Sunday, June 07, 2009

Easy like a Sunday lunchtime

As we are staying ‘next the sea’ this weekend when we surface on Sunday morning we sally forth for a final burst of the bright lights and seaside air of Hunstanton. But of course this is English summer so it quickly transforms from persistent drizzle to torrential downpour so a paddle in the sea is pretty much out of the question, not that I think we ever really considered it. So we have to resort to the other seaside activity when the deckchairs are packed away and the donkeys trot to shelter and that’s the amusement arcades. We run into the tawdry lighted hut nearest the car park, shaking off our wet tresses we change some notes into buckets of tuppences and hit the machines. When frequenting these gaudy establishments as a little girl when my grandmother would take me on a day trip to Southport or Blackpool, or even Buxton (you’ve got to love that miniature train) I used to be drawn to the one armed bandits but the fruit machines have been replaced by way more complicated ones now. So D and I eschewed those incredibly noisy things and stuck to the old fashioned 2p slot machines, the ones where the 2 pence pieces drop and hopefully knock some of their coppery friends into the waiting retrieval slot below. Though frankly the coins are considerably more likely to slip down the side and into the bowels of the machine, an action which sadly makes all the right noises but doesn’t give up the goods. But despite the terribly unlikely odds D and I are determined to stick to these machines and inexplicably put untold effort into procuring a little plastic skeleton. One slipped out of D’s grasps and committed suicide down the side of the machine but after further 2 pences were rained into the slot she succeeded in winning one, why this pleased us so excessively is hard to explain perhaps it’s a memory of all the times these machines robbed us of our pennies as children, especially those giant hooks that would tantalisingly hover over a vaguely desirable toy but evade all attempts to grab said item and deliver into our eager hands. Ha, revenge is sweet!
With our vast winnings of a plastic skeleton, 2 lollipops and still with 50 pence in the kitty we felt we could now tackle lunch so much to MC’s relief we head over to Titchwell Manor. As soon as N heard I was off to this neck of the woods for a weekend she said I should check out Titchwell Manor and we were immediately inspired to add it to our culinary destinations list. It’s still raining when we arrive but we have to explore and are very taken by their cottagey looking rooms aptly named Rosemary, Basil, Tarragon etcetera encircling a neat herb garden. D is particularly taken by the Potting Shed a little wooden house with a deck to sit out and catch a few rays over breakfast – sadly not today though.
Soon we are sat cosily in the conservatory watching the torrential seaside rain lash the glass roof and the lush secret garden beyond, grateful for the Sunday roast smells wafting enticingly from the kitchen and the fact we had abandoned thoughts of coastal pursuits in favour of a good feed up. The worse an English summer can fling at you can certainly be tempered by a good hunk of beef. And it looked like the finest of beasts were on offer particularly in the form of one of the set lunches of Roast rib of 28 day matured beef, Yorkshire pudding, duck fat potatoes, red wine gravy - there was also Roast loin of Berkshire pork on offer but I didn't spot as many eager takers. It seemed all around us were appreciative noises coming from contented diners forking beef and Yorkshires.
I was very intrigued by undeniably the largest Yorkshire pudding I've ever seen and spotting a handy baby at a neighbouring table I can vouch for the interesting fact that these giants of the Yorkshire pudding world are as big as a baby's head. But to be honest I'm not as wildly excited by these batter behemoths, I wouldn't say "no" if one turned up on my plate but I don't hanker for them particularly so I opted to explore the menu further and was considerably enamoured by the thought of Organic Red Poll Sirloin (Royal Sandringham Estate don’t you know) with horseradish risotto, pea and oxtail. I know John and Gregg from Master Chef would be yelling "don't you know that risotto is a dish in it's own right, it's not an accompaniment to the main feature" but occasionally I've thought that as delicious as a particular risotto is I'd quite like to move on to another flavour.
