The GBK Cookbook
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East Anglia - Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex
by Helen Gaffney
East Anglia seems remote, despite the evidence to the contrary - the main railway lines, motorways and roads which pump lifeblood to those areas they connect - somehow bypass this landmass which juts alone into the cold North Sea. Because it is so close to London, compared, say, to Cornwall, Dyfed or Ross and Cromarty, its remoteness is intensified. Armless windmills punctuate a flat horizon - too flat, one thinks, to be England. The rich, peaty, reclaimed earth of the fens is criss-crossed by wide channels with names such as Sixteen-Foot Drain and South Holland Main Drain. This is a remarkable below-sea-level landscape where tulips are cultivated alongside barley, wheat and blue-green rye, the flat fields extending right up to the very edge of villages such as Marshland St James, Friday Bridge and Walton Highway.
Elsewhere, in Norfolk, the Broads - those vast man-made lakes whose reed-covered banks provide sanctuary for wildfowl - remain a secret world, closed and inaccessible to those of us marooned on land. The docks of Great Yarmouth, where over a thousand herring boats once tied up - so many, they say, that a man could walk across them to the other side - are now silent, a bizarre contrast to the bingo halls and neon amusement arcades just across on the Marine Parade. Below Yarmouth and Lowestoft, Suffolk villages such as Southwold and Aldeburgh stand at the end of small roads some miles off the main road, separated from the rest of the country by wide shallow marshes. The main street of Aldeburgh is lined with elegant well-kept town houses. Yet it trails lamely off into nowhere, a curious dead end. Inland, small villages such as Debenham and Woodbridge seem just as remote: insular and proudly self-contained.
The region throughout is hard-working, essentially a rich agricultural land with a favoured stretch of coast, a land which gives a plentiful yield to an enterprising people who take full advantage of its bounty. Samphire, for example, grows throughout Britain, but nowhere else except East Anglia is this succulent marsh plant harvested and enjoyed on any regular scale. The fields of grain, coastal marshes and flat fens provide shelter for a profusion of game birds: partridge, quail, woodcock, wild duck and pheasant. Rabbit and hare as in Jugged Hare, too, remain a traditional East Anglian fare, a carry-over from the days when beef or lamb (as used in Suffolk Stew) were not so plentiful (such 'Butcher's meat' was purchased only for special occasions). Just as samphire and seakale are gathered from the shore, so do many people stalk their fields with a gun, not for mere sport, but for the end result which finds its way into the pot.
Each coastal village or town has developed its own special industry. Cromer is famous for small, weighty crabs, Come to this village in summer and houses by the road have their front windows open, displaying trays of boiled crab just off the boats and freshly cooked. The crabs caught by fishermen at Cromer are considerably smaller than those from the West Country, but they are particularly succulent and fleshy, with a high proportion of rich, dark meat. Because they are too small to fetch good prices in London's Billingsgate market, almost the entire catch is sold locally by fishermen and fishwives, in roadside stalls or from displays set up inside front room windows. They are particularly good in a recipe for Baked Cromer Crab.
Fishermen from nearby Stiffkey (pronounced 'Stookey'), on the other hand, gather some of the best cockles in the British Isles (though this may be disputed by the fishermen from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, where these inexpensive bivalves are gathered from the mouth of the Thames, unloaded with primitive man-yokes and boiled in tin shacks along the shore). Wells-next-the-Sea specialises in whelks, while Southend, next to Leigh, is famous for its Whitebait (an annual Whitebait Festival is held every September to bless the catch). The oyster beds of Colchester have been exploited since Roman times, while a daily harvest of sea salt is still gathered from the Blackwater at Maldon, Essex. Native oysters from Colchester (available only in months with an 'r') are among the best in the land. Pacific gigas oysters are plentiful all the year and those from Butley Orford are particularly tasty. While aficionados prefer their oysters in the simplest way, that is raw on the half shell, Angels on Horseback is a traditional favourite. In the past it would have been served as a 'savoury' after a meal but it is equally suitable as a starter.
