Discussing #NFDF2014 Norwich Restaurant Week in #NorwichLanes with @RafflesFood – over delicious Rapido lunch.

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This year is the 10th anniversary of the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival and the organisers are determined to make it the biggest and best yet. The festival is already the largest in the UK – with volunteers running numerous events, both large and small, across the county from 30 August to 12 October. However, this year we want to do more in Norwich – which is where the festival started.

Among the many events being planned is the ever popular Battle of the Bangers, which last year attracted over 5,000 sausage lovers to taste the finest our local butchers have to offer. There will also be the City Farm and a Norfolk Producers market – all outside The Forum on Saturday 6 September. This will coincide with the final day of the reinvigorated Norwich Restaurant Week, which will run from 1-7 September and is being supported by Norwich BID and Norwich Lanes.

The current chair of the Norwich Lanes committee is Jayne Raffles. She and her husband Nigel have been running restaurants in Norwich for 24 years – and currently have three in the Norwich Lanes district: St Benedict’s, The Library and Pinocchio’s. I had the pleasure of meeting them both for a Rapido lunch in Pinocchio’s to discuss their plans for making the most of Norwich Restaurant Week.

Fresh fast food to savour

I have to admit to having a real soft-spot for Pinocchio’s. It’s the place we tend to go for family celebrations, including the day we moved back to Norfolk, the night (four years later) when we finally moved out of a rented house into our own home, as well as various birthdays and anniversaries. It reminds me of the family-run trattoria in Bologna we tried when we visited Italy – with good, honest food, prepared fresh every day.

Nigel, a talented chef who is responsible for the food in all three restaurants, uses local suppliers (such as Easters) and fresh seasonal produce wherever possible. “It’s important to provide great tasting food and great value food, if we are to compete with the big corporate chains. We make virtually all our bread at Pinocchio’s, particularly our pizza dough, although we use a specialist Italian supplier for the ciabatta because they make it using the traditional slow fermentation method.”

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The ciabatta we had for lunch certainly tasted delicious, packed with chicken, mushrooms and pesto. As did the arancini, deep fried rice balls with chorizo and smoked mozzarella, and pin-wheels (rounds of bread) filled with a rich lamb ragu. Sadly I was driving, so had to pass on a glass of Moretti (my favourite Italian beer if you must know) but the homemade Sicilian lemonade was so deliciously refreshing I was slightly surprised the Famous Five didn’t arrive on their bikes with Timmy the dog just to knock back a jug or two.

Supporting cultural life in the city centre

As you would expect, Jayne and Nigel are also passionate about promoting local, independent restaurants. “It’s the independents who help keep Norwich special,” says Jayne. “They stop the city turning into just another clone town and they attract visitors who are vital to the local economy.”

This passion is reflected in Jane’s championing of the Norwich Lanes organisation, which promotes independent businesses in the city centre. As chair, Jane works closely with the Norwich Business Improvement District (Norwich BID) team, which has raised £3m to improve the look and feel of the city centre. Both organisations support special events in the city centre throughout the year.

The Lanes committee is organising four big events this year. The first was the successful revival of Jack Valentine in spring, with Norwich BID’s help. Next up, on 6 July, is the hugely popular Summer Fayre – which just gets bigger and better every year. Then in October the Lanes will support the 5th Sound & Vision festival at Norwich Arts Centre. And finally, the organisers are planning a late night open-shop/open-restaurant event for December (more on this nearer the time).

Meanwhile, Norwich BID will be laying on street entertainment every Thursday throughout the summer. The Head Out, Not Home campaign (which runs 12 June to 28 August) aims to encourage people to stay in the city after work and make the most of the long (and, we hope, sunny) summer evenings. To keep up to date with what’s on each week, follow #NorwichEvenings on twitter or download the BID’s ‘Discover Norwich’ app.

Norwich Restaurant Week

Both Jayne and Nigel see Norwich Restaurant Week as another great opportunity to attract people to the heart of our fine city and raise the profile of its independent food network. “We are trying to encourage all the restaurants, cafés and bars in the Lanes to take part and help make it a week to remember. The Food & Drink Festival and Norwich Restaurant Week in particular are vital to putting Norwich on the map as a modern food destination, not just an historic visitor attraction.”

