The village of Milford-on-Sea has a lot going for it – and not just because it sits on the edge of the forever idyllic epitome of tranquillity that is the New Forest. Perfect for beach strolls, historic tours and birdwatching, Milford-on-Sea has also got a burgeoning high street dining scene, with lots of independent cafés and tearooms dotted about, most of which proudly boast about how much local produce they use.
One such establishment is Saltwater Café, where genial owner Anthony Michael brings over 30 years of experience to the site, having worked across bars, restaurants and hotels. He sources locally as much as is feasibly possible and adds that they’re also trying new ways to be more sustainable, “like using leftover milk to make ricotta cheese.”
With Saltwater, Tony says he had a very clear aim. “I always want to produce food that’s not associated with mainstream café food, using the best seasonal ingredients available,” he explains. “The idea behind the menu is to bring different flavours to dishes, using produce that some people may not have had before or that are perhaps more associated with different dining concepts. For example, the samphire we use on the open herring sandwich would normally be considered a high-end dining ingredient.”
After declaring this, and without trying to be humble, Tony then goes on to say he’s “not entirely sure” why the café is doing so well! “I suppose because we don’t do ham sandwiches or jacket potatoes, and we try and give great service in a relaxed surrounding and deliver the best dish every time,” he says, rather unassumingly. “Customers are more aware of different cuisines and food and flavours, so people expect a bit more than just a sandwich.”
Their most popular options are the avocado toast (where isn’t that a popular dish…), prawn open sandwich, halloumi open sandwich, and garlic mushrooms. Further internet investigation reveals that customers also crow about their coffee and cakes. In fact, the only criticism to be found is on TripAdvisor – on which Saltwater is currently rated as being the second best café in the whole of the New Forest, by the way – where someone laments “the food can take a while to arrive because it’s freshly made to order”. Far from scalding!
They’ve got a wide range of guests (“from young to retired”), with a mix of new and regular faces, so Tony ensures that they’re able to cater to as many as possible. Vegetarians, vegans and those abstaining from gluten all have options on the menu.
Their extensive guestlist is no doubt down to its close proximity to the New Forest, which attracts 13.5m visitors every year Tony says the appeal of being close to it, as well as being by the sea, is what brought him down to the seaside town.
I ask if another site is in his sights and his reply is cautious. “Eventually I would like to, but as we’re still developing Saltwater at the moment, I’m not ready to open another café just yet,” he says. “But you never know what’s around the corner!”