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How to plan a culinary road trip through Essex

A road trip reveals why the only way is up for Essex when it comes to the county’s reinvented food scene.

Published 18 Mar 2021, 08:10 GMT
Essex is where Jamie Oliver kick-started his nationwide food revolution.

Essex is where Jamie Oliver kick-started his nationwide food revolution.

Photograph by Getty Images

Essex might once have tugged at London’s apron strings, but it’s upped its culinary game to become a food destination in its own right. Cue a raft of exciting restaurants — some new, some revived — where chefs are putting imaginative riffs on foraged finds, rare-breed meats, local seafood and outstanding seasonal ingredients.

In 2020, despite the hammer blow lockdown dealt the hospitality industry, the county’s gastro star kept on rising: wild food restaurant Native swapped its fancy London address for Osea Island, and Square 1 in Great Dunmow propelled the county to new culinary heights when head chef Alex Webb won BBC One’s MasterChef: The Professionals at the tender age of 25.

This turn of tides shouldn’t really come as a surprise: Essex is, after all, where Jamie Oliver kick-started his nationwide food revolution. And with brilliantly fresh produce, top tables often still available last minute, gentle countryside and medieval towns, a road trip through its culinary heart shows this much-maligned county is having the last laugh in the kitchen.

The county has upped its culinary game to become a food destination in its own right.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Square 1

At the helm of this slick yet traditional restaurant in the historic market town of Great Dunmow is Alex Webb: 25 years young and full of culinary spark. The winner of 2020’s MasterChef: The Professionals has devised a tasting menu packing creative punches like turbot with scallop and mushroom mousse; sea herbs and pickled onions; and perfectly poached chicken breast with cauliflower textures and English truffle. It’s little wonder insiders are already whispering ‘Michelin star’.

2. The Flitch of Bacon

Just a short drive away, in the village of Little Dunmow, this phenomenal restaurant with rooms takes its unusual moniker from the medieval Dunmow Flitch Trials. In a stylishly revamped 16th-century, Grade I-listed pub, Paul Croasdale mans the stove with passion and prowess, serving the signature ‘Flitch of Bacon’ (cauliflower cream, maple-glazed bacon and Granny Smith apple), alongside showstoppers like crispy hen’s egg, girolle mushroom, pancetta and truffle cappuccino. 

3. Maldon

With its pretty High Street dominated by a hexagonal church spire, the quaint town of Maldon is well worth a pitstop. The town has been prized for the texture and taste of its local sea salt ever since the Saxons harvested the stuff by digging clay pits into the briny depths of the River Blackwater’s salt marshes. Hand-harvested by the Osborne family since 1882, it’s now a cupboard staple for chefs and food-lovers the world over. 

4. Native

Run by passionate, self-taught chef and wild food pioneer, Ivan Tisdall-Downes, Native sits right on the coastline of Osea Island, out in the wild, forlorn mudflats of east Essex. Getting here is something of an adventure, with mealtimes dictated by the tides and access either by boat or Roman causeway. Privately owned by record producer Nigel Frieda, the isle has a grand manor house beloved of A-listers, where even Rihanna is rumoured to have rented a studio. And now the spotlight is on this ravishing restaurant, where season-driven, forage-focused flavours swing from wood pigeon kebab to stone bass with celeriac puree and nasturtium, and Maldon oysters with bog myrtle cream. 

5. Tiptree

The jam that’s a staple of many a hotel breakfast hails from the orchard-rimmed village of the same name, a 30-minute drive north of Osea along quiet country B-roads. Here you’ll find the flagship tearoom, museum and jam shop. Pop in for a cream tea with homemade scones and tangy Little Scarlet strawberry preserve, and stock up on hard-to-find jams from mulberry to greengage.

6. Mersea Island

Colchester Native Oysters — each one a plump, sweet, briny burst of the sea — are best served simply on beach hut-lined Mersea Island. Go for a seafood platter at the tiny, first-come-first-served Company Shed, with a view of the sea and bobbing boats. Island-produced sparkling white wines and oyster-laced stout also feature on the menu, or you can bring your own drinks. 

Did you know?

Good food has saved the bacon of many a marriage, or so say the quadrennial Dunmow Flitch Trials. Dating back to the 12th century and still going strong today, the trials award a ‘flitch’ of bacon — basically half a pig, cut lengthways — to a married couple who can solemnly swear they haven’t once regretted tying the knot for a year and a day. The next trials are scheduled for 10 July 2021. 

Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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