Suffolk for sybarites

Gastronomic delights are hidden away in pretty villages. Photographs by David Gamble
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Indy Lifestyle Online
My brother and I, when we were tinies, had one of those highly educational jigsaw puzzles of Great Britain, with cut-out counties in coloured shapes. Since then Nottingham, for instance, will always be pink for me, as will Wiltshire. Rutland was powder blue and dangerously small - though miraculously it was never lost to the Hoover - and the Yorkshire Ridings were in various shades of green. Suffolk was, and will always be, yellow.

The real thing, too, has plenty of yellow when you get there, because although, famously, many Suffolk houses are pink, there are also yellow ones dotted about. I have seen pink, yellow, green, powder blue and lilac houses along the same village street. There are some fine examples of Tudor architecture - don't miss the glorious house opposite the church in Stoke-by-Nayland, if you visit the Angel Inn there - and there is almost always a village green, the finest of which is at Long Melford. Suffolk sports some glorious towns and villages, with a wealth of varied architecture and enormous style - unlike the endless golden glow of Cotswold stone, the sometimes bleak grey look of Cornish slate, and weatherboarded Sussex.

But it is nourishment of another sort that concerns me here.

It is heartening to see that, in this fair county of Suffolk, there are enterprising and dedicated folk who work the flat land cultivating fine produce and plundering its dune-dotted, sometimes spooky coastline (readers of the MR James ghost story "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", will know all about that spookiness). There are asparagus growers, soft fruit merchants, oyster cultivators, pig farmers, fish curers and smokers, brewers, viticulturists, an apple juice and cider maker and, of course, fishermen. On the high street retail side you will find good butchers with fantastically good hams and bacon, and proper fishmongers.

Suffolk suffers from the second-home syndrome as much as any county with a pleasing countryside. And it is not uncommon for Volvo estate cars and other capacious vehicles to be filled to bursting with supermarket carrier bags, crammed with weekend grog and fodder: enough chicken tikka and ready- prepared tiny vegetables wrapped in plastic to last a week, not just a weekend. And often the journey back to Hampstead or Little Venice is loaded almost as heavily. What's the point? There is no need for this carry-on. Suffolk boasts such special produce that the only comestible necessary to import might be a bottle of Fernet Branca to aid digestion. (The Crown inn in Southwold doesn't stock it; I've checked.) Specialist shops and farms across the county need the support of everyone, locals and visitors alike.

I cannot think of a nicer thing to do on a Saturday morning than to get up early, visit an asparagus farm, call in at a good butcher's, trudge along the shingle at Aldeburgh, buy some stiff fish and choose a bottle or two from Adnams wine cellars in Southwold. And, if you are inland, you would be daft not to buy some bottles from the excellent Wyken vineyard near Bury St Edmunds. Once this frenzy of shopping is over, it's off to the pub. Country living, it's a gas.

Paul Heiney, writer, broadcaster and Suffolk pig keeper (two beautiful sows), in his perfect pink book Ham And Pigs - A Celebration of the Whole Hog (Excellent Press, pounds 16), enthuses over the butcher FE Neave in Debenham: "I went to Debenham, as near a picture of a perfect Suffolk village as one could wish for: pink, yellow, and white cottages line either side of the main street separated from the road by wide grassy verges." It affects everyone you see. Here, sides of bacon and hams are given a rich cure of molasses and beer - "plus other bits and bobs", before being gently smoked. The beer in question comes from the local pub, the Queen Vic. Bacon such as this is surely what Sunday breakfast in the country is all about.

Another well known bacon and ham curer of much repute - royal warrant to the Queen Mother, no less - is Emmett's Stores in Peasenhall, near Saxmundham. They have hams and bacon that are sweet-cured (using Guinness) or given a simple, mild cure for those who want a more natural flavour. Both are superb, particularly the properly fatty, sweet-cured streaky bacon. All are oak-smoked. By the way, Emmett's is also the village store, so you can get your Dreft, loo rolls and fags at the same time.

Southwold - and, even more so, Walberswick across the river - seem set in a time warp. The neatness and order here reek of pride, and there's just a hint of the Fifties, too. The famous, gaily coloured sea huts along the beach (which apparently change hands for extraordinary sums) are a joy to behold, with their freshly painted weatherboarding and neat roofs. The beach itself is ever so clean, a bit pebbly, a bit sandy, and backed with that tufty turf that springs under the feet.

The Crown is a special place to visit in Southwold. This, along with the nearby Swan Hotel, an estate agent's, the famous brewery and wine company - and no doubt most of the rest of Southwold - is owned by the brewers, Adnams. I also think I saw a notice in the local butcher advertising Adnams pigs. Are they fed on the strong Broadside beer?

