In early June I joined a dozen or so friends and colleagues, all food writers, bloggers and photographers, all members of the Guild of Food Writers (GFW), for a visit to some of the numerous local food and drink producers in the Waveney Valley.
The Waveney Valley runs along the borders of Suffolk and Norfolk following the course of the River Waveney, with towns including Diss, Eye, Beccles and Bungay, along its route to the sea at Lowestoft. Apart from being a charming, often unsung rural tourist destination, it is packed with local food and drinks producers all ready to share their wonderful wares with a posse of GFW members.
Fen Farm Dairy was our first stop along the way. If you have sampled Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore’s award-winning Baron Bigod Brie-style cheese, their raw butter and raw milk, you will know what lay ahead.
Fully kitted out in hairnets, overshoes and disposable coats and taking all the necessary food security precautions we were led through the stages of production of the ‘Baron’ by Production Manager Stevan Peckett. Then we ‘followed’ the cheese ton its journey from turning to floculation, maturing and ageing, until finally we saw and tasted the finished product… heavenly!
There is another cheesemaker on the premises: Julie Cheyney of White Wood Dairy, who handmakes St Jude and St Cera made from the Crickmore’s raw milk. We were fortunate to have the chance to meet her on site that day.
Raw milk is the USP of Fen Farm Dairy and the Crickmores were pioneers of selling raw milk at the farm gate from a vending machine. Their first vending machine from Italy was on show as one of the exhibits in the recent V&A exhibition Food: Bigger Than the Plate. Their current vending set up is housed in a funky shed with cowhide patterning. During our visit it was apparent how popular this was by the number of cars pulling off the busy B1062 to make their purchases of cheese and raw milk.
The real stand-out stars on the farm are of course the hand-picked 75-strong, free-ranging Montbéliarde cows which Jonny brought back from small farms in the Jura. Is this beginning to sound like an episode of The Archers? Well, it is the other way round… ‘Archers’ researchers visited Fen Farm to find out more about the ‘Montys’ that are woven into the programme’s storylines.
A stroll with Graham Crickmore (Jonny’s father) to the pasture was all the proof needed of their peaceful outdoor summer life. In winter they are housed in barns and fed on a diet of home-grown hay, haylage, grass and maize silage.
The Fen Farm visit was rounded off with a farm picnic to surpass all others… on the hillside above the farm Dulcie had prepared an unforgettable spread for a summer’s day. On the menu were huge tractor-wheel rounds of Baron Bigod, Bungay Raw Butter, olives, biscuits, bread, salads, charcuterie from Marsh Pig,, tracklements from Scarlett and Mustard, East Gate Larder and my favourite, Cucumber and Norfolk Gin Relish from Candi’s Chutney and freshly picked strawberries and cream.
There was hardly time to finish this feast before we heard the first of what were to become the background clarion calls from our leader Linda Duffin, tasked with keeping us to schedule (as in ‘worse than herding cats’)…. “Hey, get a move on, we’re running late!”
Next up was a field, which could have been more or less in the middle of nowhere, but actually was on the pioneering Wakelyns Agroforestry Research Farm where a table set up to showcase the grains and pulses produced by Hodmedod’s, winners of the BBC Food and Farming Awards 2017. Here we met Hodmedod’s (it’s a dialect word for hedgehog) Josiah Meldrum and William Hudson, who put into context their relationship with Wakelyns, the 50-acre, research farm set up by the late Professor Martin Wolfe.
Over 20 years Prof Wolfe put in place silvo-arable systems mixing fruit, nut and coppice trees. In between the lines of trees he inserted alley-cropping systems growing cereal crops and pulses, all maximising the biodiversity of crops. He also worked on what he called a YQ wheat population (Yield/Quality), showing what could be achieved with genetically diverse varieties as an alternative to the mainstream cultivation of single pure lines.
William, Josiah and Nick Saltmarsh, the trio who founded Hodmedods in 2012, met him when they were involved two decades ago with the East Anglia Food Link (EAFL). They shared a commitment to lower inputs and lower impact farming, keeping the food chain as short as possible and working with farmers to shorten the farm to consumer chain.
