Sally and me

Tonight it’s steak for tea. Yum. From Sally. That’s the name of the cow, not the farmer. The farmer is Frances.

I am very keen on knowing where meat, above all things, comes from. I strongly believe that if you eat meat then you are already involved with that animal and should consider that you have a kind of contract to know, as much as possible, that it had a good life. I always have photos of our pigs on the farmers market stall so that people realise that the animals they are eating are real. And if the customers say they don’t want to know that they get a stiff talking to.

One thing is for certain, if you buy an anonymous bit of shrink wrapped meat from a supermarket you aren’t taking any responsibility for the animal. A few years ago I talked with an organic pig farmer from West Norfolk. When he took his pigs to slaughter they went, in family groups, to a small abattoir just down the road. He also sold some of his pigs to Tesco’s for their premium organic range. Those pigs went off in a big lorry to Bristol for slaughter, where Tesco distributed from. That’s a journey of about six hours. He hated doing it and I just wouldn’t. I bet Tesco’s customers shelling out for best organic meat didn’t imagine that had happened.

All this makes a difference to what it tastes like too.

I’m in the fortunate position that when Frances takes one of her small herd of cows she’ll give me a call and ask if I want a box of meat in about three weeks time.  I didn’t actually know Sally, but I’ve known other of Frances’s cows that I have bought.

I do always try to buy meat from friends who I know and trust, Ideally from someone like Frances with just a few animals.  But if I don’t do that I buy from a proper butcher who I can talk to about where the animal came from. Never, ever from a supermarket.

I feel I owe that much to Sally and all the farm animals I’ve known.

On a less heavy note, I think I’m unlikely to find any Norfolk diet oats for my porridge. After a long phone chat to the very nice man at Garboldisham Windmill I’m becoming aware that processing oats is a specialised job and only a very few places in the country do it. Hey ho.

Food today:

Toast with Strawberry& blackberry compote
Apple juice

Scrambled eggs (also from Frances, as it happens)

Steak (but you knew that) with  potatoes and lots of kale
Baked apple

My chum Paul who runs Norfolk and Suffolk Food Direct has asked* me to mention that he has a special Valentine’s Day offer of a meal for two (naturally) including wine and chocs for £20. Something of a bargain

*No brown envelopes have changed hands. It’s just a good company.

Milk and the milkman

When I started thinking about the Norfolk Diet and its practicalities a particularly nubby conundrum was the milkman and what to do with him. So to speak. We have milk delivered three times a week by a pleasant chap in a Dairy Crest milk float. I had a feeling that the milk was probably not Norfolk and a bit of Twitter research (thank you Gary from Creospace) confirmed it.  Mostly.  It turns out that milk from Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex goes from the dairies to a central Dairy Crest distribution point in Essex and then some of it comes back to our milkman. So there is some proportion of Norfolk milk in our milk bottles I assume, but normally for Norfolk Diet purposes I wouldn’t really count it as Norfolk.

But I do think the concept of a milkman is A Good Thing, for all sorts of reasons, not least that it’s one of the few services of any sort that people in our middle-of-nowhere village have. And if we didn’t have a milkman what ever would we do for risqué jokes?

So, what to do?

We do often supplement our regular milk delivery with some bought milk, so the, making them up as I go along, rule will be that the milkman stays as a semi-exception and any milk over and above his that I buy will be from local dairies. Which round here means milk supplied by either Pointens at Stody or Nortons at Freckenham.  And very nice milk it is too.

Today’s round up of food

Breakfast: Owl toast with Wood Berry Farm Strawberry and Blackberry Compote and a glass of apple juice

Lunch: Leek and potato soup,  recipe here

Supper: Parsnip and Apple soup. Yes I know that’s two lots of soup but it turns out I’m eating on my own this evening so I’ll be hanging on to the steaks that I got yesterday until tomorrow. It’s easy and I like soup! So there.

All veg bought from Crowe’s little greengrocers in Holt.

Liberal quantities of tea throughout the day.

The first day of eating only Norfolk food and drink is going rather well. So far.

My usual weekday winter breakfast is porridge, but having not yet sourced any Norfolk oats, I stopped in Holt on the way to work to get some bread. I’d noticed a sign outside The Owl teashop saying that they bake “real” bread and, as it turned out, they certainly do. I chose a still-warm large loaf and then decided to have a rather cute looking cottage loaf – half roll half  loaf – a couple of scones and a pot of their home made raspberry jam.

Whilst I was being served a chap called Dan brought another couple of loaves through to the shop from the back and I guessed he was the baker.

