I’m on a trawler three miles off the Dorset coast, wielding my fishing rod with what I hope is an air of nonchalant professionalism. This is my first sea fishing trip and so far, not an entirely successful one. I’m waving my rod up and down in laborious half-arcs but the fish aren’t biting. All around me, my companions are yelping with delight as they reel in mackerel, dogfish and even bream. But on my side of the boat, the sea stays silent and unploughed, with not even a paltry bit of seaweed to show for my efforts.
Eventually chef Alex Aitken, who is running this “Catch It, Cook It” trip from The Christchurch Harbour Hotel, takes pity on me and helps me land my first – and only – mackerel of the day. I feel unfeasibly proud, even though it’s been engineered; at last I have something (half a fish; one tiny chunk of ceviche) to add to our seafood barbeque later on.
The Christchurch Harbour Hotel And Spa is all about good, seasonal grub and these fishing trips are the highlight of its culinary résumé. Aitken, a Michelin-starred chef, started his career as a trawler man and his enthusiasm for great quality local food is infectious. When he’s not busy running the hotel’s Upper Deck Bar & Restaurant and Jetty Restaurant, he and his wife also have their own farm and he knows everything there is to know about hand-reared and sustainable produce.
The Jetty’s daily changing menu is a work of love to this effect, with treats such as pan fried solent bream fillet, rock oysters served with award-winning English Chase vodka, and hand dived Weymouth scallops sourced from just beyond Mudeford Quay, the picturesque bay that surrounds the restaurant.
Alex’s twice baked cheese soufflé – an unmissable signature dish – uses cheddar from nearby Denhay and Lyburn farms. Even the ice-cream, Purbeck, comes from a farm in Dorset and there’s a great Rosé wine from Dorset’s Furleigh estate.
The hotel’s fishing expeditions are a great way of extending this Eat Local philosophy and despite my lack of prowess, I enjoyed my foray into the Channel. By the end of it, my face was streaming from the wind and my hair caked in salt but I felt healthy and hearty in a way that seven hours in London could never achieve. And there’s something about working for your food (ok, waving your arms up and down for many hours), that is truly satisfying.
Back on land, Aitken waded through our seaworld treasure on the hotel’s patio with expert panache. Armed with chilled sparkling wine and G&Ts (the cook part of the trip, it transpires, doesn’t have to be hands-on), we watched on appreciatively as he whipped up fresh ceviche drizzled with salt and lemon, mackerel tempura and pan-fried mackerel with salsa sauce on the barbeque grill. It was deliciously fresh and tasted all the better for having been plucked out of the sea just 20 minutes before.
This was an idyllic spot for a cooking lesson, with a terrace that led onto a crisp green lawn and in the distance, Mudeford harbour, peppered with fishing boats and rows of brightly coloured beach huts.
Both outdoors and within, the Christchurch Harbour Hotel has a pleasing 20s ambiance. The building is whitewashed, with art deco-style lettering and creamy, sophisticated hues throughout. The rooms are large and airy (the best come with harbour views) with chic beach chairs and stand-alone baths and the Upper Deck Bar & Restaurant has giant, retro-style chandeliers, silver lamps and arched French doors that lead onto the terrace. On a sunny day when guests gather here and there for morning tea and newspapers, it’s all a bit Gatsby, with a definite air of understated elegance.
Having finally polished off the fruits of our day’s labour (it’s surprising how much seafood you can eat in one go), we headed straight to the hotel spa, where award-winning treatments from luxury skincare range ESPA awaited. I fell asleep during my facial, lulled by the thought of all those ocean mackerel that I hadn’t quite caught.
“Catch it, Cook it” packages at The Christchurch Harbour Hotel and Spa, Dorset start from £125 per person, per night for a two-night stay. This includes accommodation in one of the inland rooms, dinner allowance of £30 per person on your arrival night in the new Upper Deck Bar & Restaurant, “Catch it, Cook it” with Alex Aitken - fishing trip & cooking your catch with the hotel's award-winning chef, "Bring me food” tasting menu at the Upper Deck Bar & Restaurant on the second night, Full English Breakfast each morning and full use of the Harbour Spa, excluding treatments. Fishing boat departures on select dates, please call for details 0844 8589183.
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