These were a few of my favourite things
13:59 03 February 2017
Copyright: Archant 2017
I always spend a bit of time at the beginning of the year reflecting on what I’ve eaten during the past 12 months and looking forward to what I’ll eat over the next 12.
As you grow older and wiser, you realise that the best eating experiences aren’t necessarily about the food in front of you, but where you eat, why you eat it and who you eat it with.
I took as much, if not more, pleasure in a banana split shared with my grandsons in Great Yarmouth as I did taking afternoon tea at The Ritz and although 2016 did include some of the best food I’ve ever eaten courtesy of a Michelin-starred restaurant, a picnic of bread and cheese eaten during a Provencal sunset will be remembered forever.
So while this list doesn’t necessarily involve name-checking specific dishes and ingredients, it does highlight the fact that you don’t need a bottomless wallet and a refined palette in order to enjoy what you eat.
Here, in no particular order, are my top 10 eating experiences of 2016. It makes me hungry just thinking about what lies ahead in 2017.
1) The Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent: There can be few rundown-looking pubs that have received the same kind of exalted press coverage as this somewhat ramshackle eaterie on the Thames Estuary. Visited on the recommendation of our lovely friends Louise and Christian (who have the great fortune to live in Hastings, see number 3) and, indeed, with them, the journey from Sussex to Kent was hampered by an errant satellite navigation system which led us along single carriageway roads where approaching traffic appeared unable to locate the reversing option on their gear shift. I wondered what all the fuss was about: it soon became clear. Beautifully fresh fish, perfectly cooked, the simplest of accompaniments – the Michelin Star holding Sportsman is about proper food cooked properly. We started with plump and perfect Whitstable Oysters before my starter, a wonderful slip sole grilled in seaweed butter, simple but beautiful. I then had Thornback Ray with brown butter, razor clams and sherry vinegar and polished it off with a perfectly-executed apple soufflé with salted caramel ice cream, proving that the kitchen may be about simplicity, but beneath it all is technique. Every seaside town in the British Isles should have a Sportsman equivalent – but as it is, it’s a long way to go, but the memory and taste of the meal that awaits you will last even longer. www.thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk, 01227 273370.
2) Rocksalt, Folkestone, Kent: If you listened to what people told you about Folkestone, you’d never visit which would mean you’d miss a great little town and in particular this pearl of a restaurant with its panoramic views over the harbour and huge windows that make you feel as if you’re in a ship at sail. I have read countless tales of people sitting by the sea and watching their supper arrive by boat but here it actually happens. I had the simplest of dishes, potted prawns (which would be one of the dishes I’d choose for my last supper, if ever asked to make such a difficult decision) and then huss with anchovy butter. Both made the forthcoming trip through the Eurotunnel to France the next day seem infinitely more bearable. To be fair to its detractors, you will struggle to find somewhere nice to stay in Folkestone where ‘boutique’ seemed to mean something entirely different. www.rocksaltfolkestone.co.uk, 01303 212070.
3) Half Man! Half Burger! Saint Leonard’s: I’ve never really got into the whole burger revolution which has always seemed to involve too many bearded hipsters analysing mince far too studiously. HM! HB! may be achingly cool, but it also knows its burgers – when we arrived at the restaurant, which doesn’t offer reservations – we could only just squeeze in and there were people eating outside, in the wind and the rain. That’s how good it is. I had the guest burger, the Bacon Mother Frickle – two patties, burger sauce, dry-cured smoked bacon, caramelised red onions, Monterey Jack cheese, deep-fried pickles in tempura and shredded iceberg (this was the dieter’s option) and the stains on my t-shirt bore testament to the enjoyment it gave me. We ate this before seeing John Cooper Clarke at nearby Bexhill-on-Sea who was supported by Bungay’s Luke Wright, who – along with the burger – was more than worth the trek from the East. www.halfmanhalfburger.com, 01424 552332.
4) Wedding cake, The Assembly House, Norwich: As I’ve said, a great eating experience is often about far more than the food itself. For me, the most important meal of 2016 was on my wedding day, shared with my new wife and the people I love most. My pastry chef at The Assembly House, which I run, had the terrifying task of making my wedding cake which had to pay tribute to the greatest love of my life: Fab ice lollies. Mark made the cake to match the best third on the stick – each layer was different, either chocolate, vanilla or rainbow, but all were covered in hundreds and thousands. We did the official cake cutting in the kitchen with the pastry section, the chefs and the washer uppers. You will always find me in the kitchen at parties, even the one for my wedding. www.assemblyhousenorwich.co.uk, 01603 626402.
