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London Letter: Of garlic ale and chili beer

WITH the most miserable winter ever recorded underway in England, management and I decided to take an island break. Unfortunately said island was only five kays off the southern England coastline, but what can you do when you’re supporting three households with brats at different universities and have to holiday on supermarket vouchers? Indeed, the …

WITH the most miserable winter ever recorded underway in England, management and I decided to take an island break.

Unfortunately said island was only five kays off the southern England coastline, but what can you do when you’re supporting three households with brats at different universities and have to holiday on supermarket vouchers?

Indeed, the Isle of Wight is no Caribbean getaway. In fact, it’s so close to the mainland that it’s almost part of the Southampton harbour, so any deluge drowning England will also be swamping the Isle of Wight.

Which is what happened, fortunately the night before we arrived, and our hotel had more sandbags outside than guests. Our friendly receptionist with two nose-rings in his snout claimed he had been at the forefront of stopping the hotel from being swept into the sea.

We later discovered that the floods had been a few centimetres of swirling water coming more from super high tides than rains, but hey, who were we to put a dampener on our new best friend’s story?

We were only there for four days, but I discovered that even cold wet islands have their charm. In summer, we were told, it has far better weather than the mainland and the beaches on the northern side are also great windsurfing spots.

But what the Isle of Wight is most famous for is sailing. And we were staying slap-bang in the sailing Mecca of Europe – Cowes.

Cowes Week, which started in 1826, is one of the largest regattas in the world hosting up to 1 000 boats. It’s also one of the most skilful as the world’s top skippers have to battle exceptionally strong tides, rip currents and gusting winds screaming up the Solent, the fast-running stretch of water cleaving the island off the mainland.

Cowes itself is a tiny town and during Cowes Week 100 000 people cram into the waterfront. If you have a spare cardboard box, you can rent it out as a penthouse. The parties are non-stop.

You wouldn’t have thought so when we were there. But late winter is not peak tourist season, which is why I like it. And besides, this beautiful island has other attractions.

For example, it’s a major garlic producer and even exports to France. So with this knowledge, we decided to visit the island’s internationally famous Garlic Farm where the pungent bulb is accorded almost religious status. Indeed, as you enter the premises there’s wooden sculpture of the revered shrub crafted like a totem pole that you feel is a shrine.

They have a shop where they do things with garlic you would never dream of – such as garlic Bloody Marys. And, even more amazing – garlic ale. At first I scoffed, but as we left the shop two bottles of aforementioned brew were clinking on the back seat.

We then passed a chili farm and hot on the heels of our garlic adventure, we turned in there. Chili is one of my favourite spices and we emerged with various mixtures of varying potency that I still have to muster the courage to sample. But just as I had been intrigued by garlic beer, I was equally bemused by a chili beer, aptly called Fire in the Hole.

Back home, I decided to quaff a bottle of garlic beer minding management’s warning that I may be sleeping in the conservatory. It was advice worth heeding as at the bottom of my glass I noticed a lump that I thought was ale sediment. Instead, it was a whole garlic clove.

This should have jangled alarms, and after a few sips I started to feel queasy. It was the first time in my life I have poured a beer down the drain.

Not to worry – I still had the chili brew. Even bigger mistake. After a single swallow, not only did the name Fire in the Hole become clear, it also dawned on me exactly why master brewers avoid mixing garlic or chili with hops and yeast. The chili beer joined the garlic down the drain.

If nothing else, that explained to me why the Isle of Wight is more famous for sailing than anything else.

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