The front bar at the Crown is one of the most inviting I know. It is dominated by an enormous settle, and has solid wooden chairs and scrubbed tables. Although this is a rustic description, the atmosphere feels chic - but then, for all its English seaside perfection, Southwold itself is chic. The beer is excellent, of course, and the wine list is a dream, being both reasonably priced and far-reaching in its variety. Dishes are inventive - sometimes perhaps a little too much so - and bedrooms are neat and spotless.

If you are staying in a rented cottage - and there are lots - it is worth checking out John's fish shop in East Street for your fish tea, or the delicatessen at the end of the high street, called Fish and Fayre. Here there is an excellent selection of those marinated herrings, good-looking dressed crabs, nice cheeses, and, of course, fresh fish. And talking of fish, a visit to Orford and Aldeburgh (near each other, a little further down the coast) is an essential outing.

Eat fish at the Butley Oysterage on the tiny square in the charming village of Orford, particularly their own oysters, which are grown in the Butley river. Sweet-tasting specimens they are, plump and briny in the extreme. The place is also justly famous for its smoked fish, particularly the cod's roe (see recipe) which is the best I have ever eaten.

For the freshest fish to buy, first set off to the seafront at Aldeburgh, Here you will find around a dozen huts selling the night's catch. Even on a Monday (traditionally the worst day of the week to buy fresh fish), which is when I was there, the cod, whiting and a few Dover soles were all of healthy pedigree: slimy, bright-eyed, stiff as a board. Two fine, whole cod of average size cost me a tenner. Exceptionally ready money. But when I taxed one of the fishermen on the whereabouts of a good chippy, his face took on a resigned look: "Most of what they use is frozen." Can you believe it? Here we were, handling some of the best fish I have ever had the pleasure of cooing over, and the chippy used frozen stuff. We hurried on to Dinham, to the Flora Tea Rooms, right by the shingle.

As at Aldeburgh, there are fishermen's huts. But the difference is that the fish here go directly to the tearooms. One must use the term "chippy" lightly because, horror of horrors, the chips are frozen. Just what the hell is going on? The fish, naturally, is as fresh as can be and is clad in good batter, to boot. Various steamed puddings are also worth forcing down, particularly a spotted dick of estimable density with Bird's custard ready-poured and moat-like. Heaven. So I suggest you try a huge piece of undeniably wonderful skate, cod, plaice or sole, ditch the chips, and get your carbohydrate kick from the puds. There is also a good pub in Dinham, called the Ship.

Inland, just over the Essex border, north of Colchester, the small village of Stoke-by-Nayland beckoned. The Angel Inn is the hostelry to look out for, a handsome 16th-century house in yet another comely village. Locally made pastrami, spiced lamb in filo (in effect, a good samosa) and an extremely fine brandy and orange ice cream are some of the dishes that can be eaten in the convivial bar, or more formally in the beamed and raftered Well Room restaurant. Rooms are well above the average for an inn and very comfortable. Staff are a joy.

Up by Bury St Edmunds, Carla Carlisle tends Wyken vineyards at Stanton. This remarkable woman produces uncommonly good wines (seven white and one red) and sells these in her converted barn, the Leaping Hare Cafe. She worked with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and has now had the foresight - and good fortune - to take on as chef Lucy Crabb, who until recently ran the kitchens of the Blueprint Cafe in London. Lucy is clearly a naturally talented cook, and when you see the beaming faces of contented eaters you know that this girl is very happy, cooking at this stylishly decorated restaurant in the Suffolk countryside.

A dish of hot smoked salmon with butter bean salad, and a lemon posset with the consistency of soft butter, were two dishes that truly halted conversation. Here is the recipe for the posset.

Lemon posset, enough to fill 8-10 ramekins

900ml/11/2 pints double cream

250g/9oz caster sugar

juice of 4 lemons

Bring the cream and sugar to the boil in a large pan. This is important, to allow for the expansion of the cream as it boils - and it must boil for exactly three minutes. Take off the heat and whisk in the lemon juice. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl and then ladle into the ramekins. Chill for at least four hours before serving.

Here are some ideas for what to do with all that wonderful local produce that is available in Suffolk . The first can be found for free, if you know where to pick it. Cajole the fishermen to tell you, or ask at a local restaurant.

Samphire

This spindly, green-fingered marsh grass, which grows by the sea amongst the sand dunes, has a pleasingly salty taste and is most appropriate when partnered with fish that has been simmered in butter. When it accompanies a spanking fresh piece of plaice, sole or other local fish, I can't think of a happier marriage. However I do believe it tastes better in situ than on a swanky London table - and, naturally, it is going to be a darn site fresher if eaten locally. If cooked on its own there is a certain loss of briny tang to the steamer or vessel of boiling water. In a perverse sort of way, possibly because it is free food, I rather like it in the raw state. Something to nibble on whilst looking for one of MR James's ghosts, perhaps.

