#NFDF2014 Days out in Norfolk – Part 2: celebrating our food & drink heritage

Naturally, you have all read part 1 of this series on days out in Norfolk (haven’t you), so you’ll know that the following visits weren’t directly food and drink related. However, we didn’t go hungry and in one instance we tried a new (to us) local delicacy – which illustrates the role of food and drink in Norfolk’s tourism offer (as Pete Waters at VisitNorfolk often points out, it accounts for nearly 30% of visitor spending). More importantly, most of the attractions have strong links with or celebrate our farming community both past and present and remind visitors of its importance to the local economy.

WARNING:
This is quite a long post – so grab a coffee (or beer or wine), get comfortable and stay awhile.

Tuesday 5 August – The Great Hospital, Norwich

The Great Hospital (a #Norwich12 heritage building) is an amazing institution that has been at the heart of community life in the city for over 700 years and still provides sheltered accommodation for local people. Although it opens The Lodge each Friday between April and September, the church, cloisters and medieval refectory are normally closed to visitors to protect the privacy of the elderly residents. However, as well as hosting special functions (such as weddings and conferences), the Great Hospital holds occasional open days and we took the opportunity of going along to one during the recent Norfolk Open Churches week.

Aside from seeing this historic building with its beautifully carved dragons in the brackets on the roof beams (much like those in the equally splendid Dragon Hall, another one of the #Norwich12), I was there to see fellow Norfolk Food & Drink Champion Charlie Hodson, who had recently been appointed Executive Chef at the Great Hospital. Over excellent tea and cake (made by Charlie’s talented team) we chatted about how he was introducing more locally produced food to the menus both for residents’ meals and for the grand occasions. If you ever get invited to one, leap at the opportunity because the food will be delicious and you will know that Charlie has paid particular attention to its provenance.

http://www.camrovision-landscapephotography.co.uk/

Blickling Hall by Paul Macro

Saturday 16 August – Blickling Hall

I’ve walked round the park at Blicking plenty of times – it is beautiful in all seasons – and sat in the courtyard to watch an open-air performance of Pride & Prejudice (which was great fun) but oddly I had never been inside the house. So it was a pleasure to finally walk past the grand heraldic bulls that stand either side of the main entrance and step through the ancient oak door into a hall that has greeted royalty, politicians and members of high society for hundreds of years. Now a National Trust property, it has been preserved to look like the family house it once was, with a minimum of ‘museum’ type signs.

It’s a fascinating place, with beautiful furnishings. Although I quickly tired of all the portraits of long dead nobles in their finery (one ruffed earl is much like another), I did enjoy reading about life below stairs and listening to the archive recordings of interviews with some of the last people to serve as butlers and cooks when it was still a private residence. The painted arts & crafts style decorations on the ceiling in the ‘brown room’ had a wonderfully irreverent feel , which perhaps explains why the last lord to live there had them covered up. And the gardens were beautiful, particularly the parterre with its formal structure of yew topiary inter-laced with wide herbaceous borders in hot and cool colours.

However the real surprise, and in many ways my favourite part of the visit, was the little RAF museum, commemorating the women and men who had served at RAF Moulton during WW2. It’s packed with personal belongings from the airmen, photographs, maps, and period memorabilia, including facsimile newspapers you can read and anecdotes from those who risked (and in many cases gave) their lives in defence of our liberty. It really is a poignant place and worth the price of admission alone.

After quickly dropping into the Hobart Gallery to see an excellent exhibition of landscape photos by Paul Macro and Stephen Mole (who have kindly supplied pictures for this post), we headed over to the Muddy Boots café. I’m not normally a big fan of National Trust cafés – there is something of the school canteen about many of them and the hot food never looks that appetising. However, on this occasion I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy a large mug of very good coffee and an excellent scone (that tasted ‘home made’ rather than mass-produced) with clotted cream and jam. I was also pleased to see that, in a nod to buying local, they stocked Parravani’s icecream.

It’s worth remembering that the National Trust doesn’t just preserve fine buildings but is also an active landowner. As well as the woods and parkland, Blicking has around 3,500 acres of farmland, which generate an income to support the estate. This farming heritage is celebrated every year when the park plays host to the Aylsham Agricultural Show – if you missed it this year, make a note to visit in 2015.

<<Grab a refill!>>

Sunday 17 August – Bircham Windmill

I admire bold industrial architecture – and in many ways prefer it to the grand houses of the aristocracy. It tends to be eminently practical and, like all good engineering, wastes little on unnecessary frills and adornments. I have a particular affection for Norfolk windmills – the old type used for grinding corn (or, in some cases, as wind-pumps for draining fields) – in part because they remind me of my family roots.

