The Scillies are an archipelago 28 miles from Land's End, basking in the comparatively balmy climate of the Gulf Stream, strangers to frost and snow. This enables them to catch the early season market for daffodils and narcissi, the islands' major export. Their livelihood in other centuries revolved around piracy, smuggling and salvage.
The archipelago consists of some 100 islands, many of them no more than jagged-toothed rocks on which many ships have foundered and sunk. The latest was the Cita, which went down two years ago spilling its container- loads along the shoreline (for a while, most islanders were to be seen sporting black-and-white Ascot trainers).
There is a prayer in the churches, say the islanders: "Lord, may there be no shipwrecks, but if there are, please let them come our way."
Scillonians know the names of each jagged rock as well as they know their neighbours, from the furthest-flung Bishop's Rock, to the intriguingly- named Baker, Brewer, Great Smith, Maiden Bower, Rascal's Ledge; from the descriptive Nut Rock, Kettle Bottom, Great Cheese Rock, Flea Rock, Cow and Calf, Chimney Rocks, Chinks, Fig-Tree Ledge; to the more prosaic Mackerel Rocks and Puffin Island.
This rugged formation, so deadly to mariners, offers safe shelter for thousands upon thousands of slow-growing lobsters (they take seven years to reach a weight of 750g, the minimum requirement for the table). And here, too, tasty brown crabs thrive in the shallow aquamarine and turquoise waters between the sandy white strands of the islands. Until just 700 years ago the islands were still connected. Violent erosion from Atlantic winter tides tore away the plains which once linked the islands, but in doing so created the perfect home for thriving populations of crab, langoustine and shrimp - the focal point of every hotel, restaurant, cafe and pub menu; expect to find lobster thermidor, poached lobster, lobster and crab salads, lobster club sandwiches, crab pates.
There are five main islands: St Mary's, Bryher, St Martin's, St Agnes and Tresco, the latter known the world over to horticulturists because of its unique Abbey Gardens. It contains exotic plants which grow outdoors nowhere else in Britain. Of the 120,000 visitors to the Scillies last year (population 2,000) half of them visited Tresco (population 150).
Tresco also boasts the Island Hotel, my dinner destination. Since Ivan Curtis took over as manager seven years ago, its reputation has ascended steeply. Last year it was given the West Country Blue Ribbon by the RAC for best hospitality, food and comfort. The Good Food Guide also commends its cooking and its stunning views. Ah, yes: there is nothing so stunning to whet the appetite as the view of lobster fishermen tracking out to the island rocks to their pots marked by bobbing red flags.
Over to the hotel. No cars are permitted on Tresco (a modest one mile by two), which is privately owned by the Darrien Smith family. Tractors move visitors from one end to the other, cyclists and back-packers reining themselves in to let you by. Paradise is a word often used to describe this island of flowers. It never occurred to me before that paradise might be quite windy.
The Island Hotel is a low-lying cluster of grey-roofed buildings resembling a clubhouse on the 18th green, although inside all is sweetness and light, conveying a sense of colonial comfort, windows opening on a glorious view of St Martin's (and the hotel where Marco Pierre White spent his honeymoon, a piece of local history more enduring than the marriage).
The hotel is protected by a windbreak of trees (also the secret of how the Abbey Gardens withstand the Atlantic's winter gales). Within this dense band of foliage grow exotic plants which have emigrated from the botanic gardens a mile and a half away. Spiky Chilean palms, Mexican yuccas and royal- blue agapanthus - one to two metres high - an explosion of hyacinthine flowers. And monumental flowing echia, which tower up to three metres high, and the dinosauric form of foxglove known as acanthus. All these mixed with clumps of scarlet fuchsia, yellow evening primrose, white marguerites, purple heather. The Smith family (Hertfordshire businessman Augustus Smith acquired the lease to Tresco in 1834) managed to introduce the spiky, globe artichoke-shaped protea from South Africa and bottle-brush plants from the Australian bush.
But this is the thing: never a single exotic vegetable or fruit. So the young chef at the Island Hotel, Peter Hingston, has had to struggle to complement a larder full of lobster and crab. "The growers who cultivate daffodils have started producing fruit and vegetables; asparagus, courgettes, mangetout peas, good new potatoes, and raspberries and strawberries."
The local fisherman bring in fresh monkfish, brill, sole and plaice, but to feed 100 people daily, Peter has to order fish in from Newlyn, the south-west's major fishing port, 40 miles away on the mainland. Clotted cream comes from Cornwall, as does humanely-reared veal, best lamb and beef.
The cooking was manager Ivan Curtis's number one priority after he took over seven years ago. When he arrived, the food was frankly appalling. "It was disgusting and there was too much of it" (unlike food at the Jewish holiday hotel described by comedian George Burns, where customers complained "the food is disgusting and the portions are too small").