But before our beefy loveliness we had the small matter of the starters. D and MC had both opted for the Sunday lunch menu so they had Hobson's choice of local asparagus, duck egg dressing, parsley - not I hasten to add a bad thing but having a wider menu to select from I was determined to eke out the seaside theme and plump for the Brancaster cockles with white wine, shallots, cream and soft herbs. It took me many years to appreciate the joy of the fruits of the sea and I remember the first time I decided to try mussels whilst holidaying in Dijon and became an instant convert. Oysters I conquered on my first visit to Normandy. I think my natural aversion to mussels especially had been a frequent juxtaposition of the black glistening bivalves with the dreaded tomato. Michel the chef in Dijon made a special ‘sans tomates’ version for me and I saw the light. The only throwback to those seafood dodging times is a big preference for my seafood not being fridge cold. The oysters I preferred were the ones we'd topped with slivers of chorizo and grilled rather than just shucked and swallowed and I normally leave the prawns to everyone else unless they are warm. A fat prawn wrapped in a little Parma ham, skewered and then grilled is a very interesting proposition whereas a cold and slightly flaccid one lying there suspiciously close to a tomato laced Marie Rose sauce fills me with total dread.
But the clams were tasty - fiddly I have to admit, more work than mussels but with undeniably pretty shells, albeit a lot of them.
After our starters were polished off it was the turn of the beef, bring on the beasts! D and MC’s plates were a towering glory of beef crowned with the gargantuan Yorkshire puddings which they consumed with gusto.
Mine was the more elegant organic sirloin with horseradish risotto and added peas and oxtail. It is stylish, hearty and utterly delicious. There is a yummy breaded nugget of oxtail nestling in some gorgeous risotto with three slices of pink, juicy beef – this is Sunday lunch heaven!
To accompany all our beef we have a wonderfully verdant bowl of spring greens and another of broccoli gratin which seems incredibly apt when surrounded by all glistening greenery through the glass.
With the benefit of hindsight I should have chosen the hot Valrhona chocolate fondant but wanting to go against type I chose the elderflower and lemon tart with Italian meringue and raspberries. It certainly looked pretty and summery, topped with little elderflowers and tasted okay but just not outstanding. The lemon just wasn’t tart enough, it was just a tad bland but then the main course had been a lot to live up to.
D has selected the dessert with her name all over it, the apricot consommé with almond sorbet, marzipan and basil. Not my idea of a good time but then it wasn’t my name all over it! She was extremely happy claiming it to be one of the best desserts she’d ever had. Hmm I think I may have to return to this place and go for the chocolate fondant as it clearly had my name all over it but I chose to ignore the signs.
MC went for the rhubarb and liquorice sorbet with meringue and compressed fruits; he seemed to enjoy his unusual combination.
The conservatory at Titchwell Manor is an oasis of culinary calm from the delights of the June weather outside. We all decide that we’ve eaten enough to sink a small battleship but bizarrely we still want to check out the opening of the Yurt restaurant at Drove Orchards. Though the proviso is that we don’t eat anything no matter how many delicious plates of intriguing nibbles they wave in front of us. However truth be told I did succumb to a small wedge of a Scotch egg. A proper home-made Scotch egg is a wonderful thing and if this is indicative with the Yurt has to offer on future occasions I think another visit is definitely in order. Though not today as that sliver of breaded egg nearly pushed me over the edge.
Titchwell Manor was a fabulous recommendation by N and I am definitely drawn to the place perhaps even for a visit sometime. Perhaps I can surrender to that fabulous Valrhona chocolate fondant and then give them that third fork. Not that it was lacking as truly the memory of that succulent beef will linger for a long time, I know that D would definitely not concur but I didn’t end on a high. Hmmm, I wonder if they’re free next Sunday.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Journey to the bottom of the sea

