- Food & Drink
Much of the UK has passed me by. Or, more accurately, I’ve passed a lot it by. There are a few tourist hotspots I’ve idled in for a week or two, but great swathes of the country are a mystery to me. So an invitation to spend a night and day tearing about Suffolk, a county I’ve barely even glanced at, wasn’t to be resisted.
I travelled up to Saxmundham on a Sunday morning, lazily taking the mid-morning train, which cost £9. £9! I’ve spent that on two tube journeys across London before now. Sometimes I think London is taking the piss.
Anyway, it’s very cheap to get to Suffolk by train. Although, once you get there you’re stuffed unless you’ve also packed your car. Or booked a taxi. We’d booked a taxi.
We spent the afternoon milling about the Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival, which is a prettily assembled hodgepodge of stalls tucked away among cobbled alleyways and Victorian buildings. A standard festival burger and a plastic beaker of crisp Aspall’s Harry Sparrow Cyder was followed by an amble around the producers and a damson gin ice cream.
Like all food festivals, Aldeburgh is mostly a market with a few sideshows to keep the crowds entertained. The pleasure lies in browsing the tabletops, hoping to spot something new, exciting and delicious. Highlights included Norfolk Saffron, a company that began when a birthday present of saffron corns got out of hand; Hodmedod’s extremely snackable roasted peas; and the beautifully bottled Barrell&Sellers beers.
The IPA was especially good and had I a deckchair, a knotted hanky and dimpled pint glass to pour the beer into, I would’ve counted myself blessed. But I didn’t, so I joined the rest of our group in another taxi and headed to The Crown Hotel in Framlingham.
As a connoisseur of murder mysteries set in bucolic English villages, I’m happy to declare Framlingham worthy of at least three gothically unlikely murders, if not four. A market square, a ruined castle, a church with a spooky graveyard, a parade of shops and, in the middle of it all, The Crown.
Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s shade lurks in the feature wallpaper and stuffed animals, while mine hung out in the candlelit bar drinking gin and tonics.
My dinner of whitebait with saffron aioli (needed more saffron) and duck breast with kale (needed more kale) won best dinner of the evening thanks to the pudding: a make your own Eton mess. I’d expected a plate of strawberries, cream and meringue for me to mush together. I got a tower of little bowls, each filled with a different kind of strawberry.
There were fresh strawberries, macerated strawberries, a compote, a rubble of freeze-dried strawberries and a powder. I was filled with childish glee as I mixed up experimental little portions of Eton mess, which became genuinely messy as I got to the sticky end of each bowl. Fun, entertaining and enjoyable, I don’t think I’ve ever liked a dessert more.
The Fairs family has been at Hillfarm for 35 years, farming 4,000 acres of rape, wheat and peas. It was the farm’s own extra virgin rapeseed oil we were there to try, and husband and wife team Sam and Clare were there to take us through the process. We started, excitingly, with the enormous machines they use to plough, plant and harvest the crops.
Sat in the cab of the £300,000 combine harvester, my inner Archers fan was set to full squeal. A metal-jawed Behemoth that runs 24/7 when the weather is dry and the rapeseed is ready, Sam described it as like operating a spaceship – and feeling like one too, when it’s lit up at night.
In the sheds the rapeseed is sifted, sorted and cold-pressed. 3,000 litres of rapeseed oil pour through their presses each week. Because rape is a brassica, the air in the sheds smells faintly cabbagey, like the memory of Sunday roasts past. In the oil itself there is a rich greenness and a creamy nuttiness that reminds me of cracking sunflower seeds between my teeth.
Our stomachs well lined with rapeseed oil, we moved on to Aspall’s, where brothers Henry and Barry Chevallier Guild were waiting with bottles of cyder. The Chevallier family has been squishing apples and fermenting the juice since the early 1700s (hence their ye olde spelling of cyder). In Aspall Hall, the two brothers took us through the history of their family and the firm while trucks trundled up and down the driveway hauling apples, bottles and barrels.
The Chevallier family have lived at Aspall Hall since 1702, while the orchards were planted in 1728 by Clement Chevallier. The great granite mill and trough Clement imported from Normandy still sits in the Cyder House, and we watched footage of workers harnessing a horse to it and setting about the apples in the 1940s.
The mill has long since been retired, along with the wooden, muslin cloth-lined press. Instead, tonnes of apples tumble down shoots towards hydraulic sorters and presses. The juice is mixed with champagne yeasts and fermented in vast metal vats that tower over the yard.
When the yeast settles, the cyder is pumped out and blended – Henry explained that they’d deliberately chosen to blend the cyders, rather than ferment them in the bottle so they could keep the quality consistent even as they grew the business.
Back in the house, we sat on the plump sofas, drank glasses of Premier Cru Cyder and chatted about apples, cyder, vinegar, organics, farming, tradition and everything in-between. Listening to them speaking as passionately about cyder as Sam and Clare had about the oil they press on their farm, I was reminded why these trips are inspiring.
Meeting producers who are so enthusiastic about the food they make always acts as an alarm call for me, reminding me to care about what I eat just as much as they care about producing it.