NB Remove the base stalk of the plant before cooking, as its inner root is sharp and tough.

Asparagus

It seems a pity that at this very moment the asparagus season is drawing to a close, but it will not deter me from furnishing you with ideas; you can always cut out and keep the recipes.

Simplest is clearly best when dealing with this East Anglian staple. Once you have found a supplier whom you can rely on to offer up the freshest spears, then eat it as soon as possible. One of my favourite - true - stories about the freshness of asparagus and swift cooking thereof, concerns a passionate and mildly eccentric friend of a friend. He wanted to confirm to himself that even the shortest amount of time between cutting the spears and cooking them, would result in a loss of flavour. So he set up a small Primus stove, complete with pan of boiling salted water, at the end of his asparagus patch and scampered up and down cutting the timely ripped spears and flinging them into the water. They must have been quite wonderful - and enthusiasm is all when it comes to the best cooking and eating - but I wonder about the practicality of this exercise.

Everyone knows about accompaniments such as melted butter, hollandaise and vinaigrette dressing, together with the Italian mode of olive oil, lemon and Parmesan. The addition of a soft-boiled or poached egg is a masterly idea and, I feel, thoroughly English; especially when the asparagus spears are poked into soft, salted butter, then into the egg, and eaten with freshly baked brown bread.

Cooking asparagus is such a cinch. Forget about asparagus steamers and all that nonsense. Take a large pan, fill it with water and salt liberally. Bring to a furious boil and plunge in the tied-up bundles. Boil for around four minutes, without the lid, from the moment when the water has returned to a roll. Drain well on a tea towel, and serve immediately. Taramasalata, serves 6-8

The taste and texture of that pink gloop spuriously named taramasalata is a far cry from the real thing. If you make a firmer paste, using the excellent Butley Oysterage's smoked cod's roe, you will find it a revelation. Note: the easiest way to remove the maximum amount from the skin is to cut the roe in half lengthways and scrape with a spoon. (The Butley Oysterage's cod's roe is so very good, that I must admit to enjoying it just as it is, thickly sliced with lemon, black pepper and hot buttered toast).

1/2 small onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

juice of one small lemon

50g/2oz white bread, cut into cubes

4 tbsp milk

250g/9oz fresh smoked cod's roe, skinned weight

175ml/6fl oz fruity olive oil, not necessarily extra-virgin (you may not use it all)

salt (if necessary) and freshly ground black pepper

Put the onion into a food processor with the chopped garlic and lemon juice, and puree. Tip out on to a clean tea towel or muslin and squeeze out their juices into a small bowl (don't bother to wash out the processor bowl yet). Set aside. Soak the bread in the milk for a minute or so, then squeeze out the excess and put into the food processor bowl (using the plastic, rather than the metal, cutting blade) together with the skinned cod's roe. Puree briefly just to amalgamate, and then add the onion/garlic juices and lemon juice. With the motor running, start to add the olive oil in drops (as for mayonnaise) and then increase the flow to a thin stream as the mixture thickens. Scrape down the puree occasionally as you go along. Check for salt and grind in plenty of pepper Where to eat in Suffolk

The Angel, Stoke-by-Nayland (01206-263245)

Butley Oysterage, Market Hall, Orford (01394-450277)

The Crown, High St, Southwold (01502-722275)

The Leaping Hare Cafe, Wyken Vineyards, Stanton (01359-250287). Open Thurs, Fri, Sun

Lighthouse, 77 High St, Aldeburgh (01728-453377). Closed Mon and Tues

Martha's Vineyard, 18 High St, Stoke-by-Nayland (01206-262888). Closed Mon-Wed

Mary's, Walberswick (01502-723243). Closed Mon. No credit cards

White Hart, 11 High St, Stoke-by-Nayland (01206-263382). Closed Mon

PUBS

Bell, Ferry Rd, Walberswick (01502-723109)

Golden Key, Priory Rd, Snape (01728-688510)

Ship Inn, St James St, Dunwich (01728-648219)

BUTCHERS

RJ Kent, 9 Bridge St, Framlingham (01728-723618)

Longwood Farm, Tuddenham (organic farm shop)

(01638-717120)

DJ Rolfe, The Street, Walsham-le-Willows (01359-259225)

FISHMONGERS

Brown and May, Market Hill, Framlingham (01728-724398)

Fishermen's huts on the beach at Walberswick

Loaves and Fishes, 52 The Thoroughfare, Woodbridge (01394-385650)

ASPARAGUS AND SOFT FRUIT

Alder Carr Farm, Creeting St Mary, Needham Market (01449-720820)

Good Food Growers, Reckford Farm (Knodishall Rd out of Leiston)

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