Cromer crab, mussels and samphire, the most microbreweries in the country, Colman’s mustard, superb cheeses and strawberries, English whisky, and that’s just for starters. Oh, and mains, desserts and drinks…
While you’re in Norfolk, you might come across our county biscuits, Fair Buttons or Norfolk Gingers. You might find a bakery that does a Norfolk treacle tart, made with black treacle and flavoured with lemon, or Norfolk bread pudding, otherwise known as Nelson slices, which has dried fruit, lemon rind, marmalade and, of course, rum mixed in with the bread. You might even find a restaurant serving Norfolk ‘dumplins’. But those things are as rare as an unhappy child on a sunny Norfolk beach in summer.
Here are some ingredients more readily available, just as traditional to the county, and which are a must-have if you want to say you’ve truly eaten Norfolk food…
Cromer crab: It had to be in pole position – it’s as distinctively Norfolk as pasties are to Cornwall and champagne to northern France. The reason they’re so good is that Cromer crabs thrive in the shallow waters of the unique chalk reef just off the coast, producing the sweetest, meatiest crustaceans.
Theoretically Cromer crabs are the same brown crabs that are caught all around the coast of Britain. In practice everyone knows they are unique. The special nature of a Cromer crab isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s recognised in law. The minimum legal shell span of Cromer crab (115mm) is smaller than any other UK crab – Cromer crabs, with their ‘pie crust’ shells, really are little bombs of flavour!
Cromer crab is revered by foodies, brimming as it is with a high proportion of white meat. It’s also very healthy, full of brain-boosting Omega-3 and low in fat. Eat with a little black pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of smoked paprika on buttered brown bread, with mayo, cucumber or avocado. They’re usually available from around April.
There’s also a Crab and Lobster Festival each May in Cromer and Sheringham. Oh yes, we have lobsters too!
Samphire: Otherwise known as ‘sea asparagus’, it thrives in our tidal salt marshes, and is FAB-UUUU-LOUS steamed and eaten with butter.
Asparagus: Talking of which, if you’re here in the Spring, then look out for fresh Norfolk asparagus, either at farmers’ markets, farm shops, or often from trailers in roadside lay-bys, straight from the farm. Both samphire and asparagus are usually best in May.
Brancaster mussels: They’re big blighters, tender and juicy. Collected when they’re young, they’re then moved to lays (beds) in the tidal creeks and left to mature nicely before harvesting. You think the French have the monopoly on cracking moules et frites? Don’t you believe it.
Stiffkey cockles: Also known as Stewkey Blues on account of their colour, a pale lavender to dark grey-blue (and now a Farrow & Ball paint colour), that comes from their habitat a few inches under the mud and sand. They’re still harvested with short-handled, broad rakes and nets. Traditionally the cockles are steamed, put in soups and pies, or boiled and eaten with vinegar and pepper.
Cheese: Nothing like a Binham Blue, a soft blue veined cheese made by the redoubtable Mrs Temple of Copys Green Farm at Wighton using milk from the Chalk Farm herd of Holstein Friesians and the Copys Green herd of Swiss Browns. Once you get a taste for that (and you will), move on to her Copys Cloud, with a fluffy white rind and melting centre; Wighton, a fresh curd cheese; the hard, matured Walsingham; a supple mountain-type called Wells Alpine; or Warham, a semi-soft available in mustard, tomato and herb, or cumin flavours.
Norfolk black turkey: Yes, it really is ‘bootiful’, and it’s not just for Christmas either. Lean, healthy and versatile, it’s a great food for any time of the year. Norfolk historically leads Britain in poultry production because the birds can feed on grain left over from the rich arable harvest. Geese used to dominate but, in the early 16th Century, Spanish explorers returned from Mexico with some strange, jet black creatures that became known as turkeys. The fertile, flat plains of Norfolk were the perfect place for these birds to thrive and they were soon challenging geese as our favourite winter feast.
Game: This is a specialty of the Brecks – no wonder, with all those forests and high grass – and usually refers to wild animals and birds that are hunted and eaten. Look out for venison, pheasants and pigeon on pub and restaurant menus, or cook it for yourselves.
Brecks pork: Not only does Breckland have the biggest grower of onions in the country, the Elveden estate, but the area also has superb pork. The reason for that is simple: the Brecks not only have the best climate in the country, but the sandy, free-draining, gently rolling countryside is perfect for pig rearing. The truth is, pigs don’t like getting their feet wet!
Mustard: If you’re here in Spring you’ll see fields swathed in yellow. Much of it will be rape, grown for oil, but a lot of it will also be mustard. Norfolk is, as everyone knows, the home of Colman’s Mustard and you can see a soupçon of its story at the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell. In the early 19th Century, Jeremiah Colman took the idea of milling mustard and turned it into an industry. A former flour miller, he blended both brown and white mustard seed to create a strong English mustard. By the 1880s more than two thousand people were working at the Norwich factory, with another 4,000 earning their living directly through the company.
Mint: The vast majority of mint grown agriculturally in the UK is done in Norfolk and a lot of it is taken by Colman’s. To ensure it’s fresh the farms are no more than seven miles away from the Carrow Road works. In the 1970s, hundreds of varieties were tested to find the right species to create the perfect jar of mint sauce. The winner was a plant found tucked away in someone’s back garden in the village of Brundall on the Norfolk Broads. Harvesting starts in late May and continues until the end of September or the first week in October.
Beer: Norfolk produces the best malting barley in the country and the best is grown in north Norfolk where the salty sea frets, high fields and warm climate make ideal growing conditions. The barley is turned into gorgeous, thirst-quenching real ale. Order a foaming flagon and toast those wonderful brewers and barley farmers!
Norfolk has more microbreweries than any other county in the UK and the daddy of them all is Woodfordes in the Broads National Park. Take a tour of the brewery and then have a pint sitting outside the brewery tap, the thatched Fur & Feathers.
Whisky: St George’s Distillery at East Harling was the first whisky distillery in England for 100 years and since 2006 has been producing award-winning whisky that has gained a worldwide reputation!
Vineyards: Having one of the best climates in the country, and chalky, free-draining soil, Norfolk is an ideal location for growing vines. Which we do! And some of them are award-winning too and have tours. Try Flint, Winbrri, Chet Valley or Humble Yard.
Fish and chips: Yes, we know everyone has them, but you’ve got to have them here, on Norfolk’s coast. It would be rude not to! You can find excellent chippies across the county, particularly at the seaside. Watch out for any dive bombing seagulls hoping to steal a thick wedge of potato. In Great Yarmouth and Norwich we recommend market place chips, with lots of vinegar and salt. Hey, you’re on vacation! And the donuts on Great Yarmouth seafront, freshly-made while you wait, are particularly good. Try eating them without licking your lips… it’s impossible!
Pick Your Own: If you’re here in the Summer then look out for fruit farms like Wiveton Hall Farm on the north Norfolk coast. Why not try before you buy, and have a couple of sneaky tastes while you’re going. We won’t tell!
Oh, and by the way…
Sugar beet: Half of all the sugar in the UK comes from sugar beet – and most of that starts life in Norfolk. Cantley, the first sugar beet factory in the UK, opened in 1912 and by the 1930s the British Government was actively encouraging the production of homegrown sugar. Norfolk had the farming skills, the soil and the incredible transport network of the Norfolk Broads to help put British sugar on British tables. Now it’s an industry worth £800 million a year making a major contribution to Britain’s economy. And it wouldn’t happen were it not for the British navy blockading Napoleon’s ships in the Caribbean and preventing transport of sugar cane. The French, having a sweet tooth, had to find an alternative – sugar beet. Et voila!