A bright, spring morning in a small town in the heart of rural England. It's market day, and hundreds of shoppers have congregated from surrounding villages to fill their baskets with fresh provisions.
A bright, spring morning in a small town in the heart of rural England. It's market day, and hundreds of shoppers have congregated from surrounding villages to fill their baskets with fresh provisions. Yes, Somerfield is really doing a roaring trade. Meanwhile, back up at Market Place, the stalls selling cut-price batteries, air freshener and tracksuits are also going like gangbusters.
Time was when The Bell Hotel, rather than the local supermarket, would have been the hub of life in Saxmundham, a working town a few miles inland from better-known Suffolk resorts such as Aldeburgh and Southwold. A former coaching inn on what used to be the main road between Lowestoft and London, it's a handsome, early-Victorian building standing next to the market square. There's been an inn on the site for centuries; a mural in the entrance hall commemorates a stopover in 1737 by King George II, the biggest thing to come out of Lowestoft - until The Darkness.
In recent years, the Bell lost its way. It was serving Greek food when a young couple, Andrew and Catherine Blackburn, took it over two years ago. Andrew's English, Catherine's French. He cooks, she seems to do everything else. They met when they both worked at Chewton Glen in Hampshire. And now they're settled in Saxmundham, where his knockout cooking and her careful professionalism have started to restore The Bell to its rightful position at the centre of town life.
Working to a tight budget, they have stripped the hotel down to its bare essentials. A flagstoned reception, a snug bar serving Adnams, an elegant dining room, a handful of rooms, a smiling welcome; all components of a sketch conveying the essentials of hospitality without the fussy shading.
Simple it may be, but the Bell isn't casual, not in the dining room at least. Never mind those guidebooks which give ratings for cooking. There should be some kind of ratings system to alert you to the formality level. Out of ten, this would be a 7.5 (ladies in tweedy separates, hushed conversation, tableware starched and gleaming). We had come prepared for a 4 (sandy jeans, bags of shopping, dirty toddler).
Apart from us, the dining room was gorgeous; high ceilinged, with pale green Regency-striped walls and a glorious golden wood floor. Not necessarily a special-occasion place, but certainly a place to make an occasion special. The lunch menu, too, works hard for the money, catering to all levels of adventurousness, from pea and ham soup to salad of duck bresaola with a sesame-seed dressing. This is Andrew Blackburn's first opportunity to run his own kitchen, and his Anglo-French approach favours big, strong flavours, simple presentation and minimum fuss. Rather like the décor, in fact.
Switching between the à la carte menu and the set lunch (great value at £10.50 for two courses, £13.50 for three) we happily worked our way through the following: steamed cod in a pea broth with mint pesto; salad of grilled mackerel and focaccia with tapenade; roast rump of lamb on apple rosemary mash with lamb sweetbreads; chicken breast on a pasta galette with cauliflower cheese and black pudding; apple fritters with vanilla ice cream; profiteroles with warm chocolate sauce. And there wasn't a duff dish among them.
The menu changes completely at the beginning of each month, so these dishes are no longer available but I'll just relish the memory of a few of the highlights. That inspired pea soup containing a wedge of perfectly cooked cod. (Less inspired, perhaps, was our decision to order it for a two-year-old; they're probably still trying to get the tablecloth clean.) The unlikely success of a marriage of two strong flavours - mackerel and tapenade. The foamy lightness of the lamb sweetbreads. The spoil-yourself moreishness of the featherweight profiteroles. There wasn't anything elaborate going on, but it was all precisely cooked, smartly served and utterly delectable.
That the Blackburns are keeping the locals happy was obvious from the fact that all eight tables were filled, several by regulars dining happily alone. That bargain set lunch must be quite a draw. Lunch for two and a half of us cost £65, which included a rather extravagant £17 half-bottle of something white and delicious from the Napa Valley. (Sorry about the lack of detail, but the combination of cream upholstery, profiteroles and a two-year-old can be a bit distracting.) Service, which was helpful and unflappable, was not added to our credit card bill.
The annual migration of the chattering classes to the Suffolk coast is about to begin. Until now, foodies have had to soldier on between the oases of Orford and Southwold without so much as a sniff of a steamed sea bass on saffron risotto to keep them going. The Bell has changed all that. In the words of the great Leslie Phillips, "Ding dong".
The Bell Hotel, 31 High Street, Saxmundham, Suffolk (01728 602331)
SECOND HELPINGS: WHAT'S IN A NAME?
By Caroline Stacey
Bel & the Dragon
Ancient inn with its original name and not-too-derivative food that pleases all ages and tastes. It's robust, mainly Mediterranean with the chargrill centre- stage. Or eat outside and try great roasts.
High Street, Cookham, Berks (01628 521263)
One of Bristol's best. Foie gras parfait with Earl Grey jelly, and wild rabbit with black pudding, rabbit confit ravioli and tarragon foam but without pomp or pretentions.
1-3 York Road, Bristol (0117 924 0357)
This coaching inn with a shedload of history was ahead of the gastropub game, and still shows the way with good bar food and a baronial restaurant with the likes of roast quail with girolles.
Horndon on the Hill, Essex (01375 642463)
The Bell at Skenfrith
All the ales, ciders and roaring fires of a good local, but there are glossy mags on coffee tables and attentive Aussie staff. A top-of-the-range gastropub in the most glorious surroundings.
Skenfrith, Monmouthshire (01600 750235)