As a Channel Islander, wariness of the sea has been ingrained since childhood. Regular three hour ferry trips from Weymouth to visit my family in Guernsey taught me that the English Channel was not always calm. Neither was the sea passage between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire when we moved to Dublin for a year in the late 50s. It seemed to be a thing that it was alright for my parents to fly but we, travelling with my grandmother, had to come by boat. Not that I didn’t have sea legs; it’s difficult to spend your early years on an island without those. We would be forced up on deck however blustery a storm, rather than be trapped below between floors heaving with the smell of vomit.
Years later I can vividly remember a crossing to France with my children when wild February seas slapped at the windows of the enclosed ferry. I sat rigid with a smile fixed on my face in the hope I didn’t transfer my fear to the family. Nobody was happier than I when the Eurotunnel opened in 1994.
Beaches, however, are another matter although they have to be the right kind. The sandy kind, stretching in a protective curve around a turquoise millpond of a sea, trees waving in the wind offering a shady patch or two. The more basic the beach the happier I am; the ones without toilets, showers, ice cream sellers and deck chair vendors.
During my years as a ‘pack and follow’ wife I tried out quite a few. Isolated stretches on the Gold Coast of Ghana; a straw hut dotted beach on Lake Malawi; watching my small son fall from a junk moored into a bay on the South China Sea – he bobbed back up with help from his father; the Sheik’s beach in Bahrain where I had to be introduced to a member of the ruling family; and digging toes into the sand lunching under the shade of a palm-roofed hut in one of the Jacmel beach clubs in Haiti. My memory banks are full of beaches. I can compare and contrast across the world with some of the better known resorts, such as the urban ugliness of Bondi Beach in Sydney, the flat grey sands of Half Moon Bay in California or the crowded, glistening flesh spots of St Tropez. But my favourite beach is in fact much closer to home, just across a narrow strip of English Channel on the Isle of Wight.
A good friend introduced me to Seaview, a village jostling for position and status with next door Bembridge on the south coast of the island. It’s a village where time has stood still. Tall, ramshackle Edwardian houses line the bay, whilst lines of pebble dash fronted and mock Tudor homes escape up the hill. In the summer the small streets buzz with holidaying families, standing in line for their milk and newspapers at the Post Office or crammed into a tiny shop turning over shrimping nets or crab lines or picking up toys and trinkets for wet day play.
At low tide, there are great swathes of sand that allow you to walk right around the coast to the Ryde where most of the ferries disembark their passengers. However, if you walk in the other direction, scrambling across a few rocks and dipping your toes into a rock pool or two, you will eventually come to the perfect crescent of Priory Bay. Tucked under wooded cliffs, this idyllic beach is a tranquil spot hidden away from the busy beach huts of nearby St. Helens and the smart motorboats of Bembridge Marina.
Even in the height of summer not many people seem to make their way here – not even the guests from the upmarket hotel situated a fifteen minute walk up the cliff through a tangle of woods. The odd boat comes to anchor way out in the bay and its crew then paddle into the beach but, even at high tide, there’s enough beach to throw frisbees or balls for the dogs to splash in and out of the shallow water. Maybe it’s because you have to bring with you your food and drink or the fact that pee breaks have to be taken behind a bush or God forbid in the sea. None of these things matter for the true aficionado as in truth they just add to its perfection. If the sun is shining and the sky is blue, then this is my perfect beach and a glorious place for a picnic.
What Isle of Wight crab and lobster lack in size, compared to their cousins in Maine, they make up for in taste. There is no better picnic lunch – if made in a sturdy flan dish – than a crab tart, to be served with a gem lettuce salad, bursting with cherry tomatoes and the crunch of a radish or a spring onion or two.
Having just managed to track down on Amazon a copy of the 60s Robert Carrier Dishes of the World, I combined his recipe for a crab tart which I made many times, with Nigel Slater’s brilliant suggestion of how to make pastry on a sweltering summers day. I don’t have a cool pantry or a marble slab as my grandmother did to make pastry on, so as it was over 30C the day I attempted it, I put my food processor bowl and blade into the freezer first. It had to stand vertically – and left it for a good hour before whizzing all the pastry ingredients together.
Warm Crab tart – serves 6
For the pastry:
200g plain flour
175g butter, cold and in small chunks
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp ice-cold water
For the filling:
250g crabmeat – shredded and chunks
3 tbs chopped coriander
2 tbs butter
2 tbs dry sherry
4 egg yolks
300ml single cream
Salt and pepper
Make the pastry and set aside to rest; rub the butter into the flour using your very chilled food processor. Add the egg yolk and water and a good pinch of salt. Push into a smooth ball and roll it on the table until it is slightly cylindrical – it will slice better in that shape. Put the pastry in the fridge to cool and rest for about half an hour.
Set the oven at 200C. Slice the chilled pastry into thin rounds and press them into a 23-24cm flan dish. Press the pastry to cover the base and up the sides, making certain there are no holes. Prick the bottom with a fork to stop it bubbling and chill for 15 minutes, before baking for 15 minutes until it is dry to the touch. Reduce heat in the oven to 180C.
Sauté gently the crabmeat and coriander in the butter. Add the sherry and stir well. Fill the pastry shell arranging any chunks equally across the flan dish.
Whisk egg yolks in a bowl until a light cream colour. Add cream and whisk until thick. Grate over nutmeg – to taste- and then season with salt and pepper. Pour carefully over crabmeat in pastry shell.
Bake in oven for about 20 to 30 mins. It’s best if the custard is still a bit wobbly in centre.
Serve with a salad, you shouldn’t need any bread, but if there are some Jersey Royals still around these would work very well on the side with plenty of butter and mint.