A food tour of North Norfolk
08 May 2018
It was one of those rare things that comes along - a British bank holiday with forecasts for some of the best weather of the year. So something had to be done.
Add to that, the fact that I’ve lived for a number of years in reasonable proximity to the beautiful North Norfolk coast and yet I’ve visited extremely rarely. And, as I sort of discuss in my most recent vlog, I’ve been very focused on travels, and trying out (and cooking) the food of far away places, but only passingly respectful of the historical food culture on my own doorstep.
And that’s just a fancy way of saying that it was time to go on a proper trip. We booked a room at a well-positioned B&B and set off on the Saturday morning to discover some of the places - and the food - that we could.
Opener on the itinerary, for no better reason than a friend recommended that we should, we visited Burnham Market. First stop was the Tuscan Farm Shop - the quirky but excellent project to sell the produce of a farm in Tuscany to the discriminating shoppers of Norfolk. We were tempted enough to buy some of the tomatoes, from unnamed varieties that you certainly wouldn’t be able to get here. And I noted the olive oil for future reference. I’ve been on something of a quest to increase my consumption of good quality olive oil, and getting reliable supplies guaranteed free from adulteration and mis-labelling is something I’m aware is sometimes more difficult than it should be. There was more - some fantastic looking cheeses and more. But when you’re travelling about and the weather is hot, there are limits to what you can buy.
On another theme entirely, we couldn’t resist popping in to the old-style Mable’s Sweet Shop. Like most people of my age, I have an intensely nostalgic soft-spot for all those old sweets that you can buy from big glass jars. There were things in the shop that I’d probably not seen for over forty years, and I wanted them all. In the event, we restricted ourselves to buying a delightfully pink bar of nougat impregnated by Liquorice Allsorts. Buying something like that is exactly how you know that you’re on holiday.
We had lunch at the snazzy looking Socius restaurant. They do a modern British take on tapas, with a number of smaller dishes, which you can eat outside in the sunshine in an area that’s set away from the flow of traffic (although next to the main car park, so not quite the scenic views of North Norfolk).
We were being restrained, so we ordered just three dishes, along with two small glasses of beautifully chilled white wine. My favourite was the cod with romesco sauce and tomato salsa. I’d never come across romesco sauce until I cooked a dish with orange romesco for this blog, but I became a fan through that process and certainly enjoyed it here. The cod was cooked perfectly, the sauce was unctuous and delicious and the tomato salsa tangy and fresh, and completed nicely with a herb oil. We also had asparagus, with quail eggs and hollandaise. So far I can report I’ve been doing asparagus season justice. The third dish was a light-as-you-like focaccia, with a crispy herb topping. So amazing.
Sitting outside and eating such fabulous food was a joy, although we inadvertently added to the damage suffered by the plastic wood-effect tables. The remarkable wide glasses that they served the wine in were perfectly shaped to concentrate the sun’s light into one very focused beam, which quickly (within about a minute) generated sufficient heat to melt a hole in the table. Each of the tables was dotted with such holes. We were told that they were getting the suppliers out to replace the tables. Such are the unspoken trials and tribulations of running a food business.
After that, we journeyed to Wells-Next-To-Sea, where we walked alongside the quay, and watched the relatively restrained version of the British seaside. Then some more walking around Blakeney, including a quick visit to the gloomy recesses of Blakeney Guildhall. And after all such tourist-style activities had been concluded, we were off to check-in to the B&B and then to the Hunny Bell at Hunworth for dinner.
The Hunny Bell (more properly the Hunworth Bell) was runner up in the Best Pub category in the British GQ Food and Drink Awards 2018. Unsurprisingly, it was full to capacity for the evening, families and couples out enjoying the British classic food beautifully prepared from local ingredients.
I started with the soup, which was a crab bisque, along with a cottage roll. The bisque was rich and fully flavoured as you would expect, and the cottage roll was amazingly light and pillowy - Hands down I think it was the lightest bread I’ve ever had.
For the main course, I went for the lamb, specifically H.V Graves’ breast of lamb, ‘Baron Bigod’ and beetroot gratin, sweetbreads, and wild garlic velouté. The lamb was sourced from Briston, which is literally the next door village. About as local as it gets, and perfectly cooked. The gratin, with the Baron Bigod (which is the UK’s only unpasteurised farmhouse brie) and the beetroot was a great accompaniment, as were the sweetbreads. These were a particular focus for me, since I’d never eaten sweetbreads before (but had watched them feature frequently on the various Masterchef-style shows that we see) and I was curious to know how they would be. The answer was that they were light, mildly flavoured and delicious. They are tricky to cook just right, but clearly these were good ones to set the standard.
For dessert, I had a coconut panna cotta with a passionfruit sauce. The wobble was perfect. The flavours were fresh and delightful. This was as good as it gets.
The next day, we did our best to walk off the food consumed so far whilst building an appetite for one more local speciality to come. We went to Cley Next The Sea, and walked past the distinctive windmill across and through the Cley Marshes, a nature reserve that supports all manner of birdlife in its grazing marsh and reedbeds. When we were there, there was particular excitement about the passing visit of a purple heron, with a collection of enthusiasts with long-lens cameras and telescopes on the hunt in the most benign way possible.
From there, we hopped up the road to Salthouse, and enjoyed a walk along the shingle beach before repairing to the famous tiny shack-like seafood cafe Cookies. There the focus is on fresh local shellfish, and everything comes as a salad. You can take your own wine, and needless to say an enterprising village store has ensured it’s well stocked with mid-priced chilled white wine (the prices of which would be similar to the cheapest bottle you might buy in a restaurant).
I had a prawn salad, although all the salads also have some smoked fish and other shellfish included, so it’s a real medley. It’s one of those sorts of places that are a delight to visit if you know the rules (they don’t accept credit cards, you need to order the lobster a day in advance, you go into the shack to order and pay for the food) and slightly disconcerting if you don’t. The food was delightful, and the perfect pause on a second-in-a-row scorching hot day on a British bank holiday. We bought some additional smoked mackerel to eat with the Tuscan tomatoes the next day, and made our way to the final stop at Cromer.
Cromer, of course, is proper British seaside. I looked in awe at the long snaking queue for fish and chips. At 4pm, I’m not sure what is says about us that so many are prepared to join what looked like an hour-long-wait queue. Anyway, my memory of British seaside fish and chips is wincing in the teeth of the savage cold wind, grimly determined to enjoy yourself despite the howling gale. Not for the sweltering 26ºC temperatures of this weekend, for sure.