Jayne and Nigel seem to thrive on being busy – so they are planning three events for the Food and Drink Festival. “We are going to have a Slow Food Festival in The Library (our restaurant on Guildhall Hill),” says Jayne. “The team behind the Aylsham Slow Food Festival (which is also an #NFDF2014 event) are helping to organise this and it will be like an indoor market celebrating the best in regional food.”

Nigel is organising an American pop-up barbecue in the Warings Store: “This will really appeal to people who love succulent burgers and other traditional American food,” he promises. Then, in the third week of September (not Restaurant Week but still during the festival) Jayne will be hosting a special #NFDF2014 event at City College. “Hopefully this will help inspire more students to pursue a career in catering.”

Celebrating our City of Literature’s heritage

Finally, as if all those events were not enough, Jayne and Nigel are planning an extra special event in November to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the reopening of The (Norwich Subscription) Library building in 1914 (after a devastating fire in 1898). This will run from 1-7 November and will involve The Bookhive, Jarrold, the Writers Centre, the UEA’s Writers’ Circle and the Blue Badge Guides. There will be children’s events on the Saturday (including pop-up bookstalls and storytelling) and authors’ evenings (including book signings) during the week.

Now that seems like a wonderful example of feeding the body and the mind – of which I suspect Epicurus would have strongly approved. It certainly works for me. Thank you Jayne and Nigel for an excellent lunch too.

Be a part of #NFDF2014

If you are interested in taking part in Norwich Restaurant Week, please post your details below and the organisers will get in touch with you.

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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.

Thank you @MaidsHeadHotel for fine dining and good company to celebrate the launch of your local, seasonal menu. #NFDF2014

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was honoured be invited to join a select few guests at a lunch to celebrate the launch of the Maids Head Hotel’s spring menu in its WinePress Restaurant. This came about because the Maids Head has, to its credit, become a GOLD sponsor of the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival – so I was there in my volunteer role as a champion of the festival and local food and drink producers.

The lunch took place on Friday 4 April – and it was, quite simply, delicious. Now I admit I don’t often eat out in restaurants (normally only on holidays) – and my idea of fine dining is a good ‘gastro pub’ lunch – so I can’t really compare the experience with any other establishments in Norfolk. However, this was definitely the kind of food I would hope to get if I booked somewhere for a special occasion.

The focus of the meal was very much local food and drink. The wines were from WinBirri, which has vineyards in Surlingham, the crab was from Cromer and the lamb was from Thetford. Unfortunately I was driving (the price of living in a rural area) so could only try a few sips of the wine. This was perhaps a good thing since I don’t have much of a head for alcohol, particularly at lunchtime, and the two I tried were very tempting: a crisp, toasty, sparkling white and a refreshingly dry rosé that reminded me of summer berries.

A spring menu to savour
The meal started with canapés served on delicate china ladles – a bit like the soup spoons you used to get in smart Chinese restaurants (when I was young) – this made them particularly easy to hold and eat. Now I love canapés – done well they provide the perfect combination of taste and texture in a single hit. Many years ago, during the dotcom boom of the last century, I went to a party at the Natural History Museum, where we were served the most delightful canapés made by Anton Mosimann’s catering company – well, I’m pleased to say, Head Chef Magic’s canapés are easily as good.

My favourite was the crispy quail egg with beetroot and mooli (which is apparently a white radish – news to me) – the crispy coating contrasted beautifully with the eggs, which were still soft in the middle, while the slivers of vegetable added an extra light crunch without overpowering the other flavours. There were three other canapés to try: a tip of grilled Norfolk asparagus in a little shot glass with hollandaise sauce, oak smoked Norfolk chicken & chorizo terrine (a mouth watering combination of gentle smokiness and spiciness), and a tian (which I think means layers) of fresh Cromer crab and delicately fragrant basmati rice.

We then sat down for the main course: naturally I ordered the lamb, although there was a very good looking vegetarian dish of roasted Portobello mushroom, crispy herb polenta, mozzarella fritters, sun dried tomato pesto and mixed leaf salad. As you can imagine, it tasted wonderful according to those who tried it – and once again demonstrated Head Chef Magic’s passion for combining fresh flavours and contrasting textures. There were also lovely fresh baked bread rolls to eat during the brief pause before the main course was served – all made on the premises using Magic’s own live starter.

