A little while ago there were numerous stories in the property section about the UK’s most expensive beach shacks. On the market for hundreds of thousands of pounds and looking little more than glorified sheds, they caused quite a sensation.
The reason why I’m talking about this on food pages is because across the strait from these expensive summer homes is the harbour where chef Alex Aitken sources his fish. That row of beach-front property is some what of a local attraction and, when I went to meet the fishermen with Aitken, they were duly pointed out to me.
Perhaps in startling contrast to the expense of the property in the area, the food at The Kings Arms in Christchurch is remarkably good value. In fact, it holds a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide for precisely that reason.
Incidentally, the reason why I had travelled all the way to Christchurch in Dorset was to try out the restaurant’s new 15 Mile Menu. Costing just £15 for two courses, it’s something of a novelty for someone who’s used to dining at London rates. But Aitken manages to make it work.
The two fishermen I met on the harbour, about 5 minutes drive from the restaurant, both sourced their fish on day boats. Their day was timed by the tides as it’s impossible to get in and out of the harbour when the tide is out.
The nature of the business is such that you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get but Aitken works closely with the fishermen and buys up their by-catch. That is, the lesser known fish of the day. They tend to be much cheaper, which is the aim of the game.
Ten, perhaps 15 minutes drive from Christchurch and you’ll have reached Hampshire. There, just off the dual carriage way, is a pick-your-own farm where Aitken sources his vegetables. He doesn’t pick his own of course, but it’s how he manages to cut down the mileage of the fruits and vegetables he uses.
It’s helps to be hyper-seasonal when you’re working so locally and economically.
Aitken always knows what’s in season, not only because he drives past the farm daily but also because he has his own small holding, which he runs with his wife. There, he rears his own pigs and grows his own vegetables, some of which are used at the restaurant.
So just who is this Alex Aitken?
He’s a man who, perhaps almost on a whim, decided to open a restaurant decades ago.
He had been a waiter with no culinary experience and his wife was on the verge of giving birth at the time. It has been no easy task but as far as culinary training goes, opening your own restaurant is a pretty steep learning curve. Aitken described how he started out by cooking everything à la minute, including the sauces. He quickly realised how infeasible this was and learnt to adapt.
He also worked on the Limewood Hotel, the site that’s later become The Pig at Limewood.
With proven experience and expertise, Aitken was drafted into rescuing The Kings Arms, of which he’s now the chef/patron. When he took over, the restaurant was making a loss in the hundreds of thousands. Now, with just over 100 covers, it’s turning a profit four times that of the loss it once made.
Well let’s talk about the food that makes this business work.
It’s simple British food, reminiscent of gastro-pubs, with butter and cream usage that would make the French envious. But there are plenty of greens on the menu too. It’s on the right side of fancy; that is to say it’s up-scale enough to be considered everyday luxury but not quite so innovative so as to alienate its loyal following. Ultimately, it’s real food – food you could identify.
When I visited, Aitken cooked up young broad beans in their shells, which we plucked from the pick-your-own farm earlier in the day, with bacon and plenty of cream. It was then followed by the last of the season’s asparagus and foraged greens, tossed with fresh cheese. From the fisherman’s fodder, we had Asian inspired crab claws, still in their shells and needing to be carefully extracted.
After tasting the day’s pickings, I tried a couple of starters from the 15 Mile Menu. Following the seafood theme, I had the crab croquettes, made with the brown and white meat of Mudeford crabs. Next came Alex’s twice-baked soufflé, a rich and cheesy rendition of the classic. Needless to say, the dishes were packed with the flavour of the season.
Finishing off the meal was a very classic sticky toffee pudding.
Actually, the end of the meal was probably a cocktail at The Bar where they also served 15 Mile cocktails made with local spirits like Dorset Black Cow vodka and the recently launched Conker gin.
The whole thing is probably as local as it gets.
The Kings Arms, 18 Castle Street, Christchurch, Dorset BH23 1DT www.thekings-christchurch.co.uk
In Pursuit of Food was a guest of The Kings Arms, Christchurch, part of the Harbour Hotel Group. For more information on what this means, read our Editorial Policy.