Those words together create a pattern of thought in the mind of a distant place, cut off from the world existing only in the realm of fantasy today. Tom Hanks, and his adventures stranded alone with only a football for company in the movie ‘Castaway’ may be the image that would be brought forth with those 2 words. Yet I am not stranded on a beach with perfect weather all year round with only coconuts for my evening dining pleasures. I am stranded for the week on the island of Jersey.
Jersey as a place is somewhere I hold fond memories of, my Grandfather and Father at one point in time managed and owned a hotel on this fair island. By proxy, as a child, we, (myself and family) have spent many a happy week here during the summer months. Time spent anywhere as a child seems to come automatically with an attachment to a place, even though it may at the time not be the place that the rest of the populous may consider attractive, a child will see wonder where isn’t any. So I am destined to return to Jersey with the eyes of an adult.
This may set the premise for an extension to the disappointments of previous excursions but nothing could be further from the truth.
Jersey, if you have never visited, I emplore you to do so. Positioned within spitting distance of the French coast it has some strange qualities. Looking out across the sea towards France and then taking a snapshot look behind yourself inland you may be mistaken for thinking you have been transported to the south coast of England. In a sense, maybe.
Yet take some time to scratch the surface of this island and you will find something different, something more unique. Something that exists only here in Jersey.
This Island. The island. Exists as an enigma to the rest of the British Isles. Make sure to get that correct. Jersey is part of the British isles, buts is not the UK. Shame on you to call anyone on this island part of the UK and subject to UK law. A common mistake I grant, and one you shall be forgiven for. Yet here lies the enigma.
As a UK resident I can travel here without a passport. Yet there is no VAT. I can use the services of the NHS (with a quick trip to Southampton). Yet I cannot play the euromillons. I can use British pound notes. Yet I might get Jersey ones in return. Hire a car and there will be plates with J##### printed. Yet they are accepted without question on the mainland. Apart from one small modification, a H. The letter H, in bold on the plate. To mark the car as a hire car. Known to the locals (Jersey beans) as a ‘horror car’ because of the lack of local knowledge for how narrow roads can really be when you leave the confines of the capital of St Helier. I use the word capital loosely as for anywhere else in the British Isles you would call St Helier a large village and at a push, a small town.
Yet being and island of only 90,000 people, situated on the coast of France allows Jersey to take the best of both worlds and weld them together in a fashion that would make other seaside towns green with envy. This comes to fruition with the food.
My one pound notes in my back pocket (yes, notes, as in paper) proudly state ‘étates de Jersey’ ‘Une Livre’ on one side and a picture of queen Lizzy on the other. This more than anything shows what Jersey is all about. Here you land in a place that preserves everything British the rest of the world would consider British. Tea, cakes, scones and a love of a breakfast consisting of bacon, sausages and beans. Slapped haphazardly on a plate with a per person charge less than that of a Starbucks coffee. Yet they can take from France a love of food embedded in the inner workings of a resident of the island.
The Pomme D’or has been here for years out of memory, even acquired during the time of occupation (no tactual importance, during the war the armies of Hitler were allowed to overrun this island) for the headquarters of the local Nazi government. This is where I am destined to stay for the next five nights.
Destined may not be the correct word. Privileged may be the better adjective to use in this occasion.
Something every traveler to this Island should know ahead of time is this. On the island of Jersey, it is 1972, it will always be 1972. You may see things advertised like mobile phones and computers but this is simply a thing that islanders have been force to accept. The Pomme D’or hotel is the distillation of this fact.
Sunday night and venturing down to the restaurant brought me some cause for concern. Wood everywhere, pictures on the wall in black and white and not of something slightly arty, but of old boats. At the bar carbonated water dispensers, straight from the filmset of 1930s Hollywood.
Oh dear. 1970s hotel 1970s food. I don’t know if I can cope with this after Wigan.
Taken to my seat for the evening by a German dame, I find myself with a wine list and no menu….
No menu, this can only mean one thing, that island in the middle of the restaurant, that island, it’s a buffet.
Flashbacks to Chinese and indian buffets in Birmingham and many other places. Dry, tasteless, days old, depressing beyond me sure.
