I am the most fortunate of people. I get to live and work in a beautiful (if slightly ramshackle) home with a big garden and a husband who loves growing fruit and veg, in the middle of one of England’s loveliest and most productive counties. For a cook, that’s pretty much nirvana.
This week I got to share some of that with colleagues from the Guild of Food Writers, the professional body for, yes, well, you can guess the rest of that sentence. With the help of fellow Guild members Tessa Allingham and Justine Pattison, I took them to the Waveney Valley.
This follows the winding River Waveney, which forms the border between parts of Suffolk and Norfolk, so we got the best of both worlds, dipping in and out of each.
Suffolk and Norfolk abound with superb food and drink producers and some of the best are based in the valley. It’s a little-known (outside the region) centre of East Anglian excellence, although some of its products sell widely across the country. Passion is an over-used word in the food business, but the drive, enthusiasm and commitment of the people we visited was an outstanding feature of the visit for me.
This is more of a photo essay than an in-depth exposition, but I hope it might inspire you to seek out their products and services and perhaps to come and visit East Anglia and meet them for yourselves. Every company here has won multiple awards.
I make no apology for the numerous plugs – they are all worth shouting about and that was the point of the exercise – showcasing these small, independent producers and hopefully bringing their work to a wider audience.
Fen Farm Dairy grazes its herd of Montbeliardes and Montbeliarde crosses on the valley’s lush water meadows, the cows’ protein-rich milk perfect for their raw milk Brie-style cheese, Baron Bigod, for their butter, milk, and soon, skyr. (The Archers based one of its plotlines on Fen Farm and its Montbeliardes.)
They are a Suffolk success story, turning themselves from an old-style dairy farm being paid peanuts by the supermarkets for their milk, into a company which is constantly innovating while caring deeply for its animals.
We toured the spanking new cheese-making facility with production manager Stevan Peckett (quote of the day on making cheese: “it’s a combination of science and sorcery”), were taken by family patriarch Graham Crickmore to meet the cows, and enjoyed a fabulous picnic provided by daughter-in-law Dulcie.
We also met Julie Cheyney of Whitewood Dairy, who uses the Crickmore’s raw milk to make her own superlative cheeses, St Jude and St Cera. She’s also now making a curd cheese but sadly for her many fans this is currently only available to the trade.
We could have stayed all day.
But we had other places to be. (Sorry you didn’t get to polish off the strawberries, esteemed colleagues.)
They grow some of their experimental crops at Wakelyn’s so it was a chance to see a live illustration of their work selling British beans, pulses and grains in a way which is ecologically and ethically sound.
It’s a model that aims to put back into the environment as much as it takes out. It’s interesting in terms of food security, too. Have a look at their website, they’re good people. And their products are delicious (try the smoked quinoa, heck, try everything).
Flint Vineyard’s Ben and Hannah Witchell are already winning awards for their wines just a few years into establishing their vineyard on a sandy, gravelly hillside.
It was fascinating listening to them describing how they grow the grapes and make the wines, I learned so many things I didn’t know about the science of vinification.
They run tours and tastings and also offer a locally-sourced lunch … again, please check out their website. Their excellent wines (I particularly liked the pinot noir) are also available from Berry Bros and Rudd.
Those lunches feature charcuterie from nearby Marsh Pig, whose founder Jackie Kennedy laid on a tasting for us. I rate Jackie’s charcuterie as some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
It’s made from free range pork and rare breed beef and I can never decide whether my favourite is her fennel salami, her culatello or her coppa, so I usually buy all three and (sorry) pig out. My pictures of Jackie on the day were awful so here are a couple I took at the recent Beccles Food Festival.
We were lucky enough to make our headquarters, during our Waveney Valley tour, at the utterly gorgeous Hales Hall. It was built in 1478 and is now owned by the Johnston family, who have poured love and what must have been huge sums of money into a sensitive restoration.
As several people remarked, while extremely high-end, it is neither corporate nor bling-y. (Is that a word?)
