Stars rising in the East

East Anglia is sometimes seen as a culinary wasteland. But a small Suffolk town contains some of Britain's best kept gastronomic secrets, writes Michael Bateman
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Michelin Guide coined the phrase "worth a detour", signalling good restaurants in remote spots. To get to Orford in Suffolk, you'll certainly have to make a detour because it's on the way to absolutely nowhere.

The Michelin Guide coined the phrase "worth a detour", signalling good restaurants in remote spots. To get to Orford in Suffolk, you'll certainly have to make a detour because it's on the way to absolutely nowhere.

This little village of 600 inhabitants, with its feet lapped by the North Sea, has a great history, but in this century its appeal has been its remoteness. At the beginning of the last war, the MoD chose the deserted spit of land to the seaward of Orford to hold top-secret radar trials. Likewise, its remoteness was what appealed to London advertising executive Richard Pinney, when he decided to up sticks and retire to the wilds.

Pinney renovated a Tudor farmhouse and looked around him - what did the environment have to offer? Reeds, in the wetlands beside the river. So he created a business making reed mats. Then, one day, walking along the River Butley, he noticed some ancient white shells - these were the oyster beds first seeded by the Romans. Pinney had an idea: he would import baby rock oysters from Portugal to grow.

At that time the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were looking to develop alternatives to the delicious native British oyster. They offered their expertise, and soon he was growing his own spat, as they call oyster seed, in a plastic tank in a makeshift hut. He became the pioneer of the rebirth of an oyster industry which today stretches from the west coast of Ireland to Wales and Scotland.

Pinney turned to smoking salmon with equal success. He bought the fish from Scotland, taught himself the curing process, splitting and salting them, then hanging 30 sides at a time over smouldering sawdust in a smokery no larger than a garden privy, which he fashioned himself. You can sample the results from his smoked salmon mail-order firm, Pinneys of Orford, tel: 01394 450 277.

The Pinneys also started Butley Oysterage and Bar, providing, at modest prices, fresh oysters and smoked salmon. Half a century on, Richard Pinney's son Billy, now 47, keeps the oyster beds going. The river here is particularly rich in plankton, he says, so they get a very plump oyster.

The Butley Oysterage remained Orford's sole claim to foodie recognition until seven years ago, when competition arrived at the King's Head, which soon made it into the Good Pub Guide under chef Alastair Shaw. He has since moved to Chillesford, all of two miles outside Orford, winning for the 15th-century Froize Inn a place in last year's Good Pub Guide.

Nor does the good news for East Anglian gourmets stop there: Scotsman David Watson bought Robert Carrier's Suffolk country house, Hintlesham Hall. David's wife, Ruth, had always wanted to run a restaurant, and this they did with distinction, hiring the chef Robert Mabey. After selling that establishment, they bought the Fox and Goose in Fressingfield, then once more looked for a new place, but not with great urgency, since Ruth was establishing herself as a food writer (she has twice been voted Glenfiddich magazine cookery writer of the year). At last, the Watsons stumbled upon Orford, buying the Crown and Castle, and renaming its restaurant Trinity. With it, they have immediately stepped into the Good Food Guide.

Unlike the West Country, which is rich in food produce, beef, lamb, game, hams, cheeses, ice-creams and so on, East Anglia is sometimes written off as one huge agrobusiness enterprise, supporting monocultures of grain and sugar beet.

Ruth Watson, who has spent 20 years tracking down Suffolk food sources, disagrees. Some seafood she orders from Scotland and Cornwall, but most is landed at her door. Cromer provides exquisite crab; Lowestoft, up the coast, is still a thriving fishing port, with smokeries producing traditional kippers and salty, smoky bloaters.

Ruth particularly prizes succulent Suffolk ham. There's good local beef and lamb, and the free range chickens are superb. Plenty of farm shops supply good fruit and vegetables. She lacks for little, she says, except perhaps cheese - never an East Anglian speciality.

Here is a taste from Ruth Watson's The Really Helpful Cookbook (Ebury Press, £20).

Linguine with clams

Serves 4

500g/1lb 2oz dried linguine or spaghetti

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

3 cloves of garlic, peeled, crushed and finely chopped

About 175ml/6fl oz dry white wine

2 bottles (150g/5oz each) vongole al naturale (without shells), juices reserved

Large handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Cook the linguine in boiling water until neither nutty in the middle, nor pasty. Drain and rinse in cold water, but reserve cooking liquid and keep at slow simmer.

Pour the oil into a smallish frying-pan, and place over a lowish heat. When hot, fry garlic gently for three to four minutes, stirring occasionally, until very lightly coloured. Turn heat up high, pour in wine and clam juices and bubble for about three minutes.

Meanwhile, put the linguine back into the simmering water, and immediately draw the pan off the heat. Leave to one side.

Tip the clams and parsley into the frying-pan. Season with black pepper and a little salt. Stir, then cook for one minute. Remove the pan from the heat and leave it to one side while you drain the linguine, but not over-thoroughly - a spoonful or two of water acts as a lubricant.

Divide linguine among warmed plates. Spoon over the sauce. Eat with good, chewy bread. Deep-fried mussel and vegetable tangles

Serves 2

About 500g/1lb 2oz fresh mussels, cleaned

2 small courgettes, julienned

1 large carrot, peeled and julienned

1 large leak, trimmed and cut into strips

2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped

Small handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

About 200g/7oz natural Greek yoghurt

FOR THE BATTER

1 large free-range egg

150ml/5fl oz cold water

140g/41Ž2oz plain flour

3 rounded teaspoons garam masala (or curry powder/paste)

Small handful fresh coriander, chopped

Half fill a deep-fat fryer or large wok with groundnut oil and heat to 180C/350F; then place over a moderate-to-high heat.

Put mussels in a large saucepan, put on lid, and place over a high heat. Cook for three to four minutes, shaking the pan from time to time, until all the mussels have opened. Remove from the heat and leave to cool, uncovered. As soon as you can handle them, remove the mussels from their shells (discarding any that haven't opened).

Whisk egg and water together. Tip in the flour, garam masala, coriander and plenty of salt. Continue to whisk until smooth. Thoroughly mix in the mussels, vegetables and garlic - it's easiest to use your hands. Scoop up a tangerine-sized clump of the mixture and plonk into the fryer: it will spread out, but there should be room to cook three tangles at a time. Fry for three to four minutes, turning halfway, untilgolden brown. Remove and drain on kitchen paper; keep warm while you cook the rest.

Stir the parsley into the yoghurt and season. Serve with the tangles.

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