When I was a young kid my Grandmother moved to deepest, darkest Norfolk. As a child this had many advantages; holidays spent in the arcade in Wells-Next-The-Sea, fish and chips on the beach and the Thetford Railway Museum being a few. As I got older the excitement paled, suddenly a three hour car drive and sleeping on the camp bed in the front room (and even, once, in the shed, imaginatively renamed 'the summer house' by my Nan) seemed less like a treat and more like a chore.
Luckily, despite living far apart, we've always remained close and, although it can sometimes seem hard to find time for a visit, I'm always glad when I do; not only do I get wonderful bacon sandwiches and endless cups of tea but there's now even accommodation at the local pub in the village, no more pumping up the air mattress after a few beers too many.
Yet nother exciting discovery, and the reason for this rambling family reminiscence, was finding out that Tuddenham Mill was a mere mile or so off the baten track from our usual route home. A perfect detour for an early lunch stop.
The Mill is a boutique hotel and restaurant, set in a charming old watermill in rural Suffolk, whose kitchen is helmed by gifted young chef Paul Foster; if you haven't heard of Foster yet you soon will, already OFM young chef of the year and Good Food Guide's up and coming chef 2011, he is set to feature in the Central heats of the new series of Great British Menu this summer, and certainly seems to be one to watch.
We started with some drinks and nibbles in the bar downstairs, opting for a bottle of fizz to go with our cheese straws and pork cracklings. Unfortunately, due to our heavy night the day before, it was only sparkling mineral water. The cracklings were lovely; ethereal and crispy with the merest hint of sweet pigginess and the straws were almost as good as my Nan's (another reason I love visiting her).
Having just devoured a full English we passed over the five course tasting menu for the more modest three course set lunch. Everything (bar my nemesis, the hen's egg) looked lovely, and despite the surfeit of black pudding and baked beans I recently eaten, I was very excited about our meal ahead.
The dining room; the mill stone and cogs are set into the middle of the floor, the water wheel turns behind the bar below.
Warm home baked rolls and butter; resistance was futile...
The meal kicked off with a little amuse bouche, of (if memory serves me correctly) a carrot foam with goats cheese and seeds. Initially I found this a bit odd, it was served very cold and the cheese didn't quite have the salty kick needed to lift the foam, but I as I continued to eat the delicate, sweet carrot flavour and the creamy crunch of the seeds started to come through. A subtle and refreshing start.
The sultanas appeared to absented themselves from my beautiful starter of the pork neck carpaccio with pig's head croquette, but extra pork cracklings created a delicious porky triumvirate on the plate that left them unmissed. The pork neck was thinly sliced so the silky, rich fat melted on the tongue and the croquettes were a masterful mixture of crispy breadcrumbs and succulent shreds of pig. The whole thing was perked up with the peppery radish slices and salad leaves.
The Ewing's mackerel with sea vegetables and beetroot; The confit mackerel flaked apart in wonderfully soft, delicate chunks. The oily flesh stood up well to the salty sea veg and nutty, crisped wild rice and, again, a little welcome peppery bitterness came from the crunch of radish.
The lamb rump served as my main course was beautifully tender, if a little mild-mannered in the taste department, but that was more than compensated for by the sticky cake of braised shoulder sitting alongside; a gorgeous tangle of sweet and tender slow-cooked meat. The wafer thin squash slices and potato were perfectly complemented by the cumin spice and the lactic tang of the yoghurt.
The Ewing's main was the hake with charred leek and potato. A delicate combination of sweet, salty and bitter. The crispy fish worked surprisingly nicely with the punchy beer pickled onions, and the floury chunks of potato were perfect crushed into the pool of gravy.
My pud of rhubarb and goats milk with crispy muesli was clean and refined in an understated way, a refreshing end following my meat-heavy menu. I enjoyed the interplay of textures and temperatures, and the rhubarb was perfectly tender, but it, and the goats milk sorbet served alongside it, were, again a little tame in the taste stakes, even with the jolt of fresh mint on top.
Packing far more of a punch was the Ewing's textures of chocolate, sea buckthorn and hazelnuts. On one side cubes of brownie, mousse and chocolate crumbs sat atop a rich ganache, while on the other was a mixture of nutty crumbs with the astringency of sea buckthorn. This was a decadent yet delicate pudding that left the Ewing, a committed chocoholic, in seventh heaven.
Coffee was served with some tasty petit fours; a chocolate truffle flavoured with alexanders, cubes of passionfruit jelly and a really good square of creamy, cumin-scented fudge.
Foster's food won't be for everybody; it's clever and pretty and ambitious, but it also challenges with its presentation and combinations of flavours and textures. None of this, however, felt like style over substance; from the locally foraged herbs and vegetables (including chicory, pennywort, alexanders and sea buckthorn) there is a real sense of place about his plates.
Although not especially cheap, for intricate, innovative cooking of this calibre it still seemed like decent value. And the dining experience was perfectly complemented by our two lovely waiters who, despite us being the only two guests dining for lunch, managed to be there when we needed them without being obtrusive.
So while I may have outgrown feeding the ducks on the village pond, and am too big for the aerial swing in the park, being old isn't all bad. I can now enjoy pints of Woodford's Wherry at my Nan's local and know that there's the perfect pit stop on the return journey home; fabulous food with a country charm.