My great-grandmother, Charlotte Varina Johnson, was the daughter of a Norfolk miller, James Johnson. From about 1850 to 1890 the Johnson family owned two mills (one wind-powered and one water-powered) on Scarrow Beck, which borders the Blickling Estate. Charlotte went on to marry Hubert Burgess, a local farrier, who died in World War 1 having been gassed while tending to horses in the trenches and whose name is on the roll of honour in Erpingham churchyard.

Digression over: Bircham Windmill (which is in working order, although it no longer grinds flour) is not just a fascinating industrial heritage attraction. It is also home to a number of rural enterprises, including an excellent bakery, a craft shop, a campsite and a self-catering cottage. You can either buy delicious breads, cakes and sticky buns to take away – or you can enjoy them as part of a meal in the tea room (which also sells pork pies made by a local butcher – naturally I had to try one and it was delicious).

As well as being able to climb up inside the windmill – making sure you keep well away from the machinery – you can actually walk out onto the little balcony that runs round the tower half way up and even step out onto the platform right at the top by the ‘fantail’ (not for the faint hearted – especially when the wind is gusting Force 5-6 as it was when we visited).  There are various exhibits inside the windmill explaining its history, how it works and how it was restored. It really is quite fascinating and makes you realise just how hard a miller’s life was and how integral is was to the community.

Outside there are various animals for children to pet and feed, including sheep, goats, rabbits and guinea pigs, and there is a pony they can ride. You can also watch the sheep being milked everyday – which is a great way for children to learn that milk doesn’t just come out of a bottle – and you can buy the wool for spinning and knitting. Sometimes you can watch someone demonstrating how they make cheese from the milk. Unfortunately they weren’t there when we visited – but we did buy two of the four cheeses they make: Norfolk Charm, and ‘feta style’ Miller’s Fancy.

Both cheeses were delicious and well worth trying if you can get your hands on some. The Charm had the texture of Wensleydale but with a richer flavour – it worked well crumbled onto hot pasta. While the Fancy had a fresh flavour (I preferred it to traditional Feta because it was less salty but still had that lovely creamy texture) and worked well in a salad with olives. I am not sure if you can buy these cheeses in any other shops – best call the windmill if you are interested – or visit (when it’s not too windy).

http://www.camrovision-landscapephotography.co.uk/

River Bure by Paul Macro

Sunday 24 August – Canoeing on the River Bure

Now I’m probably not the most adventurous chap you’ll ever meet but every so often I do like to get out into the countryside and explore ‘the path less travelled.’ And what better path to explore than a stretch of one of our county’s beautiful rivers? Not the river path mind but the river itself – in a canoe – with some bush-craft and archery lessons thrown in for extra fun. That’s just what is on offer from the Canoe Man with his Swallows & Amazons adventure day.

The Bure Valley is a beautiful part of Norfolk – with gently rolling hills, winding lanes, broad fields and lush water meadows. The upper reaches of the Bure are particularly tranquil because no motorboats are allowed beyond Coltishall and there are no big roads nearby. Aside from the occasional mournful hoot from the little steam engine running on the Bure Valley railway, all you can hear are the birds, the grazing cattle and the wind in the willows.

We joined a group of seven other people (one family up from Cambridge on a day trip and another from London camping at the Top Farm near Marsham) and were led by an extremely knowledgeable young man called ‘Monkey’. Having met at Wroxham (which was pleasantly bustling even at 10:00 on a Sunday morning) one of Monkey’s colleagues drove us to Buxton Mill where we picked up our canoes. From there we paddled downstream for about an hour and a half (at a leisurely pace) to a secret campsite in a small wood near Hautbois (pronounced Hobbis).

After a packed lunch (we all brought our own – so we enjoyed sourdough bread and chocolate brownie from Dozen, as well as home-cooked lemon chicken made with excellent local free-range chicken from Harvey’s) we had fun making campfires and learning about various survival techniques for starting fires – some of which were quite spectacular. We then spent about an hour pretending to be Robin Hood – there is something particularly satisfying about the sound of an arrow thudding into its target.

The canoe back took longer because we were paddling against the (albeit gentle) current and a pretty stiff wind that every so often would sweep the unwary into a bank of reeds – resulting in much muttering and back paddling. It was exhausting but in that satisfying way you get with hard physical work, like chopping logs or digging the garden. The final treat was a small tub of Ronaldo’s ice-cream from the tourist information centre when we got back to Wroxham – a perfect end to a perfect summer’s day – thank you to all the Canoe Man team.

