Tony Redman has a taste for sumptuous Suffolk
Tony Redman is wild about the county’s food offerings, although we could learn a thing or two from Transylvanians
‘PIG head’ was the first item on the lunchtime menu in a restaurant I went to the other day. On asking the waiter whether this was an edible item or a personal comment, I was politely informed that the new chef enjoyed using everything in the animal and describing it honestly. I don’t have the best memory for food, but the ‘pig head’ will remain with me for some time to come.
There are some scrumptious foodie offerings in Suffolk. Jam doughnuts from the café on Dunwich beach followed by some of the freshest fish and chips is a long lasting memory. The doughnuts baked by long gone Bury bakers Berrys, in their coal fired oven, linger in the memory too. Orford bakery doughnuts are a very close rival. We used to treat ourselves to occasional meals in a little restaurant in the back streets of Bury cooked by a husband and wife team with no more than 20 covers. He had emphysema and it was always a worry if he would make it to the end of the service, but he always did, and the food was always stunning. Then there is breakfast at the Crown and Castle at Orford, Aldeburgh fish and chips and Arlington’s lemon posset. Reader, I am drooling as I type these words.
But my second favourite foody area in the world is Transylvania. I have never had a bad meal in a Transylvanian home. The table is usually simply furnished – homemade bread, sour chunky soup, sour cream, chillies . . . and plum brandy. On eating your fill, plates are replenished, meaning that careful pacing is required to get to the end of the meal without feeling very sick.
Many years ago we stopped for lunch in a small Transylvanian village. As we entered the back garden of the tiny house through the side gate, we were embraced by the aromas of barbecued chicken and fresh green herbs. In the tiny kitchen, the women of the house were chopping a mountain of green salad, while on the woodstove behind them seared chicken was being steamed over boiled potatoes.
Sitting at their table, after the ubiquitous rounds of plum brandy, fresh bread and sour soup, bowls of bright green salad were brought in. The aroma was richly aromatic. I asked what it was made up of. “A bit of this and a bit of that” was the best translation available. It transpired that they had been out early in the morning and picked five different wild leaves in the woods and fields – lemon sorrel, wild garlic, rocket, lovage and spinach. It contained none of our European staples of lettuce, cucumber or tomato, but it was simply the best salad I have ever tasted. The memory of that lunch also includes some embarrassingly outrageous behaviour by my friends, who were old enough to know better, in front of a bemused Romanian TV crew, shooting a film about sophisticated English tourists. But that’s another story.
Since then, Mrs Redman and I have made a conscious effort to try to eat only what we can grow in our garden, which involves attempting to eat seasonally and minimising the purchasing of processed food. There are many lapses, but sourcing the ingredients of that wild Transylvanian salad became a passion. Lovage, spinach, rocket and lemon sorrel easily grew from seed, but the wild garlic eluded me. Then one day wandering through the Abbey Gardens in Bury I caught a whiff on the air of that elusive ingredient. It was unmistakeable. There were acres of it, carpeting the ornamental beds. Wondering whether this was some sort of dream, I sheepishly enquired of the ground staff. They were incredulous as to why I should want to have some of their pernicious weeds, but they humoured me and gave me some which is now firmly established (and well contained) in my own garden.
A year later and another gastronomic experience at an award winning restaurant near the Abbey walls. It is the sort of restaurant that focuses on flavour rather than quantity. Garnishing the rumour of foamed vegetables was a green leaf with that unmistakable aroma. “What is the garnish?” I asked of the attentive waitress, already knowing the answer.
“Ah, it’s a very special herb we garner from a secret place near Polstead,” she replied, making it sound with all her being like the rarest of produce available. “It’s called wild garlic.”
“Oh! It grows like a weed just over the wall,” I proffered with a wry smile. Exit slightly huffy waitress. I read that ground elder and nettles might have been introduced as food sources by the Romans, and while I have yet to pluck up the courage to try these in a salad, I have learnt one thing. One person’s weeds are another person’s delicacy.