Eating England: No 1: Norfolk - The best place on Earth for crab and beer

You're on that weekend out of town. But where to eat? The first of a new fortnightly series on the culinary delights of England's regions
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The Independent Travel
THE GREAT thing about Norfolk is that it feels like an island, cut off by the sea on three sides. The north coast is the part to aim for: a wild, almost continuous nature reserve of mazey marshland and sands ruled by birds, wedged between the coast road and the sea.

There are lobsters and crabs to be eaten minutes from the sea, and roadside signs leading to small sellers of mussels and honey. In the summer, you can even pick up the marsh samphire that grows along the coast. The best restaurants and pubs in the area tap into local supplies and are as unspoilt as the countryside itself.

If you need a tough walk into an abstract landscape - the Norfolk equivalent of climbing a mountain - do the punishing three hour trudge along the shingle spit (and some sand, if you go at low tide) from Cley beach to Blakeney Point, where a seal colony basks on the sands. A well-trodden circuit around the marshland between Cley and Blakeney includes welcoming Blakeney church with a kettle for free hot drinks and lots of local advice on such matters as the best place to fly a kite. Pine-fringed Holkham beach has the beauty of form and space and, nearby on Wells beach idiosyncratic beach huts are available to hire from pounds 7 a day (01328 710439).

For a walk in the parklands of the great houses, there is the grandness and trees of Holkham Hall, cliffs and shrubs at Sheringham Hall and a wild flower centre at Bayfield Hall, in the secluded Glaven valley near Blakeney.

Just by Bayfield Hall is the Glandford Shell Museum, a small, hidden gem of a museum that includes a remarkable 12 foot section embroidery of the Norfolk coast by John Caske, a fisherman who turned to naive paintings and tapestries when he was invalided out of the army in the Second World War. It is a work of great beauty, full of weather, human detail and landscape such as seagulls flying off cliffs, the textures of ship rigging, a resting fisherman and people bicycling up hills.

The Red Lion at Stiffkey (01328 830553) sources many of its excellent ingredients from just down the road, including sublime mussels, whitebait and crab, and also serves the Norfolk award-winning beer, Woodforde's Wherry. The Three Horseshores at Warham (01328 710547) is a chip-free zone with hearty food including admirably old-fashioned puds like spotted dick and Bakewell tart. The George and Dragon in Cley (01263 740652) has a bird watcher's "bible" on a brass lectern with all the latest sightings and many drawings.

Everything is freshly home-made at Margaret's tearooms (01263 577614), in Baconsthorpe, a village with a ruined castle near Holt. Margaret gets up at 5am every morning to make the breads and then the cakes, shortbreads, soups and so on. Her flour comes from Letheringsett Mill down the road (01263 713153), which is well worth visiting for its excellent products, historical display and the mesmerising grind of the millstone.

Carla and Bernard Phillips are long established at the quayside Moorings restaurant (01328 710949) in Wells-next-the-sea. Go soon, before they retire to write. Carla is the cook, part maternal (with a keen eye) and wholly mensch. She uses local ingredients in gutsy, tasty regional cooking, so local smoked haddock is used in a recipe from South West France and puffball mushrooms cooked in an Italian style. You can get a selection of fishy starters that have leapt from the sea to the pan to the plate such as whelks in a black bean sauce, local cockles in a shallot vinaigrette, herrings marinated in a home-made blackberry vinegar and a really garlicy taramasalata. Paintings for sale and sculptures fill the room with Norfolk art. The Moorings is a good value place run by people whose concerns are way above the bottom line: Carla and Bernard recently put a sculpture on one of their few tables to create more breathing space for everybody.

Like the Moorings, the menu at Morston Hall (01263 741041) changes daily to adapt to what the fisherman, the gamekeeper, the mushroom man and the butcher can produce. The chef, Galton Blakiston, spent his childhood summers on a house stranded on Blakney spit, collecting mussels and shrimping. Now he turns such ingredients into well-flavoured and presented Modern British cooking. The elegance of the Jacobean brick and flint building is coupled with the informality of a young, unstuffy management. Delia dines here. A set menu, served at one sitting, gives the feeling that you are all setting off on a ship together through four courses of smart restaurant food, at a fair price for luxury (foie gras, sea bass, beef and cheese or pudding for pounds 28 on the night I went). The balance of dishes is so good that you reach the end of the meal feeling bouyantly happy rather than capsized by rich food.

Another highly recommended place is Yetmans (01263 713320), in Holt, which is New World in its colourful, fresh stylishness. Local cod came perfectly grilled and framed by a pink sauce of blood and seville oranges. Their food makes me want to lick my plate.

Market day in Norfolk is a buzzing event. Auctions take place at the same time selling anything from boxes of carrots to antique televisions. Fakenham on Thursdays is worth a visit and Swaffham on Saturdays includes some crockery bargains and a nearby chicken, game and egg auction at noon, run by a man called Fabian Eagle. At both markets, look out for the stall that sells good ham in home-made herby bread rolls. Picnic Fayre in Cley and Humble Pie in Burnham Market are good delis for picnics and presents.

Holkham Hall's exceptional nursery garden (01328 711636) includes herbs and is situated in a six-acre walled garden that used to feed the household. Clive Houlder in North Creake is the wild mushroom and asparagus supplier to the area (01328 738610). Do not fail to go to the smokehouse in Cley (01263 740282). Wrap up their kippers, bloaters and pots of taramasalata in newspaper, put them in a cool place and bring a bit of tasty, salty Norfolk back home.

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