The boats that bring in the catch to the spot in the southeast
The boats that bring in the catch to the spot in the southeast

How Hastings got its bite back

No longer Brighton’s poor cousin, the town is rising from the deep like some latter-day Neptune

Jo Lamiri
Thursday 12 July 2018 12:40

In Hastings, there’s no battle when it comes to finding excellent local food.

“It came in on that double-hulled white boat over there.” As Lindsay, proprietor of Maggie’s Fish Restaurant, gestures towards a fishing boat perched on the pebbles a few metres away, it’s clear that food sourcing doesn’t come more local than this.

And it shows. Plaice and chips are faultless, with crispy batter and sea-fresh fish cooked to order. Top marks for the double-fried chips too: crispy without, fluffy within.

The restaurant uses only fish caught that morning by Hastings’ 17-boat fishing fleet within a 16-mile radius, so huss, dabs, skate and plaice are menu stalwarts, with cod and haddock from the North Sea.

The restaurant is on the beach behind the Fisherman’s Museum, among the tall, black, slightly ominous-looking net sheds unique to Hastings. Check out nearby shacks selling fish straight off the boats.

No longer Brighton’s poor cousin, Hastings (which includes St Leonards to the west) is rising from the deep like some latter-day Neptune, bearing Google Maps instead of a trident. An award-winning pier to replace the burnt-down one, the uber-cool contemporary Jerwood Gallery (with dramatic sea views from its rooftop cafe) and excellent seasonal, local food have given the town a much-needed boost.

Graze on Grand's seabass offers something different to battered cod

There’s a lot going on too, with festivals from comedy, music, seafood, cycling and beer to the annual Jack in the Green May Day celebration complete with a burnt effigy, Morris dancing and street jazz. On 15 July Pirate Day pays homage to Hastings’ smuggling history.

Brunch spots and cafes come thick and fast: in St Leonards, Fika Coffee is a Scandi-inspired spot with a super-cute garden and excellent coffee from London micro-roaster Alchemy. Owner Chanel Ladynski describes it as a “simple, easy and quietly stylish space with the emphasis on providing a great cup of coffee, consistently”. Bold salad plates, espresso banana cake, a very orangey rosewater cake and ginger tiffin also tempt.

Local fish and chip shop Maggie's offers double-fried chips and sea-fresh fish cooked to order

Other Lennies hotspots for coffee, brunch or breakfast include Instagram-happy Love Cafe, which literally has hippy-dippy written all over it, and Graze for impeccable avocado on sourdough with pancetta and poached eggs.

Packed out within a week of opening, the cosy and welcoming Farmyard Restaurant and Wine Bar is a real winner. Platters of local Lewes charcuterie and Sussex cheeses complement their unusual, excellent-value wine list (Sauvignon Blanc from a box, Cataratto and chilled Beaujolais were highlights) while specials may include bouillabaisse, fish straight off the boats and perfectly grilled lamb chops with aubergine and haricot beans.

If the weather’s good, grab a picnic for the pebble beach or take the funicular up to the castle for a gull’s eye view of the sea, where Hastings Country Park begins. The high street has rich picnic pickings: artisan Judges Bakery for cakes (try go-to almond bar, a butter shortbread base with raspberry jam and frangipane), and sandwiches on sourdough.

Next door at Penbuckles Deli, proprietor Elizabeth champions regional products including chutneys, 50 cheeses, including local Tunworth, Mayfield and Sussex brie, plus 100 wines, many organic.

For local seasonal ingredients cooked with consummate skill, Hastings really is a winner

For a gastropub lunch after a long beach walk, it has to be The Crown, with simple wooden tables and black-painted walls.

Alongside local elderflower cider from Marston’s, a very well-executed salt-marsh lamb chop, breaded lamb belly, skordalia, pea puree, cauliflower, asparagus, peas, then platter of Brighton Blue, Sussex Charmer and Burwash Rose cheeses with rhubarb chutney and crudites was a celebration of good Sussex food. (Make sure you’re hungry: portions are generous.) Fish, not surprisingly, is a major feature.

The Penbuckles deli offers 50 cheeses

The afternoon is for mooching around the Old Town with clothes, vintage and galleries interspersed with pitstops for coffee (or mint tea with Moroccan maa’moul (shortbread pastries) and baklava at Marrakech Artisan, where Fatima serves evening tagine).

Food photographer and stylist Alistair Hendy sells vintage kitchenware and “I didn’t know I needed that” items at AG Hendy, such as ostrich feather dusters and teapot brushes.

At night, the party vibe cranks up. Good bars for pre-dinner drinks include Dragon Bar and Whistle Trago and in George Street alone there’s a Turkish restaurant, White’s for fish, an excellent bookshop-cum-Thai cafe and buzzy tapas restaurant Seed with live music after 9pm (Hastings is a great town for live music, incidentally); its gambas al ajillo, braised octopus and pan tomate are to die for.

Oysters from Old Custom House in Hastings

The Old Custom House (run by Nick Hales, acclaimed by Michelin for his previous restaurant, St Clements) is another must – also look out for his oyster workshops at the town’s festivals.

Feast on plates of sweetly subtle home-cured gravadlax with rye bread, fresh oysters from Essex and Ireland, huge bowls of mussels and superb lobster spaghetti – his aim is to create “the atmosphere and excellent simple local fish and seafood dishes you’d find on a Brittany quayside”.

Also in St Leonards, abstract art and a funky light installation combine with a great atmosphere at stylish Graze on Grand. The restaurant specialises in wines – many unusual and rare – so try a different glass with each course (or try one of their regular wine tastings, the next one is 19 July).

Ultra-talented chef Tom Herrieven conjures simple seasonal flavours into magical combinations: stone bass with sauce vierge, saffron-turned potatoes and samphire was superb, paired brilliantly with a Riesling, as was the dessert of caramelised pineapple with passionfruit sorbet and ginger “pebbles” with citrusy honeyed Veneto dessert wine I Capitelli.

On the subject of wine, if you can bear to drag yourself away from the smorgasbord that is Hastings, there are several award-winning vineyards nearby, such as Chapel Down and Sedlescombe, England’s first organic vineyard with vineyard tours and tastings.

For local seasonal ingredients cooked with consummate skill, Hastings really is a winner. And the almost weekly festivals also reveal a town with a sense of fun.

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