Hook, line and dinner

At the heart of The Jetty is a thriving connection to the local food scene

Travel writer Benjamin Parker spends a morning with Chef Patron Alex Aitken to find out more

It was the dreary grey drizzle that welcomed me, early on a Saturday morning, to Highcliffe, a small Dorset town known for its Gothic Revival castle and beach of sand and shingle (from where you can see the Needles chalk stack beside the Isle of Wight).

It’s only a six-minute drive east from Harbour Hotel Christchurch, and I imagined how, at this hour, guests would only just be beginning to stir in their beds. But despite the weather, there’s an unexpected buzz at the top of an unassuming road, a mere 500 metres from the shore. I watched as a queue formed in front of a half-timbered hut, which through an open hatch displayed today’s varicoloured catch from the local waters, from iridescent scales to the dark curves of mussel shells.

Among those waiting, dressed in pristine chef whites, is Alex Aitken, there to collect seafood for his nearby restaurant, The Jetty, and who I’m meeting to find out more about this hands-on, hand-picked approach to sourcing.

I want to know how integral to an award-winning restaurant the relationship between suppliers and chefs is. In the year that Chef Patron Alex and The Jetty reach the 13th anniversary, he promised to tell me.

Without building these relationships we wouldn’t have had the quality and consistency over the last decade. It’s simple, really, but it’s about knowing what you’re going to get each day, week, month. Respect for the produce, and those who supply it, means you can bring in the very best.

And when it comes to sourcing the south coast’s finest fish, he added, it’s about ensuring you and your chefs are part of the close-knit communities that make their living on the local boats – he told me he considers himself almost one of them, having worked on the North Sea aboard a trawler as a teenager.

But even with this experience, and the fact he is a lively, sociable character, I’ve no doubt that an enormous reason he commands so much respect on the region’s food scene is due to his stellar reputation over the last 40 years.

It was 1983 when Alex opened Le Poussin in Brockenhurst, the New Forest, winning a Michelin star in 1995. It’s even more impressive when you consider that Alex was entirely self-taught in the kitchen; his wife, Caroline, was in charge on the other side of the pass. Together the pair held a star for 14 years (it was a favourite of Gordon Ramsay during this time).

It wasn’t marine cuisine that held his attention back then...

Instead becoming, in his words, “almost addicted” to foraging in the New Forest when wild food was still a niche section on Britain’s fine dining map. Dishes on his menu included a mushroom dessert of chanterelle crème brûlée.

In 2010, he opened The Jetty on the site of a struggling Gary Rhodes restaurant, and his gaze fell on the waves – hardly surprising, as the dining room sits on the sweep of Mudeford Quay, a beautiful curve of land at the entrance of Christchurch Harbour.

I take the same approach to fish in my kitchen as I did with ingredients I foraged, which is to keep things straightforward and smart, letting the excellence shine through

We’re soon joined by Russell Murphy holding a gleaming sea bass caught that morning. It’s a whopper, and has been set aside as a favour to Alex. Russell has fished the swathe of sea that makes up Christchurch Bay and the Solent since he was 16 years old. He took over the hut, which previously sold ice cream by the scoop and is now named ‘Russell’s Plaice’, ten years ago, opening only on Saturday mornings – with Alex a frequent visitor.

“It’s always good to supply someone who appreciates what we do, especially when it comes to sustainable fishing and going beyond the same old fish. I’ll bring in what I can and trust Alex to make the best of it,” Russell said.

With a chuckle, Alex said: “It works both ways. He’ll teach me how to fillet the fish, and I’ll teach him how to cook it.”

The seabass safely in the back of the car, joined by a hefty pollack, Alex drove me back towards the restaurant. Along the way we pass other fishermen that Alex knows by name – people he can call on if he’s ever short on a particular species. We take a detour to Meadowbrook Produce, a butchers-cum-deli in Christchurch that supplies much of The Jetty’s meat, and, like Le Poussin, is another family affair, owned by Alex and Caroline along with their son, Justin (plus a grandson working the counter).

A need for accomplished producers has taken on even more importance as The Jetty has grown. A second outpost opened in 2013 as part of Harbour Hotel Salcombe, with another at the Harbour Hotel Southampton in 2017. Alex has to cultivate his network across the entire region, with trusted producers extending to Portland Shellfish for Dorset crab and lobster, Dan Tanner, for seasonal fruit and vegetables, especially their asparagus, and of course Meadowbrook Produce, where local meat is aged in Himalayan salt chambers.

Back at the original Jetty, where lunch prep is hard underway...

Alex cooked me an off-menu dish of cioppino, an Italian-American fish stew which the chef discovered while travelling in San Francisco. Into the pan goes the fish from Russell’s Place, as well as gurnard, skate, bream and prawns.

As he chops and stirs, I scanned the menu. Beyond the tight bond with those who supply, another theme emerges: Alex’s penchant for sticking with the dishes that made his name. His twice-baked cheese soufflé has been a signature since the Le Poussin days. I spied a venison main course, which I first ate here four years ago; it was the dish Alex served when challenged to a cook-off by the Hairy Bikers, who were filming one of their television shows in the New Forest (he beat them, by the way).

As customers arrived for lunch service, I overheard a woman explain that she’d be ordering her usual – and that it’s been her favourite since the restaurant opened, a cod and crab main.

It’s no surprise to the chef: “We’re changing elements all the time but there are some things that people just always want, whether from following my career or because of what they’ve heard.

“We could shift shape to fit every trend or new idea but I think what customers want is amazing food where the flavours do the talking. You’ve seen that with the fish here – what we have locally is inspirational.”

As I mopped up the last of the cioppino with crusty bread, a perfume of tomato, wine and the sea steaming from the bowl, I saw through the wall of glass windows that the sun was attempting to burst out over the quay’s calm water.

A fine reward for venturing out on a miserable winter morning – inspirational indeed.

Recipe: Crab & Herb Crusted Cod
with crushed peas and butter sauce

• 4 x 150g fillet of cod
• Mashed potato
• 60g brown crab meat
• 100g white crab meat
• Dijon mustard


• 200g dried breadcrumbs
• 100g parsley leaf
• 1 shallot
• Olive oil
• Put breadcrumbs, parsley and the shallot into a food processor and blend, add enough olive oil to make a light vibrant crumb


• 1 shallot, finely chopped
• 150g butter
• 40ml white wine vinegar
• 75ml white wine
• 10ml cream
• 40ml fish stock
• Pinch of salt and sugar
• Juice of ½ lemon
• Milk

Add shallot, vinegar and wines to a pan and reduce until dry.

Add stock and cream and simmer.

Add in the butter and slowly whisk.

Season, and add lemon juice and milk to loosen.

Pass through a sieve.

Place the cod fillets skin-side down on a baking sheet and brush with a little Dijon mustard.

Spread the brown crab meat onto the cod fillet then top with the white and coat in the herb crust.

Pod the peas if using fresh or defrost if using frozen.

Lightly pulse the peas in a food processor to ‘crush’ them down.

Melt a knob of butter in a sauce pan and add the peas, stir until hot and season with a pinch of salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Bake cod for 15–20 minutes at 160/170ºc.

Serve with crushed peas, creamy mashed potatoes and the light butter sauce.