There's something of a food renaissance happening in Suffolk right now. Farmers' markets and food festivals are springing up around the county and local suppliers have their own media-friendly poster boy, in the form of TV farmer Jimmy Doherty, who has grown from Jamie Oliver's Mini-Me into a canny champion of the area's food culture.
On a recent visit to the Suffolk coast, I ate very well, particularly at the area's best gastropub, The Anchor in Walberswick, and the newish Suffolk Food Hall near Ipswich, a produce market and deli with a fine little café and restaurant attached. Both of these establishments regularly host their own food and drink events, and are part of a loose affiliation of passionate local producers and chefs, many of whom are involved in the annual Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival. A 10-day event showcasing local and national food heroes – our own Mark Hix will be appearing – it kicks off on 26 September at the Snape Maltings.
It's an odd place, the Maltings. A sprawling 19th-century malt-house and outbuildings, floating between huge skies and an infinite stretch of reed beds by the River Ore, it was reinvented in the 1960s by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears as a concert venue and music school. More recently, some serious investment has clearly gone into the place. From high-minded crucible of the arts, the Maltings has become a thoroughly modern retail and leisure experience, the concert venue now joined by various smart shops, galleries and cafés.
The newest of them is the Metfield Café, an offshoot of Metfield Bakery, fabled throughout the eastern counties for its artisan breads, cakes and savoury pies. Perched on a mezzanine gallery above a posh housewares shop, it's a great place to sample the best Suffolk produce, from Butley Creek oysters and Lowestoft kippers to fish smoked down the road by Pinney's of Orford.
Arriving for an early Friday supper, we found ourselves the only customers in the gallery space, looking down over the closed and darkened shop. Two chefs could be glimpsed in the kitchen, standing around with arms folded. The café is only open in the evenings when there's an event in the concert hall, and clearly, they weren't expecting a rush. "Is this a church?" whispered our three-year-old, as we were shown to one of the many available scrubbed oak tables.
You'd expect a bakery-owned restaurant to serve good bread. The springy wholemeal which arrived immediately was certainly that, with a malty tang that paid homage to the building's original purpose. Even better was the pliable toasted sourdough that came with a fluffy cloud of home-made taramasalata and green olives the size of plovers' eggs. Potted shrimps came with the same moreish sourdough, while rock oysters from nearby Butley Creek were partnered with a tomato relish with a horseradish kick – useful for further dipping when all other options had run out.
The carb-fest continued with a shared main course of rabbit, leek, prune and bacon pie, majestic beneath a glazed dome of perfect, buttery, short pastry, and left at the table on a wooden platter for us to help ourselves. I don't know that I've ever eaten a rabbit pie before, and I can't say I'd rush to eat another – the dense, savoury rabbit meat seemed to expand in the mouth to absorb every last atom of saliva. But there was enough good stuff going on in the rich broth around it to make it a decent dish. Cheeky, though, to charge £25 for it, considering the cheap-as-chips ingredients.
Our boys ordered off-menu, body-swerving the baked cod in a horseradish and herb crust for a battered version of the same with chips. Our sweet waitress didn't need to check with the kitchen before okaying the switch, and for that I'm giving the service four stars, even though, with no other customers present, it's rather hard to judge how they would have coped under pressure. I'm marking the atmosphere down for the same reason; a hushed and darkened expanse of sofas isn't really ever going to substitute for the buzz of a busy restaurant, though they tried their hardest by playing some jaunty Cuban music (far easier on the digestion than a Peter Pears sea shanty).
Another couple of pre-concert diners did eventually arrive, obviously regulars, who lamented the fact that more people hadn't discovered the Metfield Café. We didn't stay for puddings, though the list included damson jelly and cream, warm cherry clafoutis and lemon posset with shortbread. Instead we bought tubs of Alder Carr ice cream from the concert hall bar at the other end of the Maltings, and ate them looking out over the marshes. Big skies, big flavours, and – rather like the restaurant we'd just left – barely a person in sight. Let's hope the forthcoming Aldeburgh Food Festival brings the crowd the Café deserves.
Metfield Café, nape Maltings, Snape, Suffolk (01728 687980)
Around £20 a head. Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"
Side orders: Super Suffolk
Fox & Goose
Fab food: starters here include pork belly with a crackling salad, squash and caper remoulade, chorizo mousse, and pineapple carpaccio.
Church Rd, Fressingfield (01379 586247)
Located in Suffolk Food Hall, the food here includes a dressed Cromer Crab, with Broxtead new potatoes and Ardleigh leaf salad.
Peppers Lane, Ipswich (01473 786610)
Roasted cod, confit cod cheek, brandade, Iberico ham and fennel typifies the exemplary food here; the 8-course tasting menu costs £65.
104 High St, Bildeston (01449 740 510)