Inland, the fields of East Anglia, set under a wide eastern sky, dance lightly in the wind, a waving vista of wheat, barley and rye. This has always been a corn-growing area, a fact reflected in simple, ample foods such as Norfolk and Suffolk dumplings. Local barley, too, is important for this region's brewing industry. While grain remains the staple agricultural crop, East Anglia is equally well-known as a centre for soft fruit farming, especially around areas such as Wisbech and Tiptree, Redcurrants and blackcurrants, succulent strawberries, raspberries, giant blackberries, cherries and plums are sold from roadside stands and are ideal for a Summer Pudding or for serving with Marlborough's Ipswich Almond Pudding. Many come here to pick the fruit themselves, eating as much as they gather. This rich profusion of fruit is made into jam in households throughout the region, while towns such as Tiptree and Elsenham are associated with the commercially-made product. The Elsenham firm, though well-known throughout the world, still remains very much a 'cottage industry', its Norfolk strawberry preserves hand-made in small batches in old copper pans.
A certain spirit of enterprise is apparent throughout the region, for both natives and newcomers display a pride in local products and produce combined with a welcome willingness to exploit their natural riches. Local industries have long made use of the region's heritage. The abundant herring landed at Great Yarmouth led to the rise of large and numerous smokehouses in the dock area of that town, for example. This indigenous industry remains today, even though the local herring have long gone. Red herrings, left in brine for a week, then smoked over oak dust and shruff, or very fine wood shavings, until hard, dry and pungent, were once a daily staple (today they are mainly exported), but it was the milder Yarmouth bloater that was even more loved. Indeed, generations of holiday-makers paid half a crown (twelve and a half pence today) to send home as souvenirs a small wooden box containing this gamy smoked fish: 'A present from Yarmouth'.
Ham and bacon curing is another traditional East Anglian industry whose fame has spread beyond the borders of the region. Suffolk sweet-pickled hams are among the finest in the land, available in Harrods and other prestigious establishments. When it comes to publicising local products, what marketing person could have conceived of a better promotion for local bacon than the traditional Dunmow Flitch Trial, a famous annual custom since the thirteenth century! The Dunmow Flitch Trial is a curious ancient custom, held in the town of Great Dunmow, Essex, every third year on Whit Monday. A flitch - that is a side a bacon - is awarded to a local couple who prove to a jury of villagers that they have not argued during the previous year. Traditionally, the flitch of bacon has been supplied by a local curer.
Norfolk is well-known for turkeys (they used to be marched to London in order to reach the market for Christmas, a journey which took three months) and now boasts the largest turkey farm in Europe. The county was once famous for its small black-plumed turkeys. Asparagus, once considered mainly a market crop grown in the gardens of Evesham, is cultivated here on a large agricultural scale, making East Anglia one of the most important regions for this great English delicacy. The cutting must stop around the end of June to allow the asparagus crowns to go to fern and thus regenerate. Asparagus is sold mainly in four grades, depending on its size. The largest grade, Jumbo, is the most expensive; Extra Select, Select and Choice are correspondingly smaller and cheaper. Norfolk Turkey Breast with Asparagus combines the two perfectly.
Hot English mustard, produced from seed grown in brilliant yellow fields surrounding the region's capital, Norwich, is another world-renowned product from this rich land. It goes perfectly with herrings as in Grilled Norfolk Herrings with Mustard. Commercial oysterages in East and West Mersea and Orford continue to exploit this great native delicacy as they have for centuries, while in recent years a number of successful English vineyards have been planted in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.
Yet, despite all this activity, a glorious slow pace still remains. For East Anglia, after all, is remote. Somehow the pace and the attendant worries of the modern age have passed by, sped elsewhere on motorways and highways which never came here. It remains essentially a land of rural simplicity, of cottages and churches thatched with Norfolk reed, of insular villages where locals look twice at strangers who enter the public bar, of landscapes with the pastoral quietude of a canvas by Constable: a land where food can be had for the gathering, where life remains as easy-going, as unhurried as is ever possible