At Hodmedod’s they work with British farmers to source and supply quality ingredients such as fava beans, lentils and black badger peas direct from British farms.
On display for us was a table-top shop window of the seeds, pulses, grains and flours, available on the Hodmedod’s website: fava beans (grown in UK for centuries but mainly overlooked until now), quinoa (some of the first grown in the UK), carlin peas, flours, naked barley, lentils (also grown in the UK), dried and sometimes canned.
Late afternoon saw our merry band arriving at one of Norfolk’s iconic properties, the Grade 1 listed Tudor country estate, Hales Hall, which I knew when it was a nursery owned by fruit specialists June and Terry Read (their book about the Hall’s history is due for publication later this year).
Today, this astonishingly beautiful place is a special destination for large groups, wedding parties and other celebratory occasions. Our accommodation was greeted with oohs and ahs of delight as we occupied rooms in the Hall, the Garden Rooms, and the Gatehouse. We could and did wander into the Great Barn where sumptuous parties take place, as well as stroll in the romantic gardens and a productive walled kitchen garden.
Charlotte Pike (Guild of Food Writers Vice-Chairman) took the helm for the evening meal with help from several other of our group and brought together a wonderful supper, local produce being the focus. Game pies from Lynn and Steve Tricker of Truly Traceable were the centrepieces of the meal. Lynn and Steve are an award-winning duo whose artisan pies and sausage rolls are made in small batches at their Halesworth home. The wild meat they use is their USP and is truly traceable, each of their products being fully catalogued with notes about provenance.
Always do what you love best is a mantra we hear frequently… and how good it was to meet Ben and Hannah Witchell and hear how they had always enjoyed drinking wine together. In 2007 they downed tools at their day jobs and took off around the world visiting the major wine-making regions of South Africa, New Zealand, South America and Australia. In 2015 they returned to the UK and Ben enrolled on a three-year oenology course at Plumpton College in Sussex.
He came out with a first-class degree and accolades such as ‘top winemaking student’. Next followed a period of winemaking in Beaujolais, but their dream was to find a south-facing hillside with gravelly soil and produce their own wine. With the help of a local farmer Adrian Hipwell. they found that plot and Flint Vineyard in Earsham, Norfolk, was the result. A state-of-the-art, high-specification winemaking facility was put in place and the Witchells set about sourcing grapes from Essex and Stratford on Avon. They planted their first vines on the property in 2016 and in 2019 they and their customers are awaiting the first harvest.
In the interim the wines that they have made thus far have been stellar and award-winning, written up in numerous magazines and papers, and stocked by Berry Brothers & Rudd.
Devotees of the good food producers in the area themselves, Ben and Hannah have created several tours for customers, including a 15-mile lunch. This includes British charcuterie from nearby Marsh Pig. While we tasted Flint Vineyard’s Bacchus, Pinot Noir, Silex Blanc and Charmat Rose, Jackie Kennedy of Marsh Pig offered us samples of her-award-winning range, including aromatic fennel salami and a new black truffle salami. My personal choice is her venison and sloe gin salami. Marsh Pig also runs charcuterie courses.
And there was more… the two-day Guild of Food Writers Waveney Valley tour was rounded off with a showcase lunch at the Fox and Goose, Fressingfield. The menu highlights included Suffolk chorizo with a peach and mozzarella salad, toasted almonds, samphire and coriander cress. Pork fillet with mustard gel, Binham Blue Cheese Royal, gem lettuce, glazed carrots and millefeuille potato. The roasted cauliflower with Binham Blue cheese, walnuts, glazed carrots, kale, millefeuille potato, apple, mustard and sultana dressing, though, was voted top choice.
With thanks to Linda Duffin for curating and leading the tour, with assistance from Tessa Allingham, Justine Pattison and Penny White. Huge thanks to all the Waveney Valley food and wine producers, as well as Adnams and Aspall Cyder, and to the team at Hales Hall.