So just to ensure this weekend was pretty much about food, and perhaps a bit of shopping, we stopped off on the way back to the cottage to secure at table at Titchwell Manor for Sunday lunch. That done we then we got ready to come out to our much anticipated meal at the Neptune Inn. I’d done my usual trick of forgetting that a trip to the English Seaside even in a month that purports to be ‘summer’ will probably require some warm layers and sadly possibly various garments of rain protection. I was working on that age old premise that ‘I’m on holiday’ and therefore will dress accordingly, but this is Norfolk, it is June and they say the wind is very lazy around these parts – i.e. it doesn’t go around you, it goes right through you! Fortunately our trip to Holt meant that I had manage to procure a useful extra cover up and though my new wrap will be forever referred to as my ‘furry fairy wings’, though not some device to advertise being out with my like-minded attired girlfriends on the razzle on a hen night I hasten to add but I will concur that the design on the back did seem to conjure up a glamorous bat at rest. But at least I was warm!
The restaurant was one of those neutral modern places, cappuccino walls and high back stripy chairs with linen clad tables. If I was being hyper critical then I would say it was a little gloomy, but some places just want to hamper my recording of their culinary delights and then ending up looking a little murky on this blog despite my best Photoshop efforts. Maybe I will have to resort to the miner’s helmet I was thinking of deploying for restaurant visiting! How fabulous would that look with my new wrap?
Our little amuse bouche was a perfect little crunchy fish finger served in a little Marie Rose sauce (so one end of mine joined D’s) but that was exactly how a fish finger should taste, Fish fingers sandwiches anyone?
To continue the fishy theme D and I immediately opt for the Norfolk Lobster and Five Spice Mousse, Pea Purée and Lobster Salad. We could have also tucked into grilled mackerel with crab salad or seared tuna with black olive dressing. But I think D and I chose very well, the vibrant green soupy purée with that little ‘je ne sais quoi’ hit of five spice and the sweet collops of plump lobster tail partially submerged in the verdant depths. The lot was crowned with the garnish du jour – pea shoots. If I was being critical I thought that that the purée to lobster ratio was a little off but maybe I just wolfed down my lobster too quickly!
MC plumped for the pretty looking Courtyard Farm Ham and Mozzarella Terrine Poached Quail Egg. Oooh do I spy some more micro cress?
We all eschew the fish theme for our main course so instead of the pan fried brill of the red mullet MC and D have the Sedgeford Leg of Lamb, Lamb Sweetbreads, Broad Beans, Potato Purée. I can’t vouch for the lamb but I tasted the potato purée and it was pretty good. The plates were wiped clean to I guess that’s a good sign.
I enjoy the Loin of English Veal, Cauliflower Purée, Deep Fried Veal Tongue, Wild Mushroom Sauce instead and am reminded how much I enjoy a beautiful hunk of English rosé veal. So much tastier than the veal I recall from the first Italian restaurants I ever ate in, way before I’d heard the word ‘provenance’ and understood why we should eat our ethically reared British veal or else calves are culled or shipped off in crates to other countries where they do not have any sort of albeit brief life. I particularly enjoyed the little cylinders of deep fried tongue and the smooth, creamy cauliflower purée.
Our little interlude before the dessert is an Earl Grey jelly topped with milk foam in cute porcelain cups.
True to form we each find a dessert with our name on, I choose the Milk Chocolate Mousse, Ras El Hanout Caramel, Chocolate Sorbet – lots of chocolaty goodness.
D has the light, zesty elegant plate of Poached Peach, Peach Mousse, Mango Sorbet, Raspberry Sauce and Macaroons.
Our resident mouse MC enjoys a Selection of British and French Cheeses, Biscuits and Grape Chutney.
And just when we thought we couldn’t eat another thing they produce a little pot of chocolate with some sugary doughnut sticks to dip into it with a chaser of chocolate truffles. D and MC indulged in these on their last visit so D was able to resist. Even though I don’t normally get excited by doughnuts these sweet twiglets were rather fine. And obviously chocolate sauce is always a good thing!
The Neptune Inn deserves its recently awarded Michelin star; it manages to capture that breezy seaside feel without resorting to hokey lobster pots and nets strewn about the place but with monochrome coastal images and an oyster colour palette. Two forks for the Neptune, I know D and MC and planning a weekend there in August and I am sure they’ll have a truly fabulous time. I am just madly jealous that I have other holiday commitments planned and can’t gatecrash!