River Bure in winter by Stephen Mole

River Bure in winter by Stephen Mole

Monday 25 August – Gressenhall

We certainly had the best of the weekend weather on our canoe trip – and the worst of it on our visit to Gressenhall. We chose this attraction over the Aylsham Show because our daughter particularly wanted to see the special ‘Village at War’ exhibitions commemorating both world wars.

Despite drizzle in the morning, turning to torrential downpour later, we had a marvellous time and the various groups of reenactors put on a brilliant show in period British and US uniforms and civilian costumes. I was particularly moved to see the ‘farrier’ with his portable furnace – looking much as my great-grandfather might have looked on a rain drenched field in northern France a hundred years ago.

WW1 Farrier at Gressenhall (photo used with permission).

WW1 Farrier at Gressenhall (photo used with permission).

Even without the military themed events, Gressenhall is a fascinating place – if you haven’t been and you have even a remote interest in the history of rural life, you must make a day of it. As well as an immense amount of moving detail about the place itself, which was once a workhouse, there are numerous displays telling the story of Norfolk’s farming heritage both in the main building and down on the farm. One of my favourite rooms in the house looks at the archaeological evidence of early hunter gatherers and the development of agriculture in Norfolk, with an amazing collection of flint tools.

The farm not only demonstrates traditional (pre-heavy machinery) farming techniques but also plays an important role in the conservation of some our native rare breeds – including the magnificent Suffolk Punch, the (to my mind) lovely large black pig, fine Red Poll cattle and Norfolk horn sheep. We were lucky enough to see two of the Suffolk Punch in action pulling an early harrow over the stubble field – it was a beautiful sight and felt as if we had travelled back in time.

Inside the farm buildings there are more displays telling you about the animals, the wildlife on the nature trail, and the people who lived on, worked and shaped this land over the centuries. This is the heritage the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival celebrates each year – so it seems fitting to have visited just days before the launch of the 10th and biggest festival. We hope you enjoy this year’s festival as much we have enjoyed championing it – and we applaud all those who have volunteered to make it such a success by organising so many varied events.

We’re blogging for charity

We are using our blogs to raise awareness of an excellent local charity called Nelson’s Journey. If you enjoyed this post, please donate £1 (or more if you can spare it) to Nelson’s Journey today. Thank you.

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About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them (if you do, please give them a star or five).

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

NFDF coloured logos

#NFDF2014 days out in Norfolk – Part 1: pork pies, popcorn and potatoes

One of the many lovely things about being a Norfolk Food & Drink Festival Champion is it gives me a great excuse to get out and see a bit more of our wonderful county (not that excuses are really needed). The following is a quick review of just some of the trips I have enjoyed recently. Perhaps they will inspire you to seek out some of the delicious food and drink made by local producers – do let me know by posting a comment at the end.

Sunday 6 July – Samphire open day

Regular readers will already know that I am partial to good pork pies and sausages. Some of the finest I’ve tasted are made by Karen and Jeff Nethercott from free range pigs reared on their smallholding in Pristow Green Lane. This is just 20 minutes from us in South Norfolk (15 minutes if the pies are hot out of the oven) – so when we heard they were having an open day we hurried along.

The day started cold and damp but thankfully the drizzle stopped shortly after we arrived and by midday the sun was almost out. About a dozen local artisan producers had braved the weather to set up food, drink and craft stalls in the garden – and all were more than happy to chat about their work (although having tried the potter’s wheel, I think I will stick to writing for a living). We treated ourselves to some pies and sausages, naturally, as well as a jar of excellent Jubberwacky Chutney, a couple of bottles of Humpty Dumpty Ale and a slice of chocolate brownie (to share).

We couldn’t stay for the music in the afternoon (Monday copy deadlines were looming) but before leaving we enjoyed a tour of the smallholding with Karen as our knowledgeable guide. As well as rare breed pigs and sheep, Karen has a beautifully tended vegetable garden, a small orchard with various heritage variety fruit trees and a scattering of chickens and ducks. This might sound like the good life but I am sure it also takes a lot of extremely hard work to maintain.

The pigs and sheep produce exceptionally tasty meat: partly because they are free range and partly because they are so well looked after, as evidenced by the RSPCA naming Samphire as a finalist in its Good Business Awards 2012. If you want to try some of Karen’s delicious food, you can buy online or from their stall at one of the half-dozen markets they go to. You will also find the pies served in local pubs and farm shops – just ask Karen on twitter for your nearest supplier.

Thank you Karen and Jeff.

Thank you Karen and Jeff.