My main course contrasted two cuts of lamb: slices of roasted rump, beautifully caramelised on the outside while still being delicately pink on the inside, and a spoonful of pulled, slow braised shoulder rich with the scent of rosemary. This was served on a fabulous disc-shaped ‘tian’ of sliced rosemary and garlic potatoes – soft in the middle and crispy on the outside, surrounded by glazed baby onions and salsify (a type of root vegetable – again, news to me), crispy pieces of smoked bacon, fresh peas and rosemary jus. All in all it was excellent – full of wonderful flavours but perfectly balanced.

Now I have to confess I don’t have much of a sweet tooth – for some reason my taste buds have changed over the years and where in the past I would have craved something sweet and sticky, I now find myself hankering after a square of bitter chocolate and a double espresso. So I probably can’t do the final dish justice – save to say it looked stunning and if you like rhubarb then you will love it. Called ‘Textures of Rhubarb,’ it had nine exquisite creations all flavoured with rhubarb, including marshmallow, mini crumble (in a biscuit case), refreshing sorbet (which retained that lovely tart rhubarb taste), parfait with crystallised ginger, purée, ginger gel, rhubarb sherbet, jelly and rhubarb crisps.

Charming hosts and special guests
A good meal is always welcome but it lacks a certain something if it isn’t served in good company – thankfully the Maids Head had catered for that too. While the canapés were being served, I had the pleasure of meeting Keith Driver the Lord Mayor of Norwich, who has served his community for many years; Graham Creelman the Sheriff of Norwich, who was once the managing director of Anglia Television; and Melanie Cook from the Visit Norwich team.

I also caught up with the organisers of the lunch: Christine Malcolm (General Manager at the Maids Head), and Deborah Cubbins (Marketing Manager), as well as Paul Dickson, a PR guru and local historian (who gave a short but fascinating talk about the hotel at the end of the meal). And I chatted, all too briefly, with the delightful Sarah de Chair, who heads the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival committee and is the person I have to thank for asking me to champion the festival – and consequently for my invitation to this event.

L to R: Christine Malcolm, General Manager; Chloe Smith MP, Norwich North; Marcin Pomierny, Head Chef; Keith Driver, Lord Mayor of Norwich; Graham Creelman, Sheriff of Norwich.

L to R: Christine Malcolm, General Manager; Chloe Smith MP, Norwich North; Marcin Pomierny, Head Chef; Keith Driver, Lord Mayor of Norwich; Graham Creelman, Sheriff of Norwich.

Then, when we sat down for the main course, I found I had the honour of sitting between Caroline Jarrold (who, if you don’t know, does a huge amount for good causes in the city and county) and Chloe Smith, the MP for North Norwich (who, putting politics aside, seems genuinely committed to working for her constituency and helping young people into work). Both women were great company, chatting knowledgeably on a range of topics so the conversation flowed pretty effortlessly.

At the end of the meal I had the opportunity to meet our charming host and the owner of the Maids Head, David Chaplin, who has great ambitions for this grand city institution. He is committed not only to using local suppliers for food and drink but also to refurbishing the hotel and restoring its former elegance, without making it feel too formal. This means striking a careful balance between preserving the historic fabric of the building, which makes it so special, and bringing the furnishings and decor up to date, so as to create a comfortable yet contemporary feel. Having met David and his team, I am confident the Maids Head is in good hands and destined to once more be the pride of Norwich.

Finally, thank you to all the team at the Maids Head for such an excellent experience, particularly Head Chef Magic and Taya Hornsby, Food and Drinks Manager, and her colleague Katherine for making our visit so pleasurable.

It’s not all glamour
I think it is safe to say that being a volunteer champion for #NFDF2014 will very rarely involve such luxurious events – so I hope you will forgive me for making the most of this one. Next week I plan to visit The Genome Analysis Centre, the John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research at the Norwich Research Park to find out more about the science of crop development. Then over the next few months or so (day job permitting) I hope to visit a local abattoir to talk about the provenance of our food (particularly relevant after the horse meat scandal) and an engineering company that makes award-winning agricultural machinery right here in Norfolk.

