The mussels are plump. The sourdough says Crunch Me. And the red-purple Pinot Noir comes from the vines that extend beyond this chic little patio where guests dine happily. Yes, you guessed it, this is Essex.
Surprised? Do not be. In recent years, a bevy of British hoteliers, restaurateurs, winemakers, coffee grinders, cheese gurus, gastro-publics and seafood genius geniuses have transformed the East Anglian coast – the bulging belly of England from South Essex to West Norfolk – into a grand culinary World transforms shoreline where you can waddle from local feast to local picnic.
And the excellent Crouch Ridge Vineyard is a great place to start a delightful, ravenous road trip.
Happy: Sean Thomas embarks on a tour of the ‘Culinary Coast’, stretching from South Essex to West Norfolk. Along the way, he notes that the Burnham-on-Crouch pictured is “an excellent example” of this stretch of coast “rising to gastronomic fame”.
Picturesque architecture in Burnham-on-Crouch. It’s “very worthwhile” to visit the port city for a day or two, says Sean
After my dinner of mussels and pinot, it’s time for bed, and the winery offers soothing, simple rooms in a converted barn overlooking the Crouch Valley.
An alternative to accommodation is to drive a few miles south to the small town of Burnham-on-Crouch and the Thatched Cottages, exquisite 16th Century self-catering farmhouses with all the comforts you didn’t know you needed – mummified cats inside walls to keep witches out.
There’s an excellent farm shop just across the road – try the Thorogood asparagus, said to be the Queen’s favourite.
Perched on a silvery estuary, Burnham-on-Crouch is a prime example of the Culinary Coast rising to gastronomic prominence.
Pictured medieval Maldon has plenty of restaurants and brasseries, but Sean says “real foodies” should head to Mersea instead
Mersea Island is “flat and muddy with a working harbor that sends boats down the choppy Blackwater River”. While you’re here, enjoy premium molluscs, crustaceans and all things fin at The Company Shed
This cheery Essex river port has thrived in recent years with microbreweries (Wibblers), cafes serving fine pastry (Peaberries) and breezy gastropubs (The Ship Inn).
Along with exhilarating walks along the yacht shore to burn off those calories, it’s well worth spending a day or two. The road trip takes you west from here – with an almost obligatory detour to the ancient Saxon chapel of St Peter at the extreme end of the Dengie Peninsula.
A bare box of sanctity surrounded by salt marshes, reed beds and clam beaches, its deep and pensive solitude can induce a shiver of religiosity in the most atheistic of visitors.
Next stop, lunch! You could try one of the many restaurants and brasseries in medieval Maldon, but real foodies should head to Mersea Island – after making sure they don’t get stranded on the only road there prone to tidal tides.
Flatford Mill in Dedham Vale where John Constable painted The Hay Wain. “On a beautiful summer’s day, at the mill by the pond, you could be almost as inspired,” says Sean
Don’t expect conventional beauty in Mersea. It’s flat and muddy with a working harbor that sends boats down the choppy Blackwater River.
But it boasts some brilliant seafood spots, notably The Company Shed, a weather-clad harbourfront chalet whose modest cuisine produces top-notch mollusks, crustaceans and anything else with fins.
Colchester oysters – loved by the Romans – are predictably an ace. Plenty of people like to grab a cup of the Shed’s flavorful langoustine soup with fat dollops of crème fraîche and a box of salty fries.
Enjoy it all on a bench by the marina, with the sun and sea breeze on your face. Sublimate.
Your next destination is the north end of Essex and little-known but magical Mistley, which looks across the River Stour to rural Suffolk.
In Orford, take time to stroll through the ‘particularly lonely castle’ (pictured).
Aldeburgh offers “fine chocolatiers, respectable fish and chip shops and first class hotels”
In Manningtree, pictured, pass by the ponds where Matthew Hopkins, the most prolific Witchfinder general in the days of the Civil War, had bound and thrown the hapless defendant to be subjected to the infamous “swimming” torture for signs of witchcraft testing
With its air flavored with malt from local breweries and its somber Georgian quays towering over Regency madness, Mistley is a unique corner of Britain.
It also has The Thorn, a fantastically atmospheric antique hotel with a great menu in its wood-panelled restaurant, a specialist deli and gastro lab next door (which makes award-winning jams and gins) and plenty of spooky legends. The site was once owned by Matthew Hopkins, the most prolific Witchfinder general of the Civil War days.
If you really want to scare yourself, take a postprandial walk along the riverbank towards Manningtree, where you’ll pass the ponds where Hopkins would have tied up the hapless defendant and thrown him in to watch him in the infamous “swim” for signs of witchcraft testing. Torture. Brrr.
Another short detour inland takes you to the magnificent landscapes of Dedham Vale, where John Constable painted The Hay Wain. And on a beautiful summer’s day, at the mill by the pond, you might be almost as excited.
Sean’s road trip ends at the top of East Anglia’s bursting belly, at the ‘breezy chic’ White Horse Inn in Brancaster Staithe (pictured).
The White Horse Inn’s location, overlooking the dunes and marshes of North Norfolk, is ‘unprecedented’. On the right is one of the inn’s fish dishes
The blue dragonflies hover, the irises of the yellow flag shine, a heron slowly stalks a stickleback. The National Trust Tea Shop in Flatford, on the waterfront, is surprisingly modernist and absolutely the perfect spot for a pit stop on the trails.
As you accelerate, cornering through Suffolk and cruising towards Norfolk, your choices multiply. But be sure to stop in Orford, with its glittering, poetic coastline, to watch the swirling birdlife, wander the oddly lonely castle, stroll through the UFO-haunted Rendlesham Forest, and toast freshly landed lobster and smoked eel at a To feast, Pinney’s, a deceptively simple diner in a pretty Georgian terrace. Also try the lemon syllabub.
Then artsy Aldeburgh beckons with its fine chocolatiers, respected fish and chip shops and top-notch hotels. Further north there’s Southwold (seaside chic) or nearby Walberswick (super chic, expect famous TV actors) and Great Yarmouth for kiss-me-quick attractions and ice cream.
My road trip ends at the top of East Anglia’s bursting belly, at the breezy chic White Horse Inn in Brancaster Staithe. The seafood platter is amazing – sweet pickled periwinkles, succulent cockles, the famous Cromer crab – and the setting overlooking the dunes and marshes of North Norfolk is second to none.
The Queen flocks here, to nearby Sandringham, and so does an increasing number of families drawn by the unspoilt villages and beaches, the hidden medieval churches and of course the wonderful food.