Monday 7 July – A missed opportunity and fresh discoveries

You may remember how in early July I visited Crisp Malting, in the pretty village of Great Ryburgh. On leaving I noticed a sign for the village shop and post office saying it was ‘owned by the community’. Intrigued, I popped in and asked for more info. There were three people working in the shop and they all turned out to be both residents and ‘shareholders’ in what is a Community Interest Company.

The company was set up in 2008/9 after the pub, school, shop and post office had all closed in the space of a few months. It is now a successful social enterprise and – I am pleased to report – a keen supporter of local food and drink producers. From what I could gather, the villagers are justifiably proud of their achievement, which just goes to show what a community can do when it pulls together.

I didn’t buy anything, other than a bottle of water, because it was a hot day and I had no way of keeping food fresh until I got home. This was a shame because I found out later that the shop stocks David and Julie Smith’s famed Perfick Pork sausages, which are made in the village. I also passed the Perfick Pork shop as I drove out of the village but (being a Monday) it was closed – so I may have to order some treats online.

Monday 7 July – Popcorn time

Driving back down the A1067 to Norwich I was reminded of another local foodie success story when I saw Algy’s Farm Shop. It’s worth reading Algy Garrod’s story on the website to understand his passion for making Norfolk Popcorn and supporting local producers – do pop into the shop, if you are passing Bintree, it really is lovely. Charlie Hodson, who is now Executive Chef at The Great Hospital in Norwich and a fellow Food & Drink Festival Champion, calls Algy one of his ‘food heroes’ and I can see why.

Monday 7 July – Perfect Potatoes

That same Monday, I had to drive over to Lammas (errands and all that), so I took the opportunity to say hello to Tim Briscoe who runs the Buxton Potato Company. Tim’s family farm is only a few hundred acres but he has big ambitions. A few years ago he realised that simply selling his potatoes to wholesalers and processors meant he was missing out on the opportunity to add value to his product.

He decided to start supplying local stores direct and to offer temperature controlled potato storage to other growers in the area. This all required some pretty substantial investment in high-tech bits of equipment (including solar panels to reduce his carbon footprint) as well as branding for his packaging – but it’s paying off. He now stores around 5,000 tonnes; washing, grading and packing up to 1000 tonnes for local supermarkets and shops and selling the rest to national chains via the Greenvale Co-op.

Earlier this year the East of England Co-op named the Buxton Potato Company as one of the three finalists for its East of England producer of the year award (out of 130 entrants) and winner of the Norfolk heat. Look out for the Buxton Potato bags if you are shopping in North-East Norfolk.

Happy Samphire pigs.

Happy Samphire pigs.

Other local delights

On Tuesday 8 July I had the pleasure of meeting Nick Stone (known to many of you as TypeJunky) who, aside from being a talented designer, is an ace photographer and walking encyclopaedia of local history. If you haven’t read Nick’s Invisible Works blog – take a look now, it’s fascinating. We took the opportunity to try out the new Little Red Roaster on St Andrew’s Hill and, as expected, the coffee and flapjack were delicious.

That Saturday (13 July) we drove out to Foxley Wood for a fun and fascinating morning studying ‘Mighty Mini- Beasts’ with Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It’s a beautiful setting and only lacks one essential – a decent place to stop for coffee (do tell me if you know of one nearby). However, that gave us a good excuse to stop in at the wonderful Dozen Artisan Bakery on the way for fresh croissants to enjoy mid-morning – and excellent sourdough bread for sandwiches when we got home mid-afternoon.

Dozen Bakery

Dozen Bakery

There you have it – a roundup of just some of the places we’ve visited recently and some of the excellent local food and drink we’ve enjoyed. Part 2 of this blog will look at some Norfolk visitor attractions which, while not being food focused, did not entirely disappoint on the refreshments front. Hope you enjoy both parts – do feel free to leave a comment below, it would be great to hear from you.

We’re blogging for charity

We are using our blogs to raise awareness of an excellent local charity called Nelson’s Journey. If you enjoyed this post, please help a grieving child by donating £1 (or more if you can spare it) to Nelson’s Journey today. Thank you.

JustGiving - Please sponsor us

About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them (if you do, please give them a star or five).

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

Who do you trust? An #NFDF2014 visit to local @freedomfooduk approved abattoir to discuss food provenance and animal welfare.

Last year there was the horse meat scandal. This year the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) said the ‘lamb’ in some kebabs and takeaways isn’t always lamb. These two headline grabbing stories come on top of long standing concerns among many consumers about animal welfare, particularly in countries that export meat to us but don’t apply UK standards – such as in pig rearing.

As a result, more of us are taking food provenance seriously. Whether you enjoy a Sunday roast, or bacon with your morning fry-up (I wish), the quality of the meat we eat still matters. We want to know we can trust the source and that the animals have been well looked after in the process.