5) Picnic in the grounds of the Chateau de Lourmarin, Provence: Great friends offered us the use of their apartment in Lourmarin in Provence for a week - there is no more beautiful place on earth. On my birthday, my wife and I turned into the kind of people you read about in Sunday supplements: we shopped (at great expense) at the town’s Friday market and then took a picnic to the grounds of the Chateau, probably trespassing on privately-owned land in the process, eating as the sun set. There was cheese, bread, fruit and wine and for company my new wife, a stray dog and plenty of insects. Completely magical, totally unforgettable.
6) Tart Luberon, Cucuron, Provence: One of the specialties in the Luberon region is this tart, traditionally filled with apricot jam but to paraphrase Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph, any jam will do. I was adamant that I would try one, and we were lucky enough to find a wonderful patisserie in Cucuron where we purchased one which I ate a slice of with great pleasure. In truth, it was no better than my mum’s jam tarts, it’s just that we ate it in the shadow of the Notre Dame de Beaulieu, overlooking an olive grove as a local band, complete with accordian player, practiced in a nearby garden. It felt like we were in a film.
7) Midsummer House, Cambridge: As I get older, my enthusiasm for chasing accolades for my food and eating at Michelin-starred establishments has dimmed. However, my faith in the latter was restored with a visit to Daniel Clifford’s two Michelin-star Midsummer House Restaurant on the edge of Midsummer Common in Cambridge for my wife’s birthday in March. The seven-course tasting menu we enjoyed was probably the best food I have eaten in the UK and was a master class in not only what was on the plate, but how it was served and who it was served by. The service was impeccable, the perfect balance of informality and professionalism. The fact that my vegetarian wife also enjoyed seven courses of equally high standards of innovation and imagination made our experience even more special. www.midsummerhouse.co.uk, 01223 369299.
8) Darsham Nurseries, Suffolk: We made a conscious effort to cross the border into Suffolk more often in 2016 and on one such trip stumbled upon a café I’ve been hearing good things about for a long time. We visited when the café team were popping up elsewhere and The Horse Box – ironically from Norwich – were popping up at Darsham. Good timing indeed: I had fantastic buttermilk-fried chicken thighs served on homemade flat bread with garden salsa, chilli mayonnaise, coriander and picked radish (£8) and we fought over the charred corn cobs served with paprika and fennel salt which was easily the best £3 I spent all year. www.darshamnurseries.co.uk, 01728 667022.
9) Benedicts, Norwich: A stag do normally involves men in fancy dress, copious amounts of booze and kebabs – mine included a guest list of mainly chefs, waiters and wine merchants, so it was far less refined. The venue, however, did more than enough to raise the tone thanks to the beautiful private dining room and the innovative, fantastic cooking of chef proprietor Richard Bainbridge. Not only is his food fabulous, he’s a really great guy, too and made my stag do an event to remember, not that some of us did after all that Gevrey Chambertin. A lunch that finishes at 7pm is always a fine thing. www.restaurantbenedicts.com, 01603 926080.
10) Shepherd’s, Westminster, London: One of the capital’s most iconic restaurants now boasts two of Norfolk’s finest in the kitchen in the form of head chef Karl Goward, one of my former students, and Norwich Hotel School alumni Matt Strutt on pastry. Karl’s food is as far removed from the weird and wonderful world of fusion/confusion food as it is possible to be, and all the more delicious for it. Classic British food served brilliantly well, from the eponymous Shepherd’s Pie, which can be eaten in Archer’s Corner, just a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, to a host of simple but beautiful dishes made for people who prefer substance and style (Karl is probably the most stylish man I have ever met!). I ate here with my best friend Gary Hunter, vice-principal of Westminster Kingsway College – great good, great company and a glass of Champagne: it’s the recipe for the very best meals. www.shepherdsrestaurants.co.uk, 0207 8349552.
Honorable mentions to: Zaks restaurants in Norfolk where we enjoyed many family meals on 2016 (always the go-to for meals where you have to please everybody); the chicken and ham pancakes at The Imperial Hotel in Great Yarmouth, a classic for a good reason; fish and chips at The Grosvenor Fish Bar in Norwich, fabulous food, a stylish restaurant and the nicest owners imaginable; the lavender sponge cake at Norfolk Lavender in Heacham, nothing like your Nan’s sock drawer; the Walsingham Farm Shop picnic eaten in bed at The Control Tower in Egham, our favourite place to be in Norfolk and the cheeseboard put together by our friend Damien at Les Garrigues in Norwich and eaten with my wife in front of the telly as my Christmas dinner after service at The Assembly House for 160.