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To the Broads and Beyond

We drove to Norfolk with a handful of recommendations and no preconceptions. For weekends away, our habit has always been to head west, to the traditional foodie comfort-zones of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. But they say one should broaden one’s horizons, so we headed to the Broads and beyond… to the expansive sands of Holkham in north Norfolk.

The Victoria at Holkham is an outlying property on the rambling Holkham Estate, which borders one of the most beautiful stretches of sandy beach on the East Coast. It is owned by the lord of the manor himself, Viscount Coke, though he leaves the grubby business of actually running the place to a local brewery, Adnams.

The building has been part of the Holkham estate since the original Viscount was elevated to the peerage by the Queen Vickie herself, back in 1837. After that, he was never going to call it the Nag’s Head.

On the map it looks a hop and a skip from the M11, but once you’re past Newmarket, you may as well be chugging along the broads. The last 60 miles to Holkham is a stop-start purgatory of winding lanes and inexplicable bucolic traffic jams – do turnip farms really need a rush hour? By the time you finally arrive you’ll be more than ready for a stiff drink, which is no problem, as the Victoria is a pub as well as a hotel and restaurant.

There was no sign of the local nobs when we arrived, but with a big country show taking place outside Holkham Hall next day, they could be forgiven for leaving us in the hands of the retainers. The rooms are informal but elegant, with their deep, roll-top baths and Rajahsthani four-posters. The overall effect is of a likeable (if self-conscious) shabby chic design ethic that complements the seaside setting and evokes the Victorian link without descending into ‘theme’ territory.

There’s nothing shabby about the dining room, which comfortably occupies the border-country of formality and friendliness. The food is an elevated form of gastro-pub fare, balancing French technique with the seasonal produce of the Holkham estate on one side of the Victoria, and the North Sea on the other.

The opening list of starters was an earnest parade of the usual suspects – ham hock salad, chicken liver parfait, scallops with chorizo. All worthy if well executed, but a tad predictable. There’s a secondary list of dishes that can be ordered in small or large portions, from which I selected a carpaccio of local venison with apple, celeriac and parmesan. It was a simple but pleasing plate, bursting with woodland vitality. On a practical note, the Victoria does top-notch comfort food and a range of plate sizes, so it’s fine for families.

The menu has a reasonable number of comfort classics, and it wasn’t just the younger diners tucking into sausage and mash with red cabbage and shallot sauce. With all the ramblers, dog-walkers (two of the rooms are ‘dog-friendly’) and beach-botherers this place attracts, the menu is big on people-pleasing platters.

I’d heard good things about the swine, so decided to pig out on slow roast Blythburgh pork belly, which came with roasted root vegetables and a marjoram jus. Despite the Victoria’s aristocratic connections, pork belly is a great leveller, a dish you can enjoy at practically every eatery on the social strata. This one was a skilled balance of tiered textures, crispy skin and creamy fat giving way to silky-soft flesh. Perhaps in the knowledge that we would be polishing off the porker the next day – in the form of rashers and sausage at breakfast – we parked the pud and went to bed.

Being the English seaside, it rained the next day. We had planned to spend the day strolling along Holkham beach, but instead went for a drive and chanced on Cookie’s Crab Shack in the village of Salthouse. It’s one of those places that’s obviously a bit of an institution, but you wouldn’t have heard of it unless you’d received a specific recommendation or had the benefit of local knowledge.

At Cookie’s, they eschew aristocratic graces and treat the place pretty much like a shop. You want good seafood and they sell it – that’s the deal. It really is a shack, or at least a shop with a sort of semi-detached conservatory/shed. While it lacks the Conran touch, these guys do know their oysters, and the place is a veritable baitball of seafood-seekers.

The staff can’t really cope with the footfall, so they just concentrate on selling shellfish and don’t bother too much with the whole smiley welcoming bit. But that didn’t matter, because my crab salad was a one-plate love letter to seaside food. It had that perfect balance of savoury and sweet that you only get when you’re eating within sight of the sea. I could have lived without the perfunctory salad of cucumber, lettuce and tomato. But I did appreciate the boiled samphire, which provided a salty riposte to the crab flesh.

Strange, how food lurks in the memory. Our meal at the Victoria was prepared with diligence and expertise, and served in a wonderful room full of beautiful people. Yet my abiding memory is of digging into the crab and watching the rain clatter down outside Cookie’s while the sad-eyed assistant told yet another would-be diner they really should have booked.


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