Among those benefiting from this increased interest in food quality are traditional local butchers, who use good local abattoirs to source locally reared meat. However, such abattoirs and butchers are increasingly rare – as consumer and supermarket demands force consolidation. Industrial scale abattoirs handling thousands of animals a day are increasingly the norm – with live animals shipped hundreds of miles from farm to factory.

Buy Local – it tastes better

Thankfully, here in Norfolk we are lucky – we still have a local, family run abattoir – and it has an excellent reputation among local farmers, butchers and restaurateurs. H. G. Blake (Costessey) Ltd (better known as Blake’s in the food community) runs a multi-species abattoir just outside Felthorpe. It handles cattle, pigs and sheep from local farmers and smallholders in the Eastern region – and only supplies wholesalers and independent butchers, not supermarkets.

There is an argument that every meat-eater should visit an abattoir at least once in their life just to understand what happens to the animal before it appears on your plate as tender sirloin. So, in my role of championing #NFDF2014, I visited Blake’s in April and met Andrew Clarke, the managing director. This wasn’t out of ghoulish fascination with the slaughtering process (I’m too squeamish for that) but rather to find out how they compete with the industrial food processors.

The business was founded over 60 years ago by the late Hilton Blake and is still family-owned (Mrs J Blake is Chair). It moved to its current site in 1995 where it has a modern purpose built abattoir, with an ‘A’Grade for food safety from the BRC Global Standards body. The abattoir is also RSPCA Freedom Food approved, testifying to its high standards of animal welfare, and has Soil Association approval to handle organically raised animals.

High standards of care reflect company culture

On meeting Andrew and his colleague Jason Forder (General Manager), it becomes clear very quickly that maintaining excellent hygiene, employee health & safety, and animal welfare are their major concerns. When I enter the office, Jason is on the phone to a customer politely explaining why delivery drivers are no longer permitted to carry whole sides of beef on their shoulders. “I know they used to but that was over 20 years ago – we don’t want to risk anyone’s livelihood and I’m sure you don’t want someone badly injured on your premises either.”

There’s a large TV screen on the wall in the office – displaying images from 14 CCTV cameras placed strategically round the premises. In one frame I can see some pigs making themselves comfortable in the deep straw of the holding pens. In other frames I can see people clad in white from head to toe preparing carcasses. “We installed the cameras nearly 20 years ago,” explains Jason, “partly for security but also to monitor the whole slaughtering process from delivery to dispatch, to ensure we maintain the highest standards.”

Andrew, who is also a livestock farmer and co-owner with his family of a farm shop in Hevingham, is passionate about animal welfare. “All our Norfolk beef is from local Quality Standard assured farms,” he explains, “where the cattle graze on some of the finest pastures in the country. We don’t want to ruin the flavour by stressing the animals, so careful humane handling at all times is critical. As well as having an FSA approved vet on site during slaughtering, we have five full-time animal welfare officers on the team and are training more.

Great tasting meat takes patience

“We know the farmers and the butchers – and often put them in touch so they can better understand each other. This builds confidence in the full traceability of the product from farm to final sale. And buying locally not only means shorter journeys for the animals but also helps reduce food miles, so is better for the environment.”

Look for this sign in your local butcher's shop - for great tasting Norfolk beef.

Look for this sign in your local butcher’s shop – for great tasting Norfolk beef.

As well as Norfolk beef, Blake’s sources pork from producers across East Anglia, including Blythburgh Pork, which is truly free range. “Blythburgh’s pigs roam large paddocks,” says Andrew, “where they root in the sandy Suffolk soil and socialise with their herd. This natural lifestyle means they grow more slowly than intensively farmed pigs and so develop more flavour.

“A lot of people think taste depends on the animal breed but feed, growing conditions and animal care matter just as much. It’s why our East Anglian lamb tastes so good all year round, from the prime spring lamb to late season animals finished on grass and root crops.” This attention to detail and passion for the very best tasting meat has helped Blake’s establish a loyal customer base, supplying many of the region’s best butchers, such as Archer’s and Papworth’s.

As fellow #NFDF2014 champion (and head chef at The Grove in Cromer) Charlie Hodson said, when I mentioned my visit: “I reckon Blake’s run the best abattoir in Britain. I buy all my beef from Icarus Hines, one of Norfolk’s premier butchers, and he gets it from Blake’s. So I can be sure it’s best Norfolk beef that has been properly matured and expertly butchered. This means I can be confident it will taste great – and our guests will love it.”

More info

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. In future blogs I will talk more about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and other food and drink events around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

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