I didn’t mean to start cheating on Long Island with some other region. It happened by accident; a dear friend from southeastern England went home for the holidays a long time ago and I joined her there for a rambling visit to all her friends and relations back when we were carefree and childless. I was charmed by the castles and delighted with all the beer. I don’t remember much about the food.
We are grownups now, with cares and children, so when Kate moved her family permanently to Lowestoft on the east coast of England, I packed up my toddler and went for the summer holidays. And that’s when I really started focusing on the food (although local beer is still a part—albeit a much smaller part—of the proceedings). We’ve been three times now, and every time we discover more to love.
This is The Other Suffolk, 3,434 miles away from our own Suffolk County on Long Island. Like our East End, the food culture is embedded in land and sea. It draws from both the oldest and the newest of culinary traditions.
The place: Those iconic landscape paintings of blowsy green trees and fields suffused in the soft light of dawn and dusk by Constable and Gainsborough? That’s Suffolk. “The Castle on the Hill” in Ed Sheeran’s summer pop hit? That’s Suffolk too. Bordered by Norfolk to the north, Cambridgeshire to the west, Essex to the south and the North Sea to the east, it has sandy (cold) beaches, crumbling cliffs, deep estuaries, heath, broads, river valleys, rolling fields of grains, sheep grazing on rich green pastures, and trees planted for windbreak and game cover as well as ancient woodland.
What it doesn’t have is a whole lot of major roadways or rail access. This keeps the area from becoming a commuter community for London and preserves its agrarian nature, but also means you need to drive to really experience it. There are charming country lanes dotted with timber-framed houses (those of Lavenham inspired the homes in Godric’s Hollow in the Harry Potter films), some with thatched roofs, and lovely stone churches. And these lanes are where you come across the historic smokehouses, vineyards and farmer markets. Provided you are confident driving on the opposite side of the road (I am not; Kate does all the driving), there is a lot to visit and to stumble upon along the way.
It’s on our way to Sheeran’s “The Castle on the Hill”—Framlingham, where after Edward VI’s death in 1553 his sister Mary waited to find out whether she or Lady Jane Grey would be the new queen—Kate comes to a sudden halt in front of a beautiful shop, not quite in the middle of nowhere. It’s Emmett’s, which since 1820 has been producing Suffolk Black Hams and bacon in a smokehouse right in the back garden. It’s full of local cheeses and meats. “When there was no electricity there was a need to preserve products like milk, butter and meat,” says Mark Thomas, who in 2000 rescued Emmett’s from its genteel but steady decline. “Smoking is a good way of preserving meat, legs of pork, sides of bacon.” Emmett’s sells about 1,000 lbs of ham at Christmas alone. They use only Blythburgh pork—completely free-range and raised just down the road.
You can’t get their products (except chocolate) sent to the States, but you can stop in and either eat in the café or garden, or provision yourself with a classic ploughman’s lunch—a variety of cheeses, pickles, ham and other solid fare. We pick up some smoked meats and cheeses for later.
At the castle itself, we discover English Heritage. As the managing agency for British historic sites English Heritage is also committed to showcasing once-common food items like all-butter lemon curd, marmalades with flavors like whisky, blackcurrant and gooseberry, and fruit wines—cherry, plum, blackberry. So when you exit through any English Heritage gift shop, you can grab beautifully packaged heritage foodstuffs.
On the way back from the castle, we happen upon a winery, which really took me by surprise. I thought all wine in England was imported, from places which enjoy a lot more sun. Expectations? Set to low. As if to emphasize my point, it started raining buckets as soon as we got there. But Shawsgate Vineyard and Winery was a very pleasant revelation. First planted in the 1970s and now at 20 acres with eight different varietals, they have a sweet tasting room and outdoor garden and play area. Notable were a lightly oaked white called Quercus—a blend of Müller Thurgau and Seyval Blanc; and a new grape for me, Bacchus, a Sylvaner Riesling cross with Müller Thurgau that made for a light and refreshing tipple with a slight honey finish that was somehow dry. Those and their Frampaign brut sparkling white all came home with us to pair with local fish.
If you have time to wander, there are plenty of farms and shops offering locally grown and produced foods. But a shortcut to learning about as many as possible in one go—and speaking directly to the producers—is to visit one of the many farmers markets in the area.
Beccles Market in an old barn is where we met quite a few, both from Suffolk proper and Norfolk (the whole region is known as East Anglia—sort of like Nassau, Suffolk, Brooklyn and Queens being Long Island). Blackbird Cottage Foods, a project by retired engineer Chris Cappocci and his wife Ruth (the actual cook), makes French-style terrines with pork, wild boar and local wood pigeon. Keith and Val Player butcher their own pigs to produce delicious sausages, pork joints and bacon at Friends Farm in Norfolk. Brewer David Sparshott will tell you about Black Shuck, the legendary and scary black dog (which sounds suspiciously like the Grim of Harry Potter fame), for which his tiny nanobrewery, Shuck Brewery, is named. His two ales are tasty and subtly hoppy and I wish I had bought more.
It was also here that we met Gerry and Glynis Skewes, who have revived a 150 year old smokehouse in Lowestoft and who ended up inviting us for a tour to see their facility. Waveney Valley Smokehouse is one of just three smokehouses left in the area (there used to be more than 80). Gerry developed medical imaging technologies for the eyes before retiring. His quality control, tracking and risk management processes bring his scientific professionalism to an ancient craft. The old kilns may be coated with the oils of millions of pounds of herring, mackerel and salmon from more than a century of use—that’s what gives their products an authentic smoked flavor—but his modern microbiological know-how channels the genuine British flavor into a perfectly quality-controlled product that can be mass-produced.
Like our own Suffolk, agricultural land and heritage is threatened by farmers leaving the industry and development. But the food movement is trying to save and renew this food heritage by working with both locals and visitors.
“Here we have market towns unlike cities; we don’t have as many High Street shops, we have delis, greengrocers, butchers,” says Jess Brown, organizer of the 12 year old Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival which brings together more than 100 Suffolk food producers every September in lovely Snape Maltings (another Harry Potter reference) and is one of England’s top five food festivals. “We are bringing back the old-fashioned style of shopping, going to the butcher rather than the supermarket because people want to know where their meat comes from. We are strong in farmers markets selling directly to the public, field-to-fork. And people are buying into that. They are more concerned about quality and about food mileage, reducing carbon footprint.”
She continues, “I’m not sure it’s reaching everyone; after all there is a cost implication and a farmers market is not convenience shopping, but it is happening.”
English cuisine is not the nose-wrinkling, yawn-inducing bland stuff of legend; celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson have made sure we know that. But to really experience the renaissance and reinvention of truly English food, you should make a visit (or two or many) to the other Suffolk, in England. It will feel a lot like home.