Ivan was shocked to find a kitchen equipped with a wall-to-wall stack of tinned consomme and canned ratatouille. He promptly hired a chef from the renowned Imperial Hotel, Torquay, who brought Hingston with him as sous-chef. Peter took over two years ago. The Imperial was once the south-west's chief centre of excellence, hosting gastronomic festivals every year. Then it stumbled into the modern world and a staff of 40 classically-trained chefs was slashed to a dozen or fewer.
Hingston, now 28, is the last to carry the torch from this era. As a teenager he left catering college at the top of his class and was thrown in at the deep end. Here he presides over a young and good-humoured staff. Because the hotel closes for four months over the winter, Ivan hires new staff every year, advertising for people who might like to work on a privately-owned island. In the last two years he's had as many as 1,400 applications.
The atmosphere in the hotel is somewhat akin to that of an ocean-liner cruise, says Ivan's wife, Su; people thrown together for a short duration, with mealtimes representing social occasions. Allowing that some visitors will stay for a full two weeks, Peter has to meet the challenge of producing 14 different dinner menus (each with four choices for each course).
My meal there was ambitious but not pretentious. A ravioli was generously stuffed with masses of fresh lobster, and served with a small amount of intense sauce, a reduction made from the shells (he sells 70 lobsters a week). Chilled tomato soup made from the freshest of plum tomatoes, an original touch being a blob of avocado and basil sorbet. A main course roast steak of monkfish, had been caught that morning. This was followed by zingy home-made sorbets (and a taste of fuchsia-red summer pudding, embracing local redcurrants, raspberries, strawberries). Lastly, a fine cheese tray of south-western specialities.
CHILLED PLUM TOMATO SOUP
450g/1lb fresh plum tomatoes
1 large onion (chopped)
2 small carrots (peeled and chopped)
1 stick of celery (washed and chopped)
1 garlic clove (crushed)
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
300ml/12 pint vegetable stock
300ml/12 pint tomato juice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon demerara sugar
salt and pepper
Heat the vegetable oil in a roasting tray; add the whole plum tomatoes and roast in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes at 350F/180C/Gas 4. In a small pan, sweat the onion, celery and carrot in the olive oil for five to 10 minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic, sugar and vinegar and reduce on a low heat for approximately 10 minutes. Add the roasted plum tomatoes, tomato juice and vegetable stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Season. Blend, pass through a fine sieve and chill. Serve with a blob of ...
AVOCADO & BASIL SORBET
1 ripe avocado
juice of 1 lime
1 cup of water
14 cup fresh chopped basil
2 tablespoons stock syrup
2 tablespoons basil oil
Blend all ingredients in a jug and pour into an ice-cream machine. Churn for 35 to 45 minutes. Freeze.
POACHED LOBSTER IN SAFFRON SAUCE
150ml/14 pint white wine
pinch saffron strands
300ml/12 pint fish stock
juice of a lemon
150ml/14 pint double cream
500ml/1 pint court bouillion
Poach the lobster in court bouillion for 10 to 12 minutes. Sweat the shallots in butter; add wine and saffron, and reduce by half. Add the fish stock, reduce by a third; add the cream and lemon juice. Season.
Separate the tail from the body and remove the meat from tail and claws; clean the head. Slice the meat at an angle and arrange at the head end of the shell, claws angled from the body; pour the sauce over the meat. Garnish with lobster eggs and chives and serve with minted new potatoes, a green salad and fresh asparagus.
BAKED PEACH IN A BRANDY SNAP BASKET
For the roasted peach:
4 large ripe peaches
225g/8oz white caster sugar
115g/4oz unsalted butter
150ml/5fl oz double cream
For the compote:
450g/1Ib mixed berries
115g/4oz caster sugar
50ml/2fl oz cassis
For the ice-cream:
500ml/2 pints whipping cream
225g/8oz clotted cream
115g/4oz caster sugar
For the basket:
130g/412oz diced unsalted butter
115g/4oz golden syrup
2 level teaspoon ginger powder
For the peach, put the sugar in a thick-bottomed pan on full heat until caramelised. Remove from heat, add butter (watch for spitting), mix with wooden spoon over a gentle heat. Add cream and blend till smooth. Coat peaches in this sauce and place, stalk-end down, on a baking sheet. Bake at 350F/ 180C/Gas 4 for five to eight minutes, until soft. Don't let the skins split.
For the compote, put the berries and caster sugar in a thick-bottomed pan and gently heat until the berries release their juices; add cassis to taste.
For the ice-cream, warm the blackberries, cream, clotted cream and sugar in a pan; blend, pass through a sieve and churn in an ice-cream machine. Freeze.
For the baskets, blend the butter, flour, sugar, syrup and ginger powder. Roll into gobstopper-sized balls and space on parchment-covered oven-tray. Bake at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for five minutes until flat discs form. Mould over up-turned ramekin and allow to cool.
Set the peach and basket on plate, a scoop of ice- cream in the basket, spoon the compote to the side and garnish with a sprig of mint.
! The Island Hotel, Tresco, Isles of Scilly, TR24 OPU (01720 422 882). Open this year until 30 October