Half an hour later, once I’d got our pork pies into the oven up at our kitchen, outside Holt, I was just settling down to enjoy some of the still-warm cottage loaf with jam when Norman, the recently retired baker from North Elmham, rolled up, all unexpectedly, in his van. Over a cup of coffee it turned ot that Norman had actually been with Dan on Saturday and the Owl Bakery was having some of his equipment from Elmham and the loaf I’d bought had more than likely just been baked in a North Elmham tin. It did feel a bit more than a coincidence that I’d suddenly found myself drawn to The Owl.  Positively spooky.

Anyway. Very nice bread. I’m planning on going there a lot.

Lunch was sort of skipped as we’re working on developing a new Bray’s Cottage line and I ended up eating quite a bit, in the spirit of research. But it was definitely all Norfolk!

Before heading home, I grabbed a bag of Morston Mussels, on a bit of a whim, from the honesty box on the way into Cley. I would normally cook mussels in white wine or possibly cider, and although people do produce both in Norfolk, I just didn’t have any at home. But, after a bit of a consultation on Twitter, I’m going to cook them with finely chopped onion, parsley (just excavated from beneath the snow in the garden), garlic, apple juice, mustard and probably a dash of Norton’s cream.  The only non Norfolk ingredient is the garlic. I’m going to put garlic on the exceptions list, although a Cromer friend has told me that he still has some of his home grown garlic that he can let me have (we’ll do a pie swapsie) so garlic may be just a temporary visitor to the exceptions.

I’m thinking that I haven’t had enough fruit and veg today, so I’ll cook some apples to have as dessert and work on doing better tomorrow.

The recipe for the mussels is here

The Norfolk Diet hits page 3

There’s an article about my foray into eating Norfolk on page 3 of today’s Eastern Daily Press. Perfectly outrageous comments about Page Three Girls have been made on Twitter and by most of my stockists when I phoned round for this morning’s orders. Some have even managed to work oats into their witticisms – yes I’m talking about you @mattjware, get to the back of the class.

If you’d like to see how I, ahem, shape up, you can either grab a real copy from your newsagent or the EDP do a great facsimile service where you can see the whole paper from front to back for just 50p. http://www.edp24.co.uk/content/edp24/default/eedition

Edit – it’s now on-line too http://www.edp24.co.uk/content/edp24/news/story.aspx?brand=EDPOnline&category=News&tBrand=EDPOnline&tCategory=xDefault&itemid=NOED21%20Jan%202010%2017:17:12:937

The bakery at North Elmham baked its last loaf yesterday, the deep old huge bread oven will gradually go cold over the next few days and then, someday fairly soon, it will be broken up and removed. I know that oven well. For several years we baked our pork pies at North Elmham and, because of Norman’s generosity, we made the sweet-smelling bakery a home from home. That bakery got our business off the ground. We would go in in the afternoon when the bread and cakes were finished for the day and we gradually learned to master the huge wooden paddle that bakers call a peel until we could slide heavy trays of pies right from the back of the three-tray-deep darkness.

And how that oven baked. It had personality. We knew that the bottom oven of the three decks baked coolest and the back and right hand side of each oven were warmest. So part way through baking we’d pull all the trays of pies out and swap them around. For a big bake, this would involve putting in 28 trays, when the pies started to colour taking them all out and replacing them in a different order and then gradually pulling each tray out as it was ready. We learned, with Norman’s help, to do it all by eye, with a bit of checking with a thermometer probe to be certain. We never baked by time, the oven just didn’t want us to work that way,  so if a customer ever asks me how long a pie takes to cook I never feel equipped to give a straight answer.

Although a modern oven is easier to use, we never resented its idiosyncracies. We respected and loved that oven. We learned our craft from it. There was no rushing it, we worked at the pace that it wanted us to. It was quietly in charge. Much like the baker.

Norman always said that he wasn’t going to do it for us, we had to learn how to bake ourselves. He taught us  how to use the 10 foot peels without loosing pies from the trays or hitting anyone standing behind us (mostly!) and  also showed us how to lift a big, heavy  tray of pies, holding it diagonally, so that it is perfectly balanced and, despite some awfully near-misses, we’ve never yet dropped a tray in the three years we’ve been baking.

The oven was brick with heavy blue painted cast iron doors, it stayed hot 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and had a beautiful slow, dry heat which meant that the pies have always came out of it golden and crisp.

Some afternoons groups of nursery children and their teachers would come in and utter chaos would reign. Norman would show them how he made bread dough, getting them to join in and then they would make strange and fancifully shaped loaves of bread and they would crowd round the big blue oven and, wide-eyed, watch their own bread slide out. All the time Norman would be gently telling them about old fashioned food and traditions. Generations of Norfolk people will tell you about their visits as children. And Norfolk is really going to miss the fantastic old-fashioned bread, the hot cross buns at Easter and the thousands of mince pies he and his confectioner Sharon made at Christmas.

