A cosy, wood panelled room lit only by the glowing embers of a log fire, lazily cracking and popping in the grate offering a comforting counterpoint to the howling storm outside. There is heavy, solid, antique furniture and prints on the wall, dramatic manly pictures of sailing ships in tumultuous seas and Napoleonic cavalry at the charge. From behind a high wing backed leather Chesterfield, an Aran sweater clad arm slowly appears, in its hand, a crystal glass filled with the rich deep amber liquid of a good single malt.
In an ideal world, that’s how you should be drinking whisky, and I want that chunky knit clad arm to be mine. I want the wood panelled, crackling fire, leather chaired dream. I want to love whisky, I really do, but up till now I don’t love it. The merest sip forces my face to contort into a hideous grimace, lips curled, and teeth bared. It’s hideous. Whisky and I are not friends and I don’t own any Aran jumpers.
But wait. What’s this in my inbox? An invite to a Talisker whisky tasting dinner at Mark Hix’s restaurant in Lyme Regis, with a spot of beach foraging led by Monsieur Hix himself? Hell yes! Sign me up. Perhaps whisky and me can somehow work it out, and if we can’t, we can still have mucho fun trying. With barely a pause, I hurriedly began to pack a selection of suitably rugged knitwear.
And so, here I was, freezing my cods off on an ice cold beach in Lyme Regis, dramatic grey sky and equally grey waves pounding in, providing quite possibly the perfect backdrop to a whisky led event. Briefly introduced to a smiling, windswept, craggy faced Mark Hix the group set off, beach foraging. I have to confess, I didn’t hear or comprehend much, the wind was howling in, it was pissing down with rain, we became strung out along the pebbles with the stalking figure of Hix leading from the front and occasionally stabbing a finger at a noteworthy mystery shrub. Rock Samphire tastes a bit like petrol until it’s cooked was about all I picked up. To be honest as far as foraging lessons, go, it wasn’t pretty, but as a pre-cursor to a slap up dinner matched with whisky? Couldn’t have been better.
Cocktail expert, Nick Strangeway was waiting for us back at the Hix Oyster and Fish restaurant and had knocked up a hot toddy of whisky and sea-buckthorn, which when you’re frozen and soaked to the skin, is ridiculously pleasant to drink. We were also given a couple of nibbles to take the edge off. Deep fried rock samphire, (definitely not tasting of petrol) and a ‘Cobb Egg’ basically a fishy Scotch Egg. Both of which were very bloody nice indeed.
After a brief opportunity to dry off, warm up and change into those all-important chunky knits – we were welcomed back to the restaurant later that evening.
The Lyme Regis outpost of the Hix empire (and the only one outside London) is a fantastic looking restaurant; perched on the hills above the Dorset town’s harbour (or Cobb as us salty sea dogs like to say). The views from the floor to ceiling windows out to sea are superb. Despite the rain and howling wind outside, it has a surprisingly cosy, quite intimate feel.
To start, a glass of 10 year old Talisker. After overcoming my customary involuntary spasm, it kind of grew on me, although saying that the initial burn of the whisky is the hard bit to overcome, whatever flavours are supposed to be present, salt, peat, smoke, to me are hard to pick out because the rasping alcoholic hit is so powerful. Ramsey, the suitably kilted Talisker representative tells us it’s ok to add a splash of water to the whisky, to ‘take the nettle out of it’. After following the advice, I find it’s a hell of a lot more pleasant to drink, softer and mellower. Ramsey regales us with tales of the rather solitary sounding experience of living and working on Skye where the Talisker distillery is located. Apparently it’s impossible to buy underpants on the island.
This pant-less revelation was interrupted by the arrival of waiters carrying The Fruits Of The Sea. I’ve often seen fellow diners in restaurants order huge towers of seafood, massive platters with everything piled up on ice. I’ve never actually ordered it myself. It always seems bloody expensive. But here was a waiter depositing a beautifully tiered heap of Dorset seafood right in front of me. Bloody hell. Gorgeous lobster, razor clams, oysters, big prawns (quality of life) and mussels. What a treat. Everyone waded in and it wasn’t long before the whole beautiful thing was a graveyard heap of empty shells and carapace.
Cern Valley red leg partridge on toast with elderberries and wood sorrel followed. The toast smeared with a pate presumably made from the partridge, piled with partridge meat, scattered with elderberries and wood sorrel. It was bloody fantastic. Very rich, very meaty. The elderberries added a lovely sweetness. The wood sorrel was something of a revelation for me; initially quite vegetal it suddenly bursts on the palate with an amazing citrus tang. It’s actually mildly poisonous, but you’d have to eat a load of it to feel any ill effects.
Fillet of Torbay silver mullet with Barra cockles and seashore vegetables, with a side dish of potatoes pretty much polished me off. Absolutely cracking seafood but incredibly filling. Some of the stuff we’d seen growing on the beach whilst foraging made an appearance here. Another lovely plate of food.
A glass of Talisker 18 year old now, again – pretty fiery initially, but after the addition a drop of water, pretty damn good. This is probably the nicest of the Talisker whiskies I tried all evening. I only half cringe, and shudder momentarily this time, whilst taking an initial sip.
Whisky and walnut tart with Dorset clotted cream works brilliantly. Rich and moist, displaying a, this time, quiet pleasant, whisky burn tempered by the cool rich velvet of the clotted cream.
Despite being stuffed silly, I still managed to eat my fair share of some local cheeses, Wookey Hole cheddar, Dorset Blue Vinney and Vulscombe (a very fresh tasting young goats cheese).
Finally, some truffles and a glass of 25 year old Talisker. Which is apparently bloody expensive. I’m afraid the save the best till last approach was lost on me, I’d had enough, food and booze. Hot toddies, all the whisky and with the gaps filled generously with some fantastic wines. I just couldn’t drink anymore. (What have you done with Dan? Ed)
So, in the cold light of day, what conclusions can I take from such a fantastic PR led whisky jaunt?
Lyme Regis is beautiful. I’ve never been there before, and I will certainly be back to explore.
Mark Hix’s Oyster and Fish restaurant is bloody fantastic. No doubt about it. It’s exactly the type of food I like to eat. British, seasonal, unfussy using loads of foraged ingredients, beautifully cooked. It was a real treat to eat there, and I’d seriously recommend it to anyone.
Talisker Whisky. As far as whiskies go, it’s undoubtedly good and I have to admire the passion and the dedication that goes into making the product. But whisky and I still don’t fully love each other. I approached this event with the objective of graduating from hating the taste of whisky to full Aran clad jumper appreciation. I didn’t quite make it that far, but the good news is, I no longer detest whisky. I’ve learnt that there’s no snobbery concerning the addition of water to make it a bit more palatable, and the rather fantastic tart proves that it can be a cracking ingredient to cook with. I’m not quite ready for the wood panelled, log fire, leather chair ideal, but after this, it’s certainly one step closer.
Hix Oyster and Fish House
Telephone: 01297 446910