It is set in immaculate gardens, reached by crossing a wildflower-strewn common, and has the largest surviving Tudor brick barn in Britain. It’s a lovely house which despite its size feels warm and homely.
I failed to photograph the kitchen but it’s enormous and well-equipped – a cook’s dream. As for the beds, you feel like the heroine of the Princess and the Pea. Some rooms have mattresses so deep you think you’ll need a step ladder. And the bathrooms are spectacular. One of our members said hers could have swallowed her entire cottage.
And I can’t leave without telling you what we ate and drank while we were there – this was a Guild of Food Writers trip, after all. The entire meal, with the exception of a couple of oranges and a bottle of olive oil (though we had Hill Farm’s extra virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil, too), was sourced in Suffolk and Norfolk.
Oh, all right, and some salad leaves. I could have got those from East Anglia but I ran out of time.
The centrepiece of the meal was Truly Traceable‘s game pies, a mixture of venison (a Chinese Water Deer shot a few miles from Hales Hall), pheasant and rabbit. As their name suggests, their meat is fully traceable: Steve Tricker can pinpoint the exact map reference to tell you where your supper came from.
Fully qualified in game management and butchery, Steve shoots and dresses the game and he and his wife Lynn create the best game pies, sausage rolls and, if you’re quick off the mark before they sell out, scotch eggs.
So many people have complimented Lynn’s pastry that a slightly exasperated Steve (who is at work before dawn most days and performs all of the above tasks) suggested she should create a pastry pie. It is exceptional though. They’re a good team.
I was a bit worried some people wouldn’t want to eat game (I was wrong) so I made a lasagne using asparagus freshly picked from our garden. I used Frank Fariello’s recipe and everyone enjoyed it so much they all asked for a link. Here it is: https://memoriediangelina.com/2014/03/30/asparagus-lasagna/. Thanks, Frank, you’re a star.
We ate bread from Johnny Spillings at the Penny Bun Bakehouse … Johnny comes from a Michelin background, he still does special events with Raymond Blanc, and if I tell you that Richard Branson flies him out to Necker Island every year to bake for guests at his annual tennis tournament, you’ll have some idea of how highly he’s rated. Luckily for locals, Suffolk-born Johnny decided to headquarter himself in Lowestoft.
He mostly supplies directly to the restaurant and catering industries, but he has a pop-up shop, The Box, on Saturday mornings in Southwold. His chocolate bread went down at storm at breakfast and his sourdough and his special Hodmedod’s loaf, made with their flour and grains, were very good with some Fen Farm butter and a lovely passion fruit and lemon curd from Suffolk’s Scarlett & Mustard. (Their orange and poppy seed vinaigrette also featured in the previous night’s dinner – it’s one of my favourites and I’m normally a shocking snob about bought salad dressings.)
Our wine was from Adnams in nearby Southwold and their own-name white burgundy was so good at least one of my colleagues came straight home and ordered a case. So did I – it’s my favourite wine at the moment and knocks spots off a lot of chateau wines.
We also enjoyed Aspall‘s premier cru cyder and sampled their new honey cyder vinegar. I particularly like the latter – expect to see it cropping up in recipes on Mrs P.
The trip finished with a lunch at The Fox and Goose in Fressingfield, whose food has proved to be consistently good since we bought our house in Suffolk 10 years ago. You can’t say that about a lot of restaurants. It’s located in a a lovely old 16th century guildhall by the church. An irascible former owner, allegedly, used to chuck diners’ plates out of the window into the graveyard if they got on his wrong side.
I’m happy to say Paul and Sarah treat their guests with a great deal more consideration. It’s a warm, relaxed place to eat with food cooked to a high standard, using fresh and often local ingredients.
If you’re not all looking for holiday lets or possibly new homes in Suffolk and Norfolk by now, you really should be. Come and visit us and try out our farm shops and farmers’ markets, meet the producers and maybe drop in at Mrs Portly’s Kitchen for a cuppa. We’re a friendly bunch in East Anglia.
(Disclaimer: I haven’t been paid to write about the companies mentioned here but we were generously given many products free to try.)