Friday, 22 September 2017

Sugar and Smoke

What’s a bank holiday without a fractious trip on the M25 to see relatives - punctuated by a stopping off for a ‘relaxing’ meal and a few drinks, all while getting suitably lost en route. I mean is it even a bank holiday without an argument about what music to play in the car and which way you should have gone at the last roundabout, before lunchtime?

Our venue for a late summer bank holiday squabble (the last opportunity until Christmas) was the Maldon Smokehouse. A traditional smokehouse - tucked down a quiet little lane - that offers a succinct menu of cured fish, meat and cheeses, plus a few hot dishes, in a secluded spot overlooking the river Chelmer. Real Robinson Crusoe stuff, if you can ignore the fact you're actually still in an estuary town somewhere in East Essex.

It’s an utterly idyllic location, conveniently ignoring the tiled roof of Tesco’s peering out from the foliage across the water and the gentle hum of the A414 in the distance . Auspiciously, on our visit at the fag-end of August, the English weather was clement enough to sit out in shirt sleeves and enjoy the last warming rays of summer sun.

It’s unlicensed, but they let you BYO - with no charge, and our arrival was swiftly heralded by a cheery greeting - a special shout must go to the service, which throughout was as sweet as the seafood - and the appearance of an ice bucket, filled with ice, and glasses for our bottle of verdicchio. A very civilised start to proceedings.

I went classic with the crevette, prawn and smoked salmon combo; three slices of hand carved salmon, a pile of plump Crustacea and a dish of marie rose sauce - not far away from being my perfect desert island starter (I’d add some wobbly aioli, for extra dipping; and maybe some barbecued squid and scallops, cos why not).

It was all utterly lovely; the thick-cut fish had a pleasingly robust texture and firmness and a delicate smokiness, while the sweet prawns were very pleasing when dunked in the retro sauce. Best of all were the crevettes (a word with a seemingly interchangeable definition, taken here to mean ‘larger prawn’), which were like the prawns on steroids and accordingly exceptional.

The Ewing’s Seafood Overboard platter included salmon, prawns (peeled and unpeeled), mackerel, crayfish and a choice of crevettes or half a Norfolk crab. Again, it was all great, although a special shout out to the mackerel, which was buttery and delicate in comparison to the more familiar thwack of smoke from industrially produced fish (although my jaded taste buds do have a soft spot for a liberally-peppered mackerel fillet with a good squeeze of lemon). 

The crayfish was also surprisingly perky and delightful (does anyone really like crayfish), managing to not taste disappointingly like fishy cotton wool. And of course the Ewing had hours of fun (literally), dissecting her prawns in the manner of Dr Lecter.

To finish we shared the only pud on their menu (although, they do have Rossis ice cream and smoked cheeses) , a honeycomb cheesecake studded with chunks of chocolate and shards of cinder toffee and served with lashings of chocolate sauce and an entirely superfluous – although very welcome – ball of vanilla ice cream. 

The texture was more airy, like a frozen parfait, than the dense and claggy cheesecake I normally prefer (Waitose New York style, eaten on the sofa, normally in a state of semi-undress) but this version made the perfect palette cleanser after all the salt and smoke.

Ping pong and prawns may not be a classic combination, but adjacent to the cosy indoor restaurant area you can also find a games room, complete with table tennis tables that can be hired for a fiver an hour - the Ewing fancied a burl, but I needed more time for lunch to go down before attempting any Forest Gump style acrobatics. There’s also fussball, if you fancy something a little more sedentary (tbf, I normally find watching Spurs on the TV exhausting enough).

It's a strictly cash only enterprise, and luckily we manage to scrape together enough moolah to pay the bill and have some pocket change left for a couple of goodies from their takeaway counter, deciding, after much deliberation, on smoked duck breast and smoked Stilton - although the honey coloured wedges of brie and silvery whole mackerel were very tempting. Perfect for a ploughman’s lunch when we were back home, contemplating the sudden onslaught of autumn.

The fact the Ewing was driving meant I got the lion’s share of the wine, something she bore with exceedingly good grace after enduring a drunken trip to the supermarket, with me stumbling up and down the aisles, picking up improbably flavoured crisps after our meal. 

Thankfully bickering was averted on the rest of our journey, mainly as I was occupied by serenading her with a tuneless version of Saturday Love as we drove through Thetford Forest (where I took the part of both Alex, and Cherelle). I would say it was special treat for high days and holidays – but it’s pretty much every Saturday, in our house… sugar.

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