Last weekend found me zipping down to south Norfolk for a ‘A Circus of Taste’, a two-day foodie extravaganza at Hales Hall & The Great Barn, just outside Loddon (more of this knock-out wedding and party venue later).
Hales Hall owner Helen Johnston and her friend Marwan Badran, chef and founder of Mouth.Events, had invited local food and drink producers to showcase their wares over the two days, in what was to be a real celebration of Suffolk and Norfolk flavours. And I was asked along to sample them.
Sadly I couldn’t make the Saturday, but I got there bright and early on the Sunday, mouth watering at the prospect of what was to come. Everyone was gathered in the Barn - and oh my, what a space. Ginormous, with no less than 180 slit windows and check out the amazing vaulted roof!
On entering, I was handed the most delicious mocktail (below, note the cool freeze-dried lime slice) by Matt Saunders, who’s just opened a new bar in Norwich called Chambers Cocktail Company with publicans Nick and Briony De’Ath. The boozy cocktails looked good, too - sadly I was with car.
The event was curated in such a way that each of the tables had two different producers, thus inviting us to explore unique taste combinations and bespoke pairings, like ‘The Pig & Flint’ table of charcuterie from Marsh Pig and wine from Flint Vineyard. Such a good idea.
I spent a couple of hours pottering around the different tables, chatting, nibbling, sipping - and what a friendly, passionate and inspiring bunch of folk they were. While everything I tried was delicious, there were some particular highlights for me.
Let’s start with dairy, as I’m a huge cheese and butter fan. Fen Farm Dairy, based on the edge of Bungay, were showcasing their wickedly delicious Bungay Raw Butter and their Baron Bigod - an unpasteurised Brie-de-Meaux-style cheese. I tried it on bread with a drizzle of Yare Valley’s truffle-infused rapeseed oil. Damn it was good. Big heads up, too, to Julie Cheyney, whose White Wood Dairy shares the dairy space at Fen Farm and who makes the delectable St.Jude cheese with its dense, creamy texture.
Old Hall Farm Dairy, a micro-dairy in Woodton, have a small herd of Jerseys which produce some of the best raw milk I’ve ever tried - and it comes in coffee or chocolate flavour, too. You can buy it from their farm shop or they now do a postal service. They kindly gave me a pack of their butter, isn’t the packaging pretty?
Last but by no means least, I met the legend that is Mrs Temple of Mrs Temple’s Cheeses. What a lovely lady (we talked largely about the Blakeney Rowing Club) - and she’s a pretty accomplished cheesemaker, too. Based at Copys Green Farm in Wighton, Mrs T produces an array of handmade cheese - my favourite was the Binham Blue, a soft blue veined cheese, full of flavour.
Ok Harriet, step away from the dairy… how about my other favourite subject? Wine. I had a good chat with winemaker Lee Dyer, whose Winbirri Vineyard near Norwich has had an epic year following a platinum best-in-show medal for its Bacchus white wine at the 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards. His Vintage Reservé fizz isn’t bad either…
I also very much enjoyed meeting Ben Witchell of Flint Vineyard, based in the sunny Waveney Valley - his rosé certainly tasted as good as it looked - loving all his labels, too.
I also squeezed in some delicious free-range charcuterie from Norfolk-based Marsh Pig (big up to the Rosemary & Garlic salami - they do mail order btw) and I absolutely loved the Bakewell Tart-inspired cakes by The Cakeshop Bakery in Woodbridge, which were made from ingredients provided by at least six producers at the event: talk about keeping it local.
Did I mention that there was lunch, too? I managed to find room for a taste of each of Marwan’s veg, fish and meat cassoulet-inspired dishes which, again, used ingredients from participating producers and makers.
Happily full and inspired by all this local talent, I spent the last half hour exploring Hales Hall. It is simply stunning. A Medieval estate set in formal gardens and wild flower meadows, it’s been brought bang up to date and oozes modern-day luxury.
The decor of the Hall has evidently been overseen by someone with an exquisite eye - the plumpest of sofas, beautiful antiques, crackling fires, huge bathrooms with freestanding baths, four poster beds piled with velvet cushions… I could go on, but you get my drift and hopefully some of my pics will give you a small idea of the luxe factor (though it's worth checking out the website to see it in all its glory).
The Hall and Barn combined are the ultimate party venue. The estate can accommodate 25-plus guests and the majestic Tudor Barn is the ideal spot for a shindig seating up to 200 people comfortably. Were I to get married again (don’t worry Boy-next-the-Sea, no plans to … yet) I can’t think of a more perfect place. It’s proper magical.