Grand Jersey Hotel & Spa’s executive chef, Nicolas Valmagna, is promising guests an exciting experience for Taste Jersey – enjoying a five-course tasting menu while wearing eye masks. He spoke to Emily Moore
IT is often said that we eat with our eyes but diners partaking in one Taste Jersey event this year will be doing exactly the opposite.
Indeed, in their commitment to take Islanders on a journey of culinary discovery, the team at Tassili, at Grand Jersey Hotel & Spa, will be hosting a Dining in the Dark experience in which the lights will be dimmed and attendees will be given eye masks before settling down to enjoy a five-course tasting menu.
Inspired by Dans Le Noir? – a group of restaurants in which not only are the dining rooms completely unlit but the food is also served by blind waiting staff – Dining in the Dark is returning to the hotel’s Four AA Rosette restaurant for the first time in four years.
‘This is a really exciting evening, which was hugely successful the last time we ran it,’ explained French-born executive chef Nicolas Valmagna. ‘Because the diners are encouraged to wear eye masks when eating each course, their other senses are enhanced, heightening the aromas and flavours of each dish.’
As well as bringing an additional ‘element of adventure’ to the dining experience, the evening sees Nic and his team embrace a new approach to the presentation of each dish.
‘When you can see each element on your plate, you combine the ingredients on your fork to get that rounded flavour combination,’ he said. ‘When the restaurant is in darkness, you don’t have that option so we have to plate the dishes in a way which ensures that every mouthful delivers the full flavour profile.’
While every dish is designed to incorporate a range of sensory experiences, the emphasis on showcasing local products remains but, in an additional twist, diners will not know what is on the menu.
‘In a way, you are taking a leap of faith because the dishes are not explained to you before you try them,’ said Nic. ‘At the end of each course, we ask the diners what they think they were served based on the flavour profiles they experienced.’
While the Dining in the Dark dishes remain a closely guarded secret, Nic is only too happy to share details of the main Taste Jersey menu, which will be served in Tassili every Tuesday to Saturday for the duration of the gastronomic festival.
And, again, the chefs have taken a different approach from previous Taste Jersey festivals, opting this year for an a-la-carte menu instead of the traditional tasting offer.
‘There are two reasons behind this choice,’ said Nic. ‘Firstly, it gives customers more choice and flexibility, opening the door to more people. And, secondly – and most excitingly for the kitchen team – it gives us an opportunity to work with more Jersey products and really showcase the incredible depth of ingredients which will be in season.’
Having worked closely with a number of growers and producers across the Island, the Taste Jersey menu features local fish, meat and cheese as well as classic seasonal favourites such as Jersey Royals and asparagus.
But, alongside these perennial ‘hero’ items, are some ingredients which are much more rarely seen on menus.
One such item is the ormer, which features on the starter menu.
‘We are really using it like a condiment, as part of a spicy XO sauce, which perfectly complements the local brill and sits beautifully alongside kohlrabi and a shiitake broth,’ explained Nic.
While the ormer may be a less conventional choice of ingredient to showcase, another starter based around Jersey Royals, grown by the Le Maistre family, is less surprising.
‘These potatoes are just coming into season in time for Taste Jersey so we have to use them,’ smiled Nic, ‘and this dish features them in a variety of ways, with some mixed with Jersey crème fraîche in a salad, others used to make a velouté, some made into a purée and some used as a tuile to provide another texture.’
Main courses, meanwhile, draw their inspiration from both land and sea, with a dish of skate wing served with local pork belly and razor clams offering an alternative take on a surf and turf.
‘Skate is quite a meaty fish, while the razor clams also have quite a meaty texture so the pork belly, from Me and The Farmer, is a perfect accompaniment,’ Nic said. ‘Serving it with charred gem and chicken jus brings everything together in a really elegant dish.’
For a meat-free alternative, Nic has turned to farmer Didier Hellio for inspiration to create a vegetarian dish, which will vary depending on which produce is available at the time.
‘The dish will always revolve around brassicas – vegetables from the broccoli and kale family – and alliums, from the onion family, but I deliberately haven’t specified the exact ingredients because the dish will be determined by what the farmers are able to harvest each week,’ he said.
And it is a similar story with the menu which Nic has devised for Tassili’s vegan evening on 20 April. Although the team have hosted all-vegan evenings before, it is the first time that they have held one during Taste Jersey.
‘This is another really exciting event for us, and one which gives us the opportunity to showcase vegan fine dining,’ said Nic. ‘These events are always popular and not just with vegans. A lot of meat-eaters come along as well and are often surprised by the breadth of flavours and textures that they enjoy.’
Curating the menu is also, says Nic, a challenge for the team of chefs.
‘In many ways, more creativity goes into putting together perfectly balanced and beautifully presented vegan dishes,’ he said. ‘It is challenging but also hugely rewarding as the feedback we get is that it is often a struggle to find high-end vegan food.’
While a vegan fine-dining menu is always available at Tassili – as long as it is requested at the time of booking – on 20 April, it will take centre stage, with a wine-pairing option also on offer.
‘As with many of the dishes on the main Taste Jersey menu, this four-course menu will be adapted depending on what is in season at the time but it will feature beautiful local produce including asparagus, wild garlic, rhubarb and, of course, Jersey Royals,’ Nic said. ‘I am really looking forward to introducing both vegans and non-vegans to some different ideas and helping them to discover even more exciting flavour combinations.’