Eat: Suffolk

With its fresh seafood, locally-brewed beer and first-rate pub grub, Suffolk is fast emerging as a culinary hotspot. Venture east for sourdough chocolate and red poll burgers

By Audrey Gillan
Published 9 Oct 2015, 09:00 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 11:31 BST

People are smiling and waving at me as I drive the winding road to Orford, a coastal village in Suffolk situated at the mouth of the River Ore. For a second or two, I'm puzzled — then it dawns on me: I'm in a fire-engine-red Alfa Romeo Spider, the roof is down, the sun is shining and I look like I must be worth a bob or two. I smile back — they don't need to know that it's a rented car.

I park up in Orford and, after a brief struggle to get the hood back up, make a dash to meet my lunch date at the Butley Orford Oysterage, a pared-down restaurant offering a range of fresh and smoked seafood. I tuck into a dish of moreish potted shrimp with a buttery top and a main of Dover sole — grilled and doused with acidulated butter.

I've chosen Orford, on Suffolk's Heritage Coast, as the base for my vintage car food tour because of its relatively newfound gourmet status. For a start, there's Pinney's (owner of the aforementioned Oysterage) down on Orford Quay, purveyor of fish smoked a stone's throw away at Butley Creek, plus crab-cakes, olives, chutneys and other local larder goods.

Then there's the fabulous Pump Street Bakery, maker of sourdough bread, savouries, pastries and cakes (their 'bear claws' bring people from miles around in search of almond frangipani flaky goodness) and site of a cafe selling breakfast, lunch and drinks. I've come to talk to Chris Brennan — one half of the father/daughter partnership that founded the business — about his award-winning bean to bar chocolate. The smell of cocoa beans and tempering chocolate in his workshop is utterly divine.

"Chocolate has the same fermentation process as sourdough bread," Brennan explains. "So I became fascinated by it. If you get well-farmed beans, and if you source them according to this and the terroir and the tree from which they are grown, then it's a good start.

"We clean them, roast them and grind them for four days. Then we age them. After 30 days we temper the chocolate. We have a few bars, but our 70% Grenada is a nice chocolate right now. And my love of sourdough led to our sourdough and seasalt bar."

I head on to the Trinity restaurant at the Crown and Castle hotel and a keystone of Orford's culinary scene. It's owned by TV star Ruth Watson of The Hotel Inspector fame. In a sunlit dining room I'm treated to the best Sunday roast I've had in many a year — beautifully rare 28-day, dry-aged Aberdeen Angus roast sirloin beef, served with enormous Yorkshire puddings and generous helpings of roasted vegetables and gravy.

The next day I hit the road in the Spider and head to Aldeburgh, a charming town with opera heritage, home of Maggi Hambling's beach-side shell sculpture, Scallop, and old-school fishermens' huts selling the day's catch.

I devour a dressed crab straight from a paper bag in the shade of a shack before joining the queue at Aldeburgh Fish and Chip Shop for a haddock supper. Far too often I've found British fish and chips a miss rather than a hit, but here the haddock is fat and flaky with perfect batter, and the floury, crispy chips are deliciously fried in beef dripping.

The evening takes me to Brick Kiln Barns, where owner Debbie Hills hosts Saturday Suppers in her gorgeously renovated barn. We mingle with a largely local clientele, chatting as seemingly endless platters of canapés are passed around with glasses of Prosecco.

Then, sat around a large communal table, we enjoy a three-course meal. Cooked by chef Peter Harrison, the menu changes each week with every dish reflecting the Suffolk landscape and season — Snape asparagus, Thorpeness tomatoes, marsh samphire and Heritage Coast sea bass are just some of the local delicacies.

The following morning I drive to Suffolk Food Hall, on the edge of the River Orwell, run by farmer cousins Oliver and Robert Paul, who explain their county's 'interesting geomorphology' ­— in other words, how the diverse types of land yield a variety of produce.

In their vast food hall they try to sell as much of this as they can. "Our family history is with farming red poll cattle (naturally hornless cattle) which have a greater depth of flavour because the calves matured for two years instead of one," says Olly. Their Red Poll burger is available at the butchery counter or upstairs in the Cookhouse. The family recipe is kept strictly secret. Olly grins: "I can't come here and not have the burger."

Back in the Alfa, I engage the tiny clutch and put the roof down in spite of the threat of rain (wear trainers, I was advised, as well as a hat and a warm jacket). I've only half an hour left of pretending its mine before I must return it to its true owner, John Adcroft. He lets me drive to Woodbridge station, where I'll catch the train to London. He laughs, "The perfect wheels for a greedy pig's tour of Suffolk, eh?" He's not wrong. For one short weekend, I 'owned' a Spider. As I reluctantly hand over the keys, I'm already planning my next vintage car weekend.

Four places for a taste of Suffolk

Pump Street Bakery                                                                                                                                                        Start your day with a smoked bacon, avocado and lemon mayo bun or feast on French toast piled high with bacon, banana and maple syrup. Drink a latté laced with a shot of award-winning dark chocolate and lunch on a locally-smoked salmon bagel with dill cream cheese and pea shoots. Relax indoors or venture outside to the small patio garden.
How much: Lunch and breakfast only, with nothing more expensive than £7.50.

Butley Orford Oysterage
This no-frills restaurant thrills with its simple seafood dishes. Fish and shellfish are smoked a few miles away at Butley Creek, where they also grow and harvest oysters. The atmosphere here is relaxed and informal, with an almost 1950s 'nana chic' style. Though it's famous for its fish pie, I love the simple Dover sole served with local new potatoes. Puddings include British staples such as sticky toffee pudding and treacle tart with cream.
How much: Three course dinner without wine from £21 per person.

The Trinity Restaurant 
Part of the Crown and Castle, Ruth Watson's Trinity offers well-sourced, exceptionally good food at reasonable prices. There's a simple, Italian-influenced weekday menu and a traditional British Sunday lunch. Starters such as crab and saffron quiche are followed by mains including the fabulous roast sirloin with Yorkshire pudding, gravy and How Much: Three-course Sunday lunch from £30.

The Great House
Lavenham is a Suffolk wool town with higgledy-piggledy, half-timbered houses (which served as Godric's Hollow in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1). This restaurant has a 14th-century interior masked by a Georgian facade. Venison comes served with glazed baby beetroot, baby figs and 'Grand Veneur' sauce. The cheese trolley — all of its contents French — must be one of the most finely curated in the land.
How much: Three courses without wine from £41 per person.

Five Suffolk food finds

Pinney's                                                                                                                                                                            Trout, salmon, prawns, cods roe and other fish and shellfish, smoked by hand and sold in a lovely shop by Orford Quay.

Suffolk Food Hall
Get the best of the Suffolk larder from the shelves of this vast farm shop or on the plates of the Cookhouse, complete with a great view.

Adnams Southwold
British brewer Adnams is the producer of Ghost Ship and Explorer as well as many seasonal ales and bitters.

Aspall Cider
Producer of apple juice, ciders and vinegars, including a Champagne-like Premier Cru Cyder.

Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses
A family-run business making cheese from their herd of pedigree Guernseys, including creamy Suffolk Blue.

How to do it

Suffolk Secrets offers Castle Cottage, Orford, from between £375-£604 per week.

Open Top Touring offers the Alfa Romeo Spider for £170 for 24 hours, £300 for 72 hours and £390 for a weekend (Friday pm to Monday am).

Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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