A few decades ago – its exact etymology long since lost in the mists of time – the name “Lydia Folkestone-Hovercraft” evolved as my shorthand to describe a girl who was very posh, very pretty and not terrifically bright; a few years later, and she would certainly have moved in the same circles as Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice-But-Dim.
In the Nineties (if only in my head), Lydia became PA to the anglophile US tycoon Chevron Chicane and briefly dated the actor Naugahyde Banquette – known as Hyde – before finally, and very happily, marrying French aristo Robert Royaume-Unis-Calais-Coquelles-Coquilles -St-Jacques, and moving to a shabby chateau near Amiens, where she raised the twins, Babord and Tribord.
I once introduced the concept of Lydia to my sons (16 and 12) and was met with blankly uncomprehending expressions on the grounds, presumably, that the phrase “Folkestone Hovercraft” was as meaningless to them as, say, “eight-track cartridge” or “digital clock radio”. Indeed, there are probably 16-year-olds in Folkestone itself who have no idea that, in The Time Before YouTube, it was perfectly normal to travel to Boulogne and back from their home town on a CBeebies-styled seagoing vessel that, though invariably named after a member of the Royal family, ought really to have been called Hovery McHoverface. Anyway, Folkestone’s cross-channel port closed in 2000 – as, apparently, did Folkestone itself.
I hadn’t visited since the Triennial in 2011; however, I had watched Danny Boyle’s moving Armistice Day centenary project, Pages of the Sea, in which Wilfred Owen was drawn in the Folkestone sands. A couple of days later, an acquaintance suggested I visit the improbably confident-sounding Folkestone Wine Company – the kind of business that Lydia’s younger brother, Piers, might have set up in, say, the spring of 2008, only to have shut up shop that October. Indeed, even with a recommendation I trusted, I still suspected TFWC was getting ideas above its station – even if its station can now get you to/from St Pancras in well under an hour, thanks to HS1. This and the M20 makes the town (72 miles from London) very commutable – unlike Hastings (71 miles from London), which is where I live.
There is – I confess – a part of me that ever-so-slightly wanted Folkestone still to have “Loserville” tattooed on its knuckles and for its eponymous “Wine Company” – Ha! – to be caught in the act of disappearing up its own la-di-da, if not Lydia’s. Given I had parked down by the seafront, the restaurant’s location behoved (though it’s nothing like Hove, for the record) that I wend my way through the “Creative Quarter”, in which the Steep Street Coffee House’s come-hither windows revealed lovely book-lined walls and a clientele of, presumably, happily caffeinated creatives.
My lunch date was further up the hill, past the funky greetings card shop and the yarn-bombed exterior of a chic antiquary. In pleasing contrast to so many restaurants, TFWC’s website boasts only “Seasonal. Fresh. Good”. Chef David Hart has done time at Kent’s finest, The Sportsman; but the modestly white-painted interior (bare floorboards, scrubbed pine, blackboard menu, reggae soundtrack) is so generic cosy-local-restaurant that it fails even to shout “Folkestone” – no old framed Hoverspeed postcards, nor, indeed, even “wine”. It feels exactly like a lentil-heavy Notting Hill eatery of the early Seventies, a time when “eatery” was a word you could not only still use, but use as the name of a restaurant.
Worth mentioning, too, that TFWC’s deliberately mismatched cutlery included the biggest fork I’ve ever seen – though it was no use when it came to my cauliflower soup starter, the colour of mash and the consistency of wallpaper paste but none the less humming with a depth of flavour that bestowed instant culinary dignity on a humble vegetable. It turned out that this is absolutely TFWCs USP. My partner’s starter-sized truffle gnocchi with leek and parmesan cleverly retained textural consistency, and slid down accompanied only by a murmuration of “mmmmm”s.
My confit shoulder of collapsible lamb with comfortingly Seventies-style lentils, autumn vegetables and aioli was exactly what anyone who isn’t vegan will want for lunch in December, though only if they have nothing in the diary for the rest of the day. My partner’s cod fillet with squid and gremolata also got the thumbs up.
We had only one glass of a very nice sauv each, what with driving, but made up for it by ordering the giant tarte Tatin with cinnamon ice cream (“for three-ish”), which needed a 25-minute head start and arrived looking as gorgeous and as inimitably French as one of Lydia’s sisters-in-law. On an adjacent table a diner declared, “I’ve eaten a lot of tarte Tatin, and this is the best I’ve ever had,” and I’m fairly sure he wasn’t being paid.
Bottom line: I enjoyed the cooking at TFWC so much that a giant cup of filter coffee barely registered; if I want “creative” coffee in Folkestone, there’s always Steep Street. Truth is, I’m slightly annoyed. When it comes to reinvented seaside towns, forget your trendy Margate, elegant Eastbourne and ornery Hastings: Folkestone is clearly the future, especially if the munificent local patron, Sir Roger de Haan, ever decides to regenerate ol’Hovery.