On high days and holidays a whole pig would arrive to be baked in the bottom of the oven. If no bakery staff were about we would be left a note “Pig in at 2.30” and we would heave it off its trolley, tail first, into the depths.

Norman would always say he was doing nothing special, he was just doing what hundreds of small bakers were doing fifty years ago. In a way it’s true, North Elmham always reminded me of the bakeries you see in every village in France, serving wonderful but simple bread across a wood and glass counter. But in 21st century Britain finding that was much more than special.

Norman, right from the start, told us we were welcome to stay and bake for as long as we needed to be there. But that it was important to work towards becoming independent. Maybe we stayed longer than was strictly sensible, the half hour treck between our kitchen on a ridge above the sea where we make the pies and North Elmham was increasingly eating into our busy week.  And we slowly began to realise that the bakery might not be there forever.  So last year we finally bought our own oven. It’s not like the big blue brick oven and never will be, but that old oven had taught us to be very fussy about what we wanted and we like it. And when we left, Norman packed us off with the 28 trays that we had slid in and out of his oven.  

But yesterday morning we were back at North Elmham for Norman’s last bake. I’m glad we were there. We made tea as customers came in with presents, cards and flowers. Some in tears. And Norman was as charming, funny and wise as ever. Still telling people how important old fashioned food is. He’s shutting the bakery door at the right time but I know it was breaking his heart.

We’ll go back next week to pick up a few things that we are going to buy from the bakery. So we’ll say our last , very sad, goodbye to the big old blue oven.  Of course it’ll be quite cold by then.

You can see a lovely video of the oven and Norman (with us buzzing annoyingly round in the background) by clicking here

Whisky fail

It’s tragic. I’ve been informed that the new, and very well spoken of, 3 year old Norfolk Whisky was all sold whilst still in the barrel. St Georges Distillery are the first and only registered whisky distilling company in England, which just shows what unexpected trails we can blaze round here.

On the plus side, it looks as though they’ve got stocks of Norfolk Nog “A unique blend of English Malt Spirit, cream and honey. This is VERY STRONG at 27% ABV” for £18 a bottle. And they have some of the younger not-yet-whisky versions, just starting to take on the colour from the barrel.  A visit to East Harling needs to be made.


I’m not planning on this blog being a whine about the things that I can’t eat on The Norfolk Diet, but I do need to just get this one off my chest. I do love a nice banana. Chopped and cooked in my porridge and spiced with a bit of cardamom.  But they’re going to have to be off the menu for February. Too many exceptions would be silly. Even if  Will Giles grows them in his famous exotic garden in Norwich, I’m willing to bet they don’t fruit in February.

Not that my porridge life need suffer too much. There are plenty of local jams and honeys to dabble in – I’m thinking that the Wood Berry   compote* that the lovely Catriona makes at her Dad’s farm in Wicklewood, strawberry and blackberry for example, could be pretty darn’d luxurious. And probably something I honestly wouldn’t have got around to trying in porridge without the impetus of the Norfolk Diet idea.

I’ll report on that one in due course.

Another substitute thought is blueberries. I know there are a lot of blueberries grown in West Norfolk. I’ve just got to find a source of frozen ones.

And then there’s the oats…

*Posh for low sugar jam. More or less.

How hard could it be?

It all starts with an article in the EDP Norfolk Magazine bought one snowy Saturday; “The Norfolk Diet”. The article was presumably inspired by The Fife Diet, and I had always thought that if you were going to choose an area to which to restrict your eating, Fife was probably one of the more challenging counties. I’m sure Fife produce is quite splendid, but in comparison Norfolk would be a walk in the park.

Norfolk has the second highest number of breweries in the UK for heaven’s sake. Should all else fail, a hoppy path to liver damage is always a sensible option. Then there’s crabs, samphire, asparagus and an infinite amount of vegetables and meat. Eat Norfolk? I can do that. I could really have a very good time doing that.

So, it’s my party and I can make up the rules. It’s about a celebration, not some miserable detox. In that spirit an early working framework would be:

  • Everything that passes my lips will have a Norfolk connection – except
  • I can also have a declared list of things that I feel are indispensible to human happiness but just aren’t Norfolk products, salt and pepper for example.
  • Some items will be more about intervention than production, tea for example. Tea isn’t picked on the misty uphills of Norfolk, but it is blended in the county.

To put a bit of shape to the exercise, I’ll spend February eating Norfolk, but I’ll work up to it for the rest of January. At the end of February I’ll take stock and decide where to go from there.

And feel very free to join in whenever you’re ready. A little or a lot. Make your own rules up.

Spiced Plum