Chef Clodagh McKenna's Guide to Dorset, England
Dublin chef Clodagh McKenna fishes and eats in Dorset, England.
Clodagh McKenna is the author of five best-selling cookbooks. She has two restaurants in Dublin and creates the menu with Aer Lingus onboard European and Transatlantic flights. Clodagh’s TV series 'Clodagh's Irish Food Trails' airs on PBS.
Before I visited Lyme Regis in Dorset, the only thing I knew about it was that Meryl Streep once stood at the end of its pier, staring out to sea in an enormous black cape. Now I know better. Dorset is one of England’s most beautiful counties. Often referred to as “Hardy’s Country,” the rich, rolling farm land and bustling seaside towns have provided the inspiration for novelists from Thomas Hardy and John Fowles to Ian McEwan and even Jane Austen.
But it was not the French Lieutenant's Woman that brought me to Dorset—it was food. Today the rich and fertile farm lands of the Dorset countryside and the fishing grounds of the English Channel have attracted a hub of outstanding artisanal producers, farmers and fishermen. Their produce has in turn attracted some of Britain’s finest chefs, including Dorset-born chefs Mark Hix and Cass Titcombe and River Cottage founder Hugh Fearnleigh Whittingstall.
As soon as I disembarked the train from London to Axminster I headed straight for The River Cottage Deli and Canteen, which is a lovely and airy restaurant serving gorgeous locally and ethically produced food. I kicked off with the earthy squash and walnut pesto soup, followed with Portland crab on toast with fennel, which was incredibly fresh and sweet. I didn’t get to visit the River Cottage this time, but it is a short drive from Lyme Regis; if you can get into the restaurant, go! I have heard the River Cottage classes are excellent, and glancing through the brochure over lunch I was really tempted by the Foraging Courses focusing on mushroom, hedgerow or beach foraging.
The River Cottage Deli really set the tone for my visit to Dorset. Almost everyone I met after that was there to forage, fish or hunt. I spent one day fishing myself, standing on the bank of the river loving every second of it and catching absolutely nothing, although I did see a salmon leap right in front of me. You can easily get a 24-hour trout and salmon fishing license through the local Post Office, but do check which fish are in season first.
WHERE TO STAY
HIX TOWNHOUSE, LYME REGIS
As the main purpose of my visit was to eat at Hix Oyster and Fish House, I decided to go all in and stay at the quirky Hix Townhouse. The Georgian Townhouse has been converted into an eight room boutique B&B. Each of the rooms has a hunting, fishing, sailing or shooting theme. There is a comfortable kitchen for guests to make coffee, tea and snacks and a roof terrace where you can sit with a bottle of wine and watch the sunset. In the morning, a breakfast hamper arrived, delivered from the Hix Fishouse restaurant about five minutes away. It came well stocked with cereal, fresh milk, a delicious salmon quiche, muffins and fresh orange juice—a nice touch! The mattress was great, the coffee was great and they had lovely soaps and gels in the bathroom. A stay at the Hix Townhouse also entitles you to a discount at The Hix Oyster and Fish House. 1 Pound St., Lyme Regis
SEASIDE BOARDING HOUSE, BRIDPORT
Just along the coast in Burton Bradstick (just outside of Bridport) is the Seaside Boarding House. This has eight rooms, all en-suite and with wonderful views over Lyme Bay and Chesil Beach. They even have their own literary glamor provided by Ian McEwan’s novel, On Chesil Beach. If I had to sum up the The Seaside Boarding House in one word, it would be luxurious. They are rightly proud of their deep claw foot baths and natural Devon mattresses, which are incredibly comfortable. There is an excellent restaurant on the premises, sourcing local, hand-reared produce and fresh fish. There is also a popular bar offering local ales and very good cocktails. Cliff Road, Burton Bradstock
WHERE TO EAT
HIX OYSTER AND FISH HOUSE
It makes perfect sense for a chef like Mark Hix, who is committed to traditional, local and sustainable ingredients, to return to his roots and open a restaurant in a region so bountiful that visiting it is like opening the door of a well-stocked larder. The wooden shack-style restaurant is perched on a hill overlooking The Cobb and Lyme Bay. The interior is contemporary: Simple white furniture allows the seagull and neon art installation hanging from the wooden beams by artist Shezad Dawood to take flight, and floor-to-ceiling windows allow stunning views of the sea (from which your meal was probably fished the very same day). While perusing the menu, I supped on a Black Cow Vodka martini on the observation deck outside—yes, there really is a vodka made with milk and it is one of the best vodkas I have ever tasted. Thankfully it is on sale in Lyme Regis, so I could get my own bottle to take home. The vodka was served with Burry Bay cockle popcorn, which is a lot nicer than it sounds—both salty and sweet. I ordered the freshest seafood platter, followed by the grilled Lyme Bay lobster with chips and garlic butter. I thought I was too full for dessert but polished off every crumb of the delicious Peruvian Gold chocolate mousse with crumbled chocolate flakes. Try the local wine; it is seriously good. I had a bottle of the Furleigh Estate Bacchus, a stunning white wine that's crisp, with aromas of elderflower, lychees and citrus fruits. Cobb Road, Lyme Regis
MARK HIX’S KITCHEN TABLE
If you are organized and can plan ahead, I really do recommend you book for Mark Hix’s Kitchen Table. Once a month, Mark welcomes eight guests into his own home in Lyme Regis and cooks local, seasonal food with them in his kitchen. It is a real treat for anyone serious about food—either eating it or cooking it. Charmouth, West Dorset
BRASSICA RESTAURANT, BEAMINSTER
Just up the road from Lime Regis is Beaminster, where another local-born chef, Cass Titcombe, has returned to his Dorset roots to open his restaurant, Brassica. In London, Cass Titcombe made a name for himself with The Canteen. Brassica is more straightforward, modern European dining. Like a lot of the restaurants I visited, it has a light, airy feel, with clean lines and simple furniture. The food is sourced locally and changes daily, depending on what’s available. The sharing boards of charcuterie are served with piquant pickles and really delicious fish soup. I recommend the hogget (mature lamb) which is fast becoming the restaurant’s signature dish. Brassica has been getting rave reviews and is popular with locals, so make sure you book in advance to avoid disappointment. 4, The Square, Beaminster
WHAT TO DO IN LYME REGIS
Lyme Regis has something for everyone. If, like me, you have eaten your way around the town and need to work off a few calories, then take a walk along the Jurassic coast and look for fossils or a seaweed forage. Or take a more robust walk up to The Golden Cap cliff where the views, all the way to Dartmoor, are breathtaking.
I spent a very happy couple of hours in the Lyme Regis Old Water Mill. Over 700 years old, this ancient watermill was rescued and restored by local volunteers. Today it is still a working mill, manned by volunteer millers who demonstrate how the flour is produced. Best of all, at the end you get to leave with a little bag of their flour. In the Mill’s outbuildings there are a number of excellent artisanal businesses, including a micro-brewery, a cheesemonger and a mouthwateringly good bakery.
This is all perfect for putting together an impromptu picnic, and, yes, there is only one place to eat it. I retraced Meryl Streep’s footsteps and walked the half-kilometre along the Cobb to the very end of the dramatic stone Pier and for a few seconds I gazed out to sea. But I am no romantic heroine: All it took for me to tear my gaze away from the English Channel was a very good, creamy Dorset Blue Vinny cheese which I ate with Dorset Knobbs. These are small bread rolls, baked twice so that they keep. They are crispy and plain and perfect with cheese. I also had a completely delicious courgette and cheese Danish from the Mill Bakery and washed it down with a bottle of pale ale from The Mill Micro Brewery.