehog, rare butterflies and, of course, plenty of sea birds including puffins and gannets.
Our host for dinner, Andrew Chantrell, general manager of The Old Government House Hotel continues with tales and anecdotes from the island. He recounts how many of the island's families were separated for years as thousands of people, including most of Guernsey's children, were evacuated at very short notice, just before the German invasion. Those left behind had food strictly rationed.
Our main dish of roasted pork tenderloin is served with a portion of potato peel pie. Although this restaurant dish is a sophisticated interpretation (where even the potato peel pie is now gourmet, made with Guernsey cream and bacon) it remains a poignant reminder of the food scarcity during the occupation. Residents were forced to eat little more than vegetables and they improvised dishes like the simple potato pie.
As depicted in the Guernsey film, a few islanders managed to secretly rear a pig, but such a luxury as pork would have been extremely unusual. However, today rare breeds like the Oxford Sandy and Black pigs are once more being slow-reared on Guernsey. Passing through the narrow country lanes, chances are you will see some wallowing or sunbathing in an adjacent field.
The physical reminders of the German occupation remain across the islands. Under direct orders from Hilter, Guernsey and Alderney became the most fortified places along the Atlantic Wall. The bunkers and observation towers were so numerous and so strongly built that it was not feasible to destroy them after the islands' liberation on 9 May 1945. So they remain as stark and compelling reminders of the era; many are open to explore. On a tour of Alderney, I saw bunkers marked with the edelweiss insignia of German alpine forces. It felt extraordinary to see this on British territory.
I should mention that the Channel Islands are independent and not part of the United Kingdom. Although geographically closer to France than the English coast, the islands are Crown Dependences of the UK, which is responsible for their defence and international relations. Island residents are British citizens.
The islands include the Bailiwick of Jersey, and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which comprises Alderney, Sark, and the tiny islands of Herm and Lihou. Both Crown Dependences have been independently run since the 13th century (when the King of France surrendered claim to the islands, as Henry III of England gave up his claim to the Duchy of Normandy). The Bailiwicks have their own laws, elections and parliaments, but are in a currency union with the UK, so they issue their own Sterling pounds. The islands are not members of the Commonwealth of Nations, nor of the European Union.
The meal continues, and the palette cleanser is a granita made from local Blue Bottle Gin. Gin distilling has really thrived in recent years with artisan producers endeavouring to capture the spirit of the island in more ways than one. Unit 6 is the latest small-batch gin from Guernsey, but Blue Bottle Gin is among the best known and uses local gorse flowers as one of its botanicals. Wheadon's Gin, created by distiller Luke Wheadon, uses rock samphire among its botanicals, a flavour of the island, foraged from the coast.
This themed meal illustrates how Bailiwick of Guernsey tourist bosses are anticipating a further boost to visitor numbers thanks to the Guernsey movie. If you plan to make a trip, bear in mind that most visitor events like festivals, are from April to October each year, and this is when small group and bespoke tours also typically operate. However, the islands are an all-year destination and plenty of festive events are scheduled for this year, and you can expect local venues to be beautifully decorated for the holidays.
As I tucked into my local bread and butter pudding, with a distinct French twist, I learnt that The Old Government House Hotel is also about to get into the Christmas spirit as it prepares to transform its terrace into a festive Alpine lodge. While snuggled in blankets on sofas in front of the fire, guests can enjoy schnapps, gin, mulled wine, and hot spiced local cider. Yes, folks it's that time of year soon.
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