Sunday, April 29, 2012

Great Pub Grub in North Norfolk

Tasty sausages and superb steaks from traditional, fourth-generation butcher Arthur Howell can be found on many Norfolk menus

The pubs along North Norfolk’s windswept coast have long been cozy refuges, but these days they offer more than just a pint to warm your cockles. Old-fashioned drinking dens have been transformed into gastropubs, where you are now likely to be greeted by the delicious aroma of pan-fried scallops or duck with lavender sauce, served with real ale or a good choice of wines.

The famously flat North Norfolk landscape has a haunting atmosphere all its own, with sand dunes and saltmarshes stretching for miles along the shore.
Tidal mudflats attract rare migratory birds, and colonies of seals inhabit the sandbars offshore. Popular in summer for seaside excursions and seal-spotting trips, the coastline’s very bleakness draws visitors for birdwatching and bracing walks in winter. And once the fresh sea air has brought a rosy glow to your cheeks, there’s nothing like ducking into a gastropub – one of the new breed of “dining pubs” dedicated to fine, locally sourced food – for a hearty meal.
All along the North Norfolk coast you’ll find historic stone-walled pubs that are now gastropubs.
In summer, vacationers breeze in from the beaches, while in winter, roaring wood fires and steaming damp dogs help build up a convivial fug in which locals gather in snug settles polished smooth by use – much as they have done for the last 500 years. At the Lord Nelson in Burnham Thorpe, you can draw your chair up to the hearth where the Admiral himself warmed his feet. And while you soak up the atmosphere, you can also sample the fruits of the sea and surrounding farmlands.
The fertile fields and grazing marshes support prime beef, lamb, and pork – and prime sausages in rich onion sauce are a gastropub staple. Game is a Norfolk specialty, too: pheasant, partridge, and pigeon abound in season. Pedigree incarnations of classic dishes, such as Sandringham Red Poll rib-eye steak – a rare breed that hit the headlines during a spate of cattlerustling from the Queen’s estate – or local game stew with thyme dumplings are enough to make the mouth of any carnivore water. But seafood is what the region is all about. The sea, the sands, and the winding saltmarsh creeks yield Stiffkey Blue cockles, Thornham mussels and oysters, Brancaster lobster, Cromer crabs, and fresh-caught North Sea fish.
Samphire, a succulent marsh grass, is the perfect accompaniment, lightly steamed and salty.
Reinvigorated by a gastropub lunch, you might choose to visit 18th-century Holkham Hall, a Palladian masterpiece with impressive grounds; explore the picturesque villages of Blakeney and Cley next the Sea; enjoy British seaside fun in the brasher resorts of Wells next the Sea and Cromer; venture inland to the pretty towns of Burnham Market or Holt – or simply continue walking along the dreamy, timeless Norfolk coastal path, pausing to investigate the tide pools along the way.
Best Places to Eat Norfolk Pub Food
The Rose and Crown
The Rose and Crown in the village of Snettisham, 4 miles (6 km) north of Sandringham, is an unpretentious village pub that dates back to the 14th century, and it hasn’t let its growing reputation as one of the area’s best gastropubs spoil its historic feel or its place as a village local.
It serves a good selection of Norfolk and Suffolk ales, and its warren of rooms provides cozy drinking corners as well as a choice of eating areas, in among the inglenook fireplaces and red-tiled floors. There are straightforward bar meals, such as fish and chips and Holkham Hall sausages with mash, or more elaborate dishes using local produce. Samphire is harvested on the coast nearby, herbs are grown in community gardens, and seafood is bought direct from the fishermen who bring it to the pub’s kitchen early in the morning. Brancaster mussels and oysters sit on the menu alongside Norfolk pigeon breast and fresh grilled asparagus.
Old Church Road, Snettisham, Norfolk; open for lunch and dinner daily;
Also in North Norfolk
With a few exceptions, prices vary little across the area. Food in the 17th-century Hoste Arms (; moderate) on Burnham Market’s village green is exceptional.
Meats come from the Great Ryburgh Farm, venison from Holkham Hall, and oysters from nearby Burnham Creek. With stunning coastal views, the White Horse in Brancaster (www.; moderate) has exceptional shellfish, from the beds at the shore of their property. Another White Horse, in the iconic village of Blakeney (www.; moderate), is an old coaching inn that fields an impressive range of local suppliers on its menu: look for Morston mussels, Firs Farm lamb, Binham Blue cheese, and beer from microbrewery Yetmans.
Also in England
Heston Blumenthal is just one of several celebrity chefs now running gastropubs, and one of them, The Hinds Head in Bray, Berkshire (; expensive), was recently chosen as “Pub of the Year” by the inspectors for Michelin.
Also in the UK
A few miles outside Edinburgh in Lothianbridge, Dalkeith, is the Scottish Gastropub of the Year, the Sun Inn (; moderate). With its oak floors, wooden beams, and log fires, it’s the epitome of the friendly old pub, but it uses superb produce obtained from top Scottish suppliers including Glen Lyon venison, Macsween haggis, Isle of Mull cheddar, and Strathdon blue cheese.
Three Days in North Norfolk
It’s less than 40 miles (65 km) from Hunstanton to Cromer, but between these two busy seaside resorts are plenty of delightful stopping-off points – and gastropubs.
DAY ONE : Enjoy Hunstanton, with its fairground, promenade, and all the fun of the typical vacation resort. Visit the Queen’s country home at Sandringham House, open to visitors most of the summer. In between the two is Norfolk Lavender, a lavender farm and visitor attraction where in summer the scent of these lovely plants fills the air.
DAY TWO : Linger in the village of Brancaster, with its beach and nature preserve, before heading inland to Burnham Market, an attractive town with excellent shopping and dining, ideal for lunch. Nearby is Holkham Hall, a country house worth touring before taking the coast road to enjoy Wells next the Sea and Blakeney.
DAY THREE : In Blakeney, book a boat trip to see the seal colony, before visiting nearby Cley next the Sea, a pretty village known for its pottery and fish smokery.
Head east for an afternoon in the adjacent resorts of Sheringham or Cromer.
Getting to North Norfolk
King’s Lynn and Cromer can be reached by rail from London and from Norwich, and buses run regularly up and down the coast.

Where to stay in North Norfolk

The Gin Trap Inn (moderate) in Ringstead is a gastropub with lovely views from the bedrooms.
The Neptune (moderate) has a Michelinstarred restaurant.
Byfords (expensive), Holt’s oldest building, is now a fun boutique hotel.
Staithe Street, Wells next the Sea.
Seasonal Produce
Cromer crabs are said to be at their finest from Good Friday onward, just in time to be eaten with buttery new potatoes and the glorious asparagus for which Norfolk is famed. Traditionally, the last asparagus is cut on Midsummer’s Day, but before long samphire – a unique, salty edible plant known as “poor man’s asparagus” – comes into season. Lavender reflects the intense blue of Norfolk’s wide summer skies; introduced here by the Romans, its delicate flavor can be found in ice creams and sauces, and even perking up salads. Fall and winter bring a feast of game, including little-seen gamebirds such as teal and woodcock, and the plumpest mussels.

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