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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. I hope you continue to enjoy these posts 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.

Thank you for reading.

@HuwSayer

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Chef Magic creates fresh spring menu @MaidsHeadHotel #Norwich for #ETW14. New #NFDF2014 post.

In an age of clone towns and chain restaurants, it is refreshing to discover that the Maids Head Hotel in Norwich has not only regained its independence (in December 2012) – but has also become a passionate advocate of locally sourced food and drink. Under Head Chef Marcin Pomierny – better known as ‘Magic’ – the focus is now firmly on flavour, provenance and seasonality. Which is why I was delighted to be invited to a lunch celebrating the launch of the hotel’s spring 2014 menu in its WinePress Restaurant.

The new menu, which is launches on 1 April in time for English Tourism Week #ETW14, is an excellent example of Magic’s talent for combining the tastes and textures of our finest local ingredients to create delicious meals. A talent that helped the Maids Head win the EDP Tourism Award for Best Food and Drink Experience in 2013 for its “outstanding” food. With dishes such as fresh Cromer crab, Norfolk wood-pigeon and Thetford reared lamb, as well as Winbirri English Wines and Maids Head Ale brewed by Woodforde’s, I know I am going to be spoilt for choice when I finally get to try the menu later this week.

Meanwhile, since the invitation came about because of my involvement in the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival – of which The Maids Head is a gold sponsor – I took the opportunity to meet Marcin and the hotel’s General Manager Christine Malcolm to find out more about the hotel’s new direction.

Huw meets Magic - Photo by Paul Dickson.

Huw meets Magic – Photo by Paul Dickson.

Marcin trained as a chef in Poland before moving to the UK in 2005, where he has worked in a number of Norwich restaurants. He joined the Maids Head in May 2013, shortly after it returned to private hands, and became Head Chef in September, leading a talented and energetic team of six including sous-chef David Lovett . He launched the first seasonal menu last October and is now keen to introduce the fresh new flavours of spring.

“My focus is on using the best regional food to create great tasting dishes,” he says. “I like to combine flavours and textures, including different cuts of the same meat, to really bring out the quality of the produce. However, this menu will only be available for two months because we will then be into summer and want to make the most of the region’s bounty with a new menu for June, July and August.”

The hotel, which is reputedly the oldest in England, was bought (out of administration) in December 2012 by the Chaplin family, who also own the four-star Gonville in Cambridge as well as being prominent local farmers. Christine, who has been at the hotel since 2006, is in no doubt that being a family run business once again has made all the difference.

“Various management companies, with portfolios of hotels, ran the hotel for a number of years,” she says. “But that meant all the buying was centralised and the focus was on costs, so we didn’t have the freedom to choose the best seasonal produce. Our new owners couldn’t be any more different: they are committed to using local suppliers wherever possible and sourcing the finest food and drink from Norfolk and the surrounding region.”

This is evident from the hotel’s food and drink guide, which lists its main local suppliers for everything from meat and fish to fruit and vegetables, wines and ales and artisan cheeses. The emphasis is on picking crops at their peak, reducing food miles, and supporting the local community. Suppliers include:

  • Barsby Produce, a family-run business based in Kings Lynn, for fresh fruit and vegetables
  • The Cheese Truckle, based just outside Norwich, for local cheeses and charcuterie
  • Howard & Son, a family run shop on Magdalene Street, Norwich, which supplies fish, shellfish and game
  • Tavern Tasty Meats, suppliers of rare breed meats with full traceability and great traditional flavour
  • Winbirri Wines, based in Bramerton, fine English wines made from Norfolk grown grapes
  • Woodforde’s, based in Woodbastwick, which supplies ales brewed with Norfolk grown malted barley and local water from an aquifer deep below the brewery.

Marcin’s team also makes fresh bread every day, as well as cakes, biscuits (which are delicious) and ice-cream. Naturally, I am looking forward to trying just some of this wonderful food and drink on Friday 4 April – and I will be sure to report back to you on an experience that I’m confident will be Magic.

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If you have any questions or comments, 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.

@HuwSayer