Fuck it. I’m hungry again, traveling will do that to you.
Red Snapper, Braised oxtail, fresh prawns, crab. My god.
How many times does this happen. I took to this buffet like a duck to water, like Tom Hanks in in role in castaway to the sight of McDonalds. I ate the lot. I went back for seconds and desert.
And now I’m fat.
Who cares. Here on an Island of 90,000 people you an get the best of Europe and the best of the UK. Your tea is hot and strong. Your breakfasts are fattening and full of cooked meat. Yet your evening meals are cooked by people who care about food even when its just a buffet.
Visit Jersey, 4 Michelin star restaurants between 90,000 people should be enough to peak your curiosity. When it does, stay at the Pomme D’or and for a night, just try the buffet. I can provide my personal assurance that you will go back for seconds, and thirds, and to finish you will feel guilty. Guilty and fat but satisfied with a grin.
Eat, sleep, work, travel, eat, sleep, work, travel. This is my life and my life is lived out of hotels. Town to town, city to city and country to country.
I do have a home, I think, well it is a place in the middle of the country where all my stuff is, including my ironing board so I guess that is home. Unlike Paul Carr in his book 'The Upgrade' I have not made the transition to a full time life living from hotels for extended periods, even though some days it would seem that would be the more financially efficient method of running with this lifestyle. With my own kitchen to cook in every night.
The kitchen would be the one luxury item I would like to travel with, yet I cannot fit it all in my bag and I don’t think bringing the sink along through an airport would help with saving money, even with an extra baggage allowance from having one world sapphire status.
'Any oversize baggage to declare sir?'
'Yes, a kitchen, including sink'
This slight inconvenience to travel plans means that I am destined to a life of dining out every evening. 'Sure' I hear you say 'such a tragedy you have to eat fine foods every night and not have any washing up to deal with afterwards'
This though, is simply not the reality of the situation. Travel to London, Paris, Rome, Melbourne or any other major centre of population and this poses no problem to the modern nomad. Each having their own different tastes and restaurants of varying prices and flavours. When you spend enough time in one place there will be your regular haunts. I could spend and good afternoon giving a lecture on the ins and out of the London restaurant scene and still finishing with a recommendation for £3.70 salt beef beigals on brick lane over some of the restaurants that hold stars issued by the tyre man.
Yet the reality of life on the road means that you end up in places you would never normally go, or more to the point, would never voluntarily go to without being paid for it. So here we go with Wigan.
Mercure Oak Wigan. You should be ashamed. Run by the focus group, hotel management company with an impressive portfolio of mid range hotels, this is the 2nd worse meal I have ever been served and then been asked to pay for. The 1st relating to the famous muffin incident of 2013 (ever paid £4.50 for a microwaved pre-packed muffin still in its packaging?, I have. There has still never been anything to top that)
On a plus point the hotel is fine, I would not choose to stay here to relax and get away (there is the Park Plaza Westminster for that) It has all the amenities you would expect from a 3 star hotel, bar, comfyish bed, en-suite, really crappy coffee in the room to wake you up in the morning and free wifi. Yet here, the restaurant makes this hotel something special.
Its Sunday, I checked in last night. Its about 8pm and Wigan is pretty much shut. Raining and cold outside with a view from the bedroom window of council flats the only thing that could perk me up from the mood I am in from a long day is going to be a good meal and a large glass of something French or Italian. Kindle in tow and a determined stride to the hotel restaurant over the decidedly 1980's carpet and through generic hotel corridor I arrive.
Empty, its 8:30pm.
I suppose it is a Sunday, and if it was any other Sunday I would probably just be setting out from home on my way here just in time to make it before the bar closes and bed time is required. This day is different though, this Sunday to me is a Monday, I full day of work has been done and I need feeding.
'Table for one please'
'Follow me please Sir'
I am sat on the only table still made up for evening meals, every other has inverted mugs and little packets of sugar laid out ready for the breakfast rush in the morning.
'Would you like a drink sir?'
'Please, large glass of Merlot' (Watch the ol' belly, low sugar in the Merlot and all that)
'Is that the red one?' I am asked, in a very distinctive Northern accent
Well this isn’t good for a start, I don't hold much hope that what I am about to be served is Merlot, or just any old red wine pulled from the shelf. Still, without paying over the odds for wine in a hotel its all the same anyway so I shrug it off.
