North Norfolk’s culinary scene is intertwined with its maritime history and it’s all the better for it, says Mark Nicholls
The tastes and textures of North Norfolk’s cuisine are inextricably linked to the coastal terrain of this part of England. Gently rolling farmland reaches down to the sea, buffered by broad, sandy beaches, or marshes where sheep graze and birdlife thrives.
To visit is to savour its flavours – fabulous shellfish and seafood, prime seasonal game, fresh vegetables and salads, even wines, ales, spirits, and cordials that have their botanicals rooted in this rich landscape. Speak to the innovative chefs who run restaurants here and they will tell you how important the freshest local ingredients are to the dishes they serve, whether we’re talking fine-dining feasts or a superior twist to traditional fish and chips.
The produce for the most popular dishes – crab, lobster, oysters, shrimps, cockles, and mussels – is harvested in the shallows, where maritime history still runs deep. Lord Nelson was born in Burnham Thorpe, and you can visit the church where his father was rector and the hotel in Burnham Market – The Hoste Arms – where he awaited orders to return to sea, to eventually “do his duty” at the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805.Meanwhile, Burnham Norton, just a few miles away, is where you’ll find the grave of Richard Woodget, Captain of the Cutty Sark as it made record-breaking voyages laden with wool from Australia in the 1870s. Woodget spent the latter years of his life teaching local youngsters to sail – something akin to the modern-day equivalent of having Lewis Hamilton teach you to drive.
And out of this coastal and rural setting, a food scene that is good enough to keep the stream of demanding Londoners looking to escape the city for a few days happy, has emerged, which makes good use of the many ingredients that can be sourced locally. From succulent Cromer crabs, and lobster from Sheringham (the shellfish are in such abundance that the resorts jointly host an annual crab and lobster festival), to herds of cattle and pigs, fruit-filled orchards, seasonal vegetables, and fields of barley that fuel a thriving micro-brewing industry, the flavours are distinct.
Eric Snaith is the chef-owner of Titchwell Manor, which has been in his family for 33 years. The hotel has a formal dining restaurant with three AA rosettes, plus a bar-brasserie, and Eric also runs fish-and-chip shops and a pizza restaurant.“The real stand-out [stars] from our stretch of coast is the shellfish,” he says. “It is as good as you can get anywhere in the world, and they naturally become the favourite dishes. “Mussels and oysters will always be really popular, and the fact that people can eat in sight of the sea lifts it. With the shellfish, the freshness is so important. Crab is also hugely popular; people love classic dishes like moules marinière and crab salads.”
Passionate about produce
Father and son Cyril and Ben Southerland supply restaurants along the North Norfolk coast from their oyster and mussel beds at Brancaster Staithe Harbour.“They are about a mile away from us,” says Eric, “and have been supplying the hotel for over 30 years.”Meats, seasonal vegetables, and salad are also plentiful, with local estates supplying venison, partridges and pheasant, and marsh-fed lamb.Eric believes the standard of food at independent restaurants in North Norfolk has risen significantly in recent years.“We have good chefs come into the area and the relationship with local producers has got closer,” he continues. “We are dealing with people who are passionate about producing food to the best standard.”With seasonality an important facet for the area’s chefs, combined with strong links with local suppliers, the fresh produce travels only a few miles from field or grazing pasture, or the sea, to the plate.
Pub with a view
With panoramic views across the tidal salt marsh, The White Horse at Brancaster Staithe with its sun deck terrace, marsh-side bar, and fresh, local, and seasonal food “with a north Norfolk twist,” is an in-demand dining spot. Mussels and oysters are favoured by customers here too, sourced from Brancaster Staithe Harbour where they are grown on trestles in the creeks, taking advantage of natural nutrients that run through the salt marshes. It was at this harbour that it’s thought a young Nelson managed to persuade fishermen to teach him to sail.Inevitably, the seafood platter for two is popular, with native lobster, dressed Cromer crab, smoked salmon, prawns and mackerel, crispy squid, and crayfish prawn cocktail, sourced from Wells, Cromer, King’s Lynn, Brancaster, and ‘day boat’ Lowestoft fishermen.Head chef Fran Hartshorne says: “There are so many amazing ingredients, but I love using ‘day boat’ fish for specials as you know where the fish has been landed, and from what boat and, it’s as fresh as you can get.”The fish is smoked at Staithe Smokehouse, at The White Horse, by ‘Smokey Phil’ (Fran’s husband). The White Horse also names producers on the menus, with much of the vegetables and fruit supplied direct by local producers.
“It’s all a matter of getting to know your supplier,” says Fran, who studied catering and worked in New York and Florida before returning to The White Horse, where she has been head chef for a decade.“It’s about research and sustainability of the products, and the ethos of a company. I am always looking for quality ingredients from small suppliers. Quality is key but the product needs to be consistent.“I feel the luckiest chef on the Norfolk coast, creating in a kitchen that faces out across the stunning tidal marsh, it can’t get much better than that.
This is an extract. For the full feature see the April/May 2022 issue of Discover Britain, available to buy here.