Shopping and eating...actually mainly shopping!

We had barely parked the car in picturesque Holt when we found the first ‘must have’ purchase. Holt is awash with little independent shops and artisans with a myriad of alluring wares calling to us from attractive window displays. In a short space of time D was clutching amongst other things a china cup for Piggle, a moon-gazing hare, a whizzy salad dressing whisk and aromatic oils. A drawer knife for shaving the ends of broom handles (yes, it’s a mystery to me also) had caught the eye of MC, he’d been able to indulge in an array of wine tasting and he had also befriended a woodturner’s wife with a definite date to return to meet the woodturner himself. My ample bags were stuffed with a pair of fetching stoles (well it had turned rather nippy), a large French ‘bol’ style cup for soup, not only the same whisk as D but a heart shaped larger sauce whisk and last but not least ‘another’ picnic hamper. D and MC insisted on referring to it as ‘another’ picnic hamper as they think I have sufficient hampers already. Sufficient, is that possible? Anyone who’s read my blog possibly knows how unfeasibly excited I get when the weighty Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols hamper catalogues satisfyingly thump my doormat each festive season. But a hamper is not just for Christmas as I can succumb to ‘hamper porn’ any season! This new one has an attractive linen lining, limed washed exterior, proper glassware strapped to the inner lid and is a perfect basket for two or an opulent one for solo picnicking! It has acceptable white square plates but would be even better with my strawberries and vines china picnic plates and some crisp linen. Let’s hopes the weather holds out this summer so I can indulge.
Actually the final flourish would be one of the gorgeous linen napkins courtesy of the fine styling of Thornback and Peel. And as luck would have a little present of one of their bunny napkins was awaiting me when I arrived at the cottage, I think it was meant to be!
If you haven’t come across the gorgeous wares of Thornback and Peel I urge you to have a look. D had fallen in love with one of their deckchairs in the style section of the Sunday papers and had introduced me to them. In fact exploring Holt we fair tripped over their goldfish or ladybird adorned table mats and pigeon and raspberry jelly strewn cushions (frankly only the second time I’ve liked a pigeon, the first being when a wood pigeon has discarded its plump breast in my salad). Looking at their website I must admit that I am taken with the canvas bags featuring the aforementioned pigeons and pink jellies. And talking of hampers I also got one of their lobster (aka Pinchy) tea towels in my Christmas hamper from D&MC.
We’ve had a bit of a seafood/lobster theme for the last few years and though we are late this year with the annual Cambridge seafood festival there is still time to get out the new crustacean themed napery and tuck into some suitable crabby delight. In fact we’re in the perfect place for a spot of crab but thinking that most of our meals are sewn up we avoid the enticing delis and crab sandwich purveyors.
In the lovely shop selling Alessi hedgehogs, expanding pan stands and my utterly favourites heart shaped spoons, the owner was keen to point out her friend’s gallery as a must in Holt and then to head forth for Wiverton Hall Café for a spot of afternoon tea as it was in her words ‘truly bonkers’! “Bonkers food in a bonkers and colourful place with bonkers but jolly service.” Well mindful of the delights of the Neptune that lay ahead we were determined to see how it could be quite so bonkers and once we couldn’t carry another thing we thought we’d check it out before going home to change.
It turned out to be a pick your own fruit farm with a café attached. It was a vibrant place, there were lots of children running around and the place seemed pretty packed. The counter was festooned with cupcakes, scones, flapjakes, chocolate cake and a Victoria sponge which seemed the most popular as every moment another hefty wodge was carved off.
D and MC had a cheese scone and I had an unfeasibly large slice of the chocolate cake. The bits with the chocolate butter cream was okay but the rest was a tad dry but that was fine, I wasn’t that hungry and mainly wanted a sit down, a nice cup of tea and to see how bonkers this place could be! It was certainly colourful, there was a plethora of spotty and heart adorned Emma Bridgewater crockery to serve our selections on. The tables had various wipe clean clashing patterned tablecloths and with the leaflets, menus and now obligatory fairy dusted cupcakes the whole effect was certainly a cacophony of riotous colour. The staff were also preparing for a new offering of evening tapas so there was a flurry of chorizo chopping and decanting olives into bowls.
I particularly like the promotional graphics they use on the menus and aprons wrapped round the waists of the servers designed by Annabel Grey. The theme seemed to be strawberries and pigs which seemed a good combination to me, I was nearly tempted to add to be burgeoning tea towel collection but opted for the postcards instead.
Holt will definitely be revisited, there is still plenty to explore and if on our next visit we fancy cake, tapas or a barbeque we know a bonkers place we can go afterwards!

Friday, June 05, 2009


D and MC had suggested I joined them in Norfolk at the cottage they were renting off D’s friend H. I didn’t ask where it was but I did know though that it was somewhere near to King’s Lynn as that was the train station they’d fetch me from. I figured that it would be near Hunstanton, the seaside resort of their youth that I’d been introduced to a couple of years ago which was almost right but to be precise the cottage is actually in the quaintly named village of Holme-next-the-Sea. The premise seemed to be that it was very close to the sea but not on the coast, Holme-near-the-Sea if you will. I kept wanting to say “next-to-the” but apparently that’s not the local way!
The weekend of ‘fruits de mer’ dining delights was kicked off with a visit to their favourite fish and chip shop in Hunstanton knowing full well that fish and chips always taste better with salt in the air and the distinctive call of an occasional seagull circling overhead. Even Heston agrees hence the deployment of iPods preloaded with the prerequisite aural delights of waves crashing and gulls crying as you savour his taste of the sea!
Feeling determined to honour my Northern roots I persuaded D to let me get some sliced white bread and butter to ensure the treat was complete.
As it turned out this was just the first meal we were to enjoy. We had already secured a table at the delightful Neptune for Saturday night and were fairly sure that the day would start with a big breakfast and it did because we headed for Deepdale Café in Burnham as soon as we surfaced. Nothing would persuade MC to alter his intention to tuck into ‘The Big Breakfast’ but D and I had set our little epicurean hearts on Eggs Benedict and when we were thwarted when it transpired that they don’t do that with eggs we plumped for an omelette of locally smoked haddock and Parmesan instead. It was suitably plump and held fat flakes of soft tasty smoked haddock in its depths and set up it fine for the day ahead. We’d had to wait a while for a table as the popularity of this café had got many a family, party of soon to be surfers and visitors heading for their extensive breakfast menu. As we queued D had furnished herself with a pile of local information pamphlets and magazines and on leafing through them some intriguing and attractive items apparently available in the market town of Holt soon decided our next port of call.