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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, Updated 19 May 2021, 17:51 BST
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.

Despite the hammer blow lockdowns have dealt the hospitality industry, the county’s gastro star just keeps on rising, and it's often rural pubs that are leading the way, with menus that transcend the usual pub grub. Chefs with Michelin-starred backgrounds are returning to their roots (cue the Galvin brothers) or embracing Essex as their adopted home (cue Paul Croasdale).

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. The Hoop

If only every country pub were as delightful as this… In the heart of the pretty village of Stock, The Hoop was built in 1640 from the timber of warships at Tilbury Docks and is all crooked beams, cosy nooks and, in winter, blazing fires. But chef-owners Michelle and Phil Utz don't rest on the pub's historic laurels. Both trained at London's Lanesborough Hotel, and believe in doing things properly, with a sustainable menu that reflects the seasons. The food is consistently outstanding, whether you go for fish with chunky chips and crushed peas, or genius dishes like freshly made agnolotti pasta filled with parmesan, spicy ‘nduja and pork ragù. 

2. Galvin Green Man

Marking the homecoming of the Galvin brothers to their native Essex, this rural pub in the village of Great Waltham is one of Essex’s oldest, dating to 1341. Seeing raw potential, the Galvin brothers enlisted architects and designers to restore the inn to its former glory, and added a sleek, glass-vaulted restaurant and terrace overlooking the gardens spilling down to the reed-fringed River Chelmer.

At the helm is talented young head chef Chris Ball, who takes pride in careful regional sourcing (local pork and game, Colchester oysters and Tiptree fruit, not to mention micro-brewed ales). The menu delights with simple flavours, flawlessly delivered: from Great Garnetts Scotch egg with celeriac remoulade to beautifully tender Colne Valley lamb rump and shepherd’s pie with aubergine puree. 

3. The Flitch of Bacon

Just a short drive away, in the village of Little Dunmow, this pub-restaurant with rooms takes its unusual moniker from the medieval Dunmow Flitch Trials (see below). In a stylishly revamped 16th-century, Grade I-listed pub, Paul Croasdale mans the stove with passion, prowess and a keen eye for foraged ingredients that elevate but never overpower. A farm-to-table tasting menu highlights such showstoppers as miso-glazed, salt-aged pork belly with barbecued lobster tail, ranch dressing, English sweetcorn and capers, and birch sap treacle tart with sour cherry and clotted cream ripple ice cream. His sights are firmly set on regaining Essex’s only Michelin star.

4. 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. 

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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