English wines on restaurant wine lists are sadly still a rarity. Some more enlightened places might have an English sparkling wine or two, even an aromatic white. Some, such as Roast, make a feature of their English wines with own-label bottlings and collaborations with winemakers. But Roast is in foodie Mecca Borough Market. It’s a long way, in gastronomic terms at least, from Fish Island, East London, where Forman’s restaurant offers what must be one of the best English wine lists to be found anywhere.
The restaurant is situated in the H Forman & Sons smoked salmon factory in Hackney Wick, where the family-run firm, “purveyors of the world’s finest smoked salmon” since 1905 was relocated in the run up to the 2012 Olympics. In an imposing modern building designed, apparently, to resemble a darne (a steak or cutlet) of salmon, the smokery occupies the ground floor and the restaurant the first floor, with a viewing gallery down to the racks of cured and smoked salmon hanging below. Clearly the move served them well – purpose built premises, masses of exhibition space upstairs, a riverside location and, as a bonus, an excellent view of the Olympic stadium.
When I visited with family on a busy Mother’s Day lunchtime, the atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming, there were fresh daffodils on the tables and the service was friendly and attentive. As you would expect, fish features heavily on the menu but there are good meat and vegetarian options too. The ‘Fermentations’ list features just three non-English wines, all from Billecart Salmon (can you see what they did there?) In all there is an impressive tally of 5 English sparkling wines, 6 whites, 2 rosés, 6 reds and 1 dessert wine. Other than a Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2004 and a Blanc de Blancs 2001, all of the wines are available by the glass.
We started with a glass each of Chapel Down Brut and a Bolney Cuvee Noir, which I’m ashamed to admit I’d expected to be a Blanc de Noirs but which turned out to be a sparkling red. This is a style of wine I remain unconvinced by, particularly as an accidental aperitif, but it was rich and mouth-filling, although I did miss seeing the bubbles. To accompany our main courses we chose rosé – another Bolney (the 2010 Rosé) and a 2010 Biddenden Gribble Bridge, made from a blend of Ortega, Dornfelder and Acolon.
The Bolney, unsurprisingly, had similarities to the Cuvée Noir and was slightly deeper and more fruit-driven than the pale pink and more mineral Gribble Bridge. Both come from a growing range of rosé wines that English vineyards are very successfully producing in a variety of styles, hues and flavours suitable for year-round enjoyment.
During the meal I overheard one of the waiting staff offer an quiet apology to the neighbouring table that there were only English wines on the list. “Not at all”, came the reply, “we love them! We went to Chapel Down last year.”
Afterwards I spoke to Francesca Beattie, one of the Forman’s team, about the decision to serve only English wines. Generally, she said, people are surprised at first but are soon convinced after hearing about what the restaurant is trying to achieve – to complement the best of British food with the best of English wines. With so many served by the glass, guests are welcome to taste any before committing to buy and if people do request to bring their own wine, they are encouraged to try the English wines first. Usually they decide to stick with the in-house choices.
Forman’s is certainly worth a visit for its unbeatable formula of great food, great view and medal-winning English wines. Maybe it’s being so close to that stadium that does it.