The menu holds no real surprises, Burgers, Steaks, curries that you know has been prepared from a packet. Generic salads and staple fish of Salmon and Cod. Pretty standard fair, time for a standard meal that hold no surprises.
'Do you know what you would like to order?' Says the short very Northern waitress while as the same time placing my wine on the table.
'Yes, can I get the Rib Eye Steak, medium rare, with a side of chips please'
'No problem, anything else sir?'
I have has this dance and these same questions in 100s of restaurants and in 10s of languages all over the world always with same results.
Well 90% of the time the same results. Visit Le Relais de La Venice and a nice French waitress will inform you that will be eating the steak frittes and you will be drinking the Bordeux.
Rib Eye steak and Chips should be a safe bet in any new place, a blind monkey would be able to take a decent slab of meat, whack it in a pan for a predetermined amount of time each side and serve it with a small side salad and chips without too much mess of the operation.
Yet not here, not in the Mercure Oak Hotel Wigan managed by Focus hotels group. Whomever is behind the mystery door to the kitchen is a special type of monkey. One who cares not for his/her customers and seems to have no sense of taste beyond that for black pepper.
We know what we should expect, pink in the middle, nice marbling of fat and that satisfying taste of cow. What I get though is different.
What happened here? Where is rest of my steak? Was this sat on? no, was this driven over?
What is on my plate truly cannot be the rib eye cut I have requested can it. Yet to my dismay it is.
Here goes nothing.
First bite and I’m pretty sure this isn’t cow. This is just one slab of black pepper that looks like cow. So much black pepper it masks any taste that might have been there. The texture, there is no satisfying soft flesh to be had here. Oh no, this steak has been dried to the point that you might classify it as jerky. Powdery too. Like a dry chewy powdery leather. The cheapest meat that could ever be found from the asda smart price specials that has been demoted to the discounted area and discounted to within a range that a citizen of North Korea could buy an annual supply with a weeks pay.
My god this is crap. I don't have the vocabulary to describe the distain and disappointment I am now feeling. Fuck it, I'm hungry. So I chew and I eat and I consume not for pleasure but to satisfy the hunger pangs build up from the day to that point.
I do like to make a point of not complaining about my food when I know I may have to eat here again out of desperation and do not wish my food to receive some special treatment after I chew out the chef as well as the food that is served on my place.
It does get worse though.
Desert I keep it simple, maybe they are bought in by an external company and I don’t have to have the same person preparing this part of my meal so I shoot for the creme brûlée.
Crisp melted sugar top coating, creamy vanilla underbelly, just enough structure to hold on the spoon while melting into ecstasy in the mouth. That is what I expect, that is not what I am about to receive.
Burnt Cream, its in the name. Ever had a creme brûlée without the brûlée? This was just that, brown sugar sprinkled ever so sparingly over the top with a small mountain of fruit compote added on top for good measure. The cream, and vanilla, well the cream anyway. There is no vanilla. The 2 basic components of a creme brûlée are missing. How is it possible to deliver this to a plate and expect payment?
Food is a part of everyones life and should be available not only in the quantities needed to survive but should be available as a basic form of pleasure. Food has the power to turn a day around and change a mood. It has the potential to form emotion and mark a memory into place. We all have a truly memorable meal, whether is was a fine dining shirt and tie dress up with Foe Grais and vintage wines or the most perfect sausage and egg sandwich from a greasy spoon. The price and the type of food is not where the memories come from but the quality in preparation and expertise in the effort placed into the food by the work of the chef is where the pleasure lies.
To a person who is preparing food for others, the other person does not matter. They could be the queen or they could be another no name one of many members of the general public. When that person will refuse to serve something as simple as a fried sausage without putting the time into making sure it is prepared in a way that will maximise taste, pleasure and flavour. Not for the person that is to consume it, but to know they have performed justice to the product they are creating. That they have worked for perfection even within the most simple of tasks.
Then that person is a chef.
There is not a chef in the kitchen of the Mercure Oak Hotel Wigan.