Our baguette-wielding cousins in France are universally, and justifiably, proud of their wonderful national cuisine. Except for the guillotine and Daft Punk’s second album it represents their greatest gift to the world, and does a lot to make up for their frightening public toilets and comic inability to pronounce the word “squirrel”.
Although they are patriotically united as one nation behind the macaron, they also manage to muster an intense and specific pride in their regional cooking. It seems like every part of la France has evolved its own unique way to seduce your liver with specific blends of fermented grape and smooch your arteries with fresh combinations of sausage, butter and cheese. What fewer people realise is that this Gallic passion for regional tastes has also left its mark upon the Channel Islands, and even extends to the different regions of our fair island. It’s true – we are so much more than a colony of Britain, knee-deep in burger wrappers, chips and frozen meals with horse in them. We are a little bit French, like the road signs none of us can pronounce. Anybody who has failed to persuade friends from the west to journey to the east can tell you that Jersey is at least four separate countries, and each has its own distinct cooking tradition. If you find this hard to believe then just hop onboard my reinforced mobility scooter – for I will be your gout-ridden guide to the delicious world of regional Jersey food.
Jersey’s west coast – rustic food at its finest
Gastronomically, Jersey likes to promote itself as a destination for sophisticated diners who flock like butterflies to the sweet meadow of our numerous Michelin-starred eateries. This is certainly true – if you wear expensive loafers and wish to treat yourself to many different varieties of jus and foam, then Jersey is an unmissable destination offering VAT-free truffle mash. However, there is another tradition, an older tradition, which predates fancy culinary concepts like sous-vide, home-made pasta, and refrigeration. It is the cooking of the western parishes – if the Michelin-starred restaurants are Leonardo DiCaprio dressed for the Oscars, then authentic western food is Leonardo DiCaprio crawling through the snow after being attacked by a bear. St Ouen is about more than fried breakfasts that cost £13 – we were eating raw fish before anybody could spell sushi, and the cooks of St Peter were sneaking minced horse into your lasagne long before it became fashionable for big supermarket chains to do so. As for the rosy, protein-fed cheeks and bulging muscles on display in St Mary, let’s just say they’ve long enjoyed the benefits of a “one in, one out” approach that marries sound nutrition to the civic challenge of population control.
St Helier – vibrant melting pot of culinary traditions
St Helier, our frequently unloved dumping ground for the corporate world’s most depressing office buildings, is the next stop on our tour of Jersey’s regional flavours. This is probably because my metaphorical scooter hit a huge slick of grease and pitched us headfirst into a pile of chips – despite a long list of great restaurants our town is often described as a place where you can get chips with everything. Like many foodie cities, St Helier draws on the diverse ethnic heritage of its residents to produce a true fusion cuisine – as long as your definition of “fusion” is the idea of ordering an espetada at a Chinese restaurant, served by a Lithuanian waiter, with good old British chips. What more could you possibly want? I hope the answer to that question is “Thai curry, coffee or sandwiches”, because if St Helier is ever put under siege by zombies that’s the only thing the residents will be eating until the honoraries roll in with both of their tasers and sort the situation out.
St Aubin – a foodie paradise for the hearing impaired
If St Helier is a battered sausage (the salty, greasy, guilty pleasure on the menu) then St Aubin is the chicken burger with salad. It looks a bit more like a proper meal, costs a bit more and has fewer obvious knuckles. It’s a romantic date rather than a quick knee-trembler in the back alley. St Aubin is the picturesque, cosy harbour that we like to convince foreigners is our real city centre, and is characterised by an impressive variety of eateries of all types. French, Italian, modern, traditional – the only thing they have in common is a strange commitment to having terrible acoustics. Meals at St Aubin are always a lovely occasion, but you might end up needing to shout at your dining companions after a couple of hours. It may be due to sketchy interior design, or it might be that this is an essential part of St Aubin’s historic identity – as a brawling destination for drunken, rum swilling pirates who are upset at never finding anywhere to park.
The East – the bastion of tradition
A vital part of any culinary tradition is the local spin that talented chefs will put on the dishes that newcomers bring with them. I hope I’ve gone some way to acknowledging the debt Jersey cuisine owes to immigrants from Portugal, Thailand and Poland, but there is a corner of the island that retains a deep love for a more neglected cooking tradition: that of England in the 1960s. A journey to certain hotels in the east of the island can allow you to step back into time, back to a time before kale, a time before pulled pork – a time before vegetarians. Heston Blumenthal might be doing his best to make postwar grub fashionable again, but there are chefs in parts of Jersey who still think that modern cuisine equals the Borsalino Roque, and will serve you chicken kiev and black forest gateau with a tender care that is absent in any part of the mainland modern enough to have a Nando’s.
The North coast – rugged tastes and secret treats
Jersey’s blasted north coast is more than just a place you go when you’re travelling from St Mary to Grouville, it is a distinct region with hidden treasures for the intrepid diner. It must be said that few of these are found in its restaurants, which offer a solid if unremarkable selection of pub grub and family dining establishments. The true taste of the north can only be found if you venture alone onto the cliff paths, or through darkened lanes, and befriend strange, monosyllabic fisherman or shifty leather-skinned farmers. Earn their trust, curious traveller, and you will feast upon a cuisine that draws its inspiration from the crashing waves, the briny depths, and people who are genetically close to their merman cousins in the “less developed” Channel Isles. I hope you like conger eel pie, bean crock with fingers in it, and bread seasoned with Devil’s Hole mushrooms and ferns. Eat in the north and you will never go back, in many cases literally as you run the risk of waking up with a hangover, bound and gagged in a granite pigsty. On the bright side, being kidnapped in St John is the cheapest way to arrange a weekend in Sark.