Ed Sheeran has his castle on the hill. And, for just one weekend, Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore got their own pop-up restaurant on a mound.
It was a bit of a windy start for an early Saturday evening, climbing the grassy bank opposite Fen Farm Dairy on the outskirts of Bungay. Fighting a breeze in suede heels is no small feat, let me tell you. But this view from above. Superb. Nothing but farmland, hedgerows, streams, grazing cows, a church in the distance.
The so-called ‘Restaurant on a Hill’ was a joint venture created between the Crickmores and Forage Kitchen of Rougham – renowned for its tasting menus that reach the heights of inventiveness. The two companies have a long-standing friendship, and Mel Evans, owner of Forage, has been keen on really, really showcasing the products his chefs use in the kitchen for some time.
What could be better than exporting customers directly to the source?
And so it was that we and over 80 other people, including some of the great and good in the East Anglian food industry, found ourselves inside a marquee, ready to chew the grease of the Earth.
First, as the light began to plunge into the valley beyond, an alfresco introduction by Jonny, framed by his landscape pantry. We heard about the family’s farming heritage and the hesitant first steps they took from dairy farmers to cheese makers. Today, their Baron Bigod brie de meaux style cheese is revered not just in the UK, but around the world, exporting as far away as Japan.
Inside, the set up looked very much like a wedding. Delicate flower displays. The buzz of chatter. Communal tables where you dread sitting next to a drunken uncle.
Luckily we were seated next to a kind group – including Woodbridgian Tony (hello if you’re reading this) who is as much of a foodie as I am – in fact we took photos of the dishes almost in sync!
Tickets were £75 for the ‘do’, which included a glass of Flint’s pimped fizz on arrival, and a flight of wines with all seven (yes seven) courses, designed to show off Fen Farm’s wonderful ingredients .
We started with, in typical Forage Kitchen style, a plate of playful canapes. A very fine wild mushroom arancini, heady with truffles. A “jammy dodger” by Baron Bigod. And a complex-tasting tapioca cracker, loaded with pickled beetroot, Fen Farm curd and smoked apple.
After this palace teaser, we were all positively hungry for more!
And we were quickly rewarded with puffy, crispy slices of Penny Bun Bakehouse Smoked Suffolk Sourdough Bread. This came with a trio of butters for the table. Alongside Fen Farm’s raw butter resembling caramel at its purest, were roast chicken butter (heaven) and mugwort and onion butter, which certainly sparked debate and discussion at Table. “What’s mugwort when she’s at home?”
The forage ingredient (claimed to be good for digestion) has a slight hint of sage which, combined with the onion, was quite a delicious package when delivered on bread. It turned out to be the most popular broadcast of all of the night.
The “meal proper” began with a delicate starter of elderflower cured salmon. Although I couldn’t detect much flora on the fish, it healed beautifully. Firm, but succulent and slightly yielding. There were a few cubes of elderflower jelly scattered about, and I absolutely could have swallowed more. The dish was married with a light buttermilk vinaigrette, peppery nasturtiums and a juicy marinated mouli.
When the main course arrived, the almost too loud crackling of the dining room subsided, in addition to the odd ‘phwoar’ or ‘wow’.
When we opened our menus in the early evening, there was quite a stir over the creamy beef tenderloin with fatty beef potato, marrowed onions, smoked eggplant, black garlic ketchup and lovage.
The absolute star of the show was this precious and most expensive cut of beef. Dusty pink towards the edges, with a well rested medium to rare heart, it cuts like butter as the saying goes. No steak knife required. All the other elements of the plate were used to highlight and put this star into orbit. The potato was rich and crispy. Silky eggplant, with just-grilled smoky depth. The lovage added a herbaceous note, again almost smoky. And all this with little puffs of pungent, bittersweet black garlic, reminiscent of licorice.
I’m afraid none of those next to me (myself included) were particularly taken with the wacky Baron Bigod ice cream which, despite being paired with peach Mexican marigold dust, raspberry and tarragon, was too tasty and offbeat. Beware, if they had served it with a fig chutney and digestives at the end of the meal, it could have been a different story.
All was forgiven when the service staff placed Fen Farm’s succulent mascarpone mousse in front of us. A luxurious buffer for 70% dark chocolate cream, marinated blackcurrants and elderberries and sparkling blackcurrant parfait. Pretty as a picture too.
We ended, of course, with an excellent cheese board made on the farm – Baron Bigod paired with soft, spreadable, milky St Jude’s and the new, almost alpine St Helena, alongside crackers, nut bread and Forage Kitchen red onion chutney.
A fitting local ending to a celebration of one of East Anglia’s most beloved producers.
But it didn’t stop there, oh no. As they left, each guest received a box of goodies – shiny handmade chocolate candies, flavored butter, ready-to-bake cookie dough and Skyr.
I won’t lie…we ate the chocolates on the way home. And…we couldn’t leave without a visit to Fen Farm’s 24/7 ‘farm shed’, where vending machines sell all kinds of gourmet treasures, from their dairy products to local cakes, through coffee, meat and eggs.
Armed with a bun to share in the morning, a tub of raw milk and hot chocolate to accompany us on the hour-long return journey, we drove away from the hill and into the night, after to have experienced something really very special.
Fen Farm produce is available from farm shops, delicatessens, food shops and restaurants throughout East Anglia and beyond. And you can also buy online at fenfarm.co.uk
Forage Kitchen is currently looking for its next pop-up location. Keep an eye on their social media accounts for more details.