Picture the scene. A crisp, clear autumn Monday night in Lyme Regis, former home of the author John Fowles, and the setting for his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, as well as a major stretch of the Jurassic Coast. Silence has taken hold of the town, and everyone in the sleepy streets is absent and quiet. That is, with the exception of the journalist who has just drunk a bottle of Tabasco, followed by a bottle of Brouilly, and is now making retching noises unheard of outside the zoo, or possibly the wrestling ring.
But I am getting ahead of myself. A group of adventurers, drinkers and bon viveurs, including none other than this parish’s Lucy Shaw and David Constable, gathered at Waterloo earlier that day for the trip down to Lyme Regis, where the day’s activities were to include a foraging expedition with chef extraordinaire Mark Hix and a whisky dinner hosted by Talisker. All assembled were on good form, helped along the journey by a spectacularly good Hix picnic of smoked salmon, a wonderful pork terrine with spicily zesty piccalli and a very drinkable white wine that even had its logo designed by long-time Hix friend Tracey Emin. Spirits were high, and slightly boisterous. All concerned were in excellent humour, even the train guard who raised an eyebrow at the substantially higher quality of fare on display than the usual mealy-mouthed buffet.
All was well, until we arrived at the nearby station of Axminster, to find that there was a Biblical deluge ongoing, which soon put a stop to the high-spirited bonhomie. Transferring to Lyme Regis, we headed to Mark Hix’s legendary restaurant, The Oyster & Fish House, where Keith Floyd famously ate his last meal. (A note inviting Hix to a never-held book launch is still proudly displayed.) The panorama of the harbour is undeniably impressive, as were the 10-foot high waves that came crashing over it. With the inclement weather, the foraging expedition was soon commuted to a brief flurry of activity on the beach with the ever-affable Hix, who took great delight in pointing out which types of vegetation were edible, and which should be left well alone.
Arriving back at The Oyster & Fish House, warming Talisker hot toddies were produced, along with deliciously different fish Scotch eggs, which Mr Constable, something of an expert when it comes to these things, was sceptical about, but which I thought were excellent. Then we toddled off to our respective hotels to prepare for the main attraction, the Talisker dinner. Half the group was staying in a stylish boutique hotel just around the corner from the restaurant; the other half was not, instead billeted in a rather strange place that appeared to have vague delusions of grandeur, but still felt like something out of Fawlty Towers. My room was unexceptional, small and lacked a bath. So much for the relaxing and warming soak I’d promised myself. I had to console myself with a pint of cider in the downstairs bar instead, which did the same in a rougher, more bracing sort of way.
And so a return to Hix for dinner. As you’d expect, it was a marvellous evening. Preceded by a glass of 10-year-old Talisker, the first course was a quite astonishing selection of fruits de mer. Oysters, clams, mussels, lobster, prawns…you name it, there’s an excellent chance that it was yielded up by the sea for our delight. This was swiftly followed by an equally delightful Cern Valley red leg partridge, complete with elderberries and wood sorrel, which was a carnivorous pleasure and a welcome change of tack from fishy indulgence. However, the main course of fillet of Torbay silver mullet once again made sure that poisson-fanciers got more than their fair share of brain food. I wasn’t as wild about this as I had been about previous courses – mullet and I have never been particularly happy platefellows – but a glass of the 18-year-old Talisker soon revived me and sent me back into joyful and convivial mode.
Whisky and walnut tart, and then a lavish local cheese course, both proved near-insurmountable obstacles, and even a rare tasting of the 25-year-old Talisker could only do so much for my energy levels. With a sigh and a creak of my limbs, I attempted to head for the door and a relatively early night. Which is when I caught the eye of another journalist, who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this article. He had clearly been enjoying the whisky a little too violently, and was beginning to show distinct signs of weakness.
“I could drink double anything you could, you bastard,” a slurred voice said.
I wasn’t about to deny him this self-evident fact. The downing, that is, rather than my supposed illegitimacy.
“I could even down…” He looked around and saw a small bottle of Tabasco, untouched since the appearance of the fruits de mer. He brightened. “This. In one.”
Someone else, wearying of this blowhard’s repetition of his foolhardy boasts, said, sardonically, “Well go on then, and have some more wine while you’re at it.”
Reader, I hardly need tell you of the chaos and horror that followed; in fact, I’d probably better draw a veil over it. Suffice to say that, avoiding the maelstrom of this unfortunate man’s entanglements with the booze – “My EYES! My THROAT! Help me, people!” – I was delighted to bear home a small bottle of Talisker as a trophy, where it sits by my side and in my hipflask, ready to come to my aid at a moment’s notice when required. For which relief, much thanks.