Head east in England and you will come across some fascinating regions, one of the most interesting of which is the ancient county of Norfolk.
To many people, Norfolk is the bulge on the map of England that marks the easterly most counties of the country, but it is a land with a distinctive history that has made a significant contribution both to the cultural and the culinary history of the nation.
The history of the county is evident in the huge array of Stone Age and Bronze Age sites such as flint mines, long barrows and round barrows, all of which have been uncovered in the region, testifying to the likely importance of Norfolk in the prehistory of England. The region was settled by a number of tribes, most notably the Celtic Iceni, who arrived in Norfolk from the European continent.
Subsequent invasions by the Romans, the Saxons and the Danes left their mark on the county, particularly those of the Danes. Norfolk was a tempting target for the sea raiders from across the North Sea due to its location, its plentiful riverways and fertile soil and as a result, the county spent many years as part of the Danish kingdom in England, the Danelaw.
By 1086, the time of the Domesday Book, Norfolk had become a thriving centre of agriculture, largely due to the success of the wool trade. That status was maintained during what we know as the Medieval period, and the agricultural heritage of the county, which was also known for its barley, wheat, sugar beets, oats, peas and beans, have left a rich and enduring culinary legacy, enhanced by the impressive variety of seafood drawn from the Norfolk coast. Here are some of the most distinctive and tasty Norfolk foods that are worth exploring.
There’s no doubt about the most popular Norfolk food, and the one that rightly comes first in our list. Cromer crabs are Norfolk’s most famous food product, as synonymous with the county as the Cornish pasty is with Cornwall. These distinctive crabs have a reputation for being particularly tasty because they thrive in the unique combination of chalk reef and shallow waters that can be found all along the coast of the county.
In principle, Cromer crabs are the same as any of the other types of brown crab that are caught all around the coast of England, but their superior taste has been recognised in law. In fact, the rules relating to the categorization of the Cromer crab are strict. A Cromer crab must have a minimum legal shell span of 115 millimetres, which makes it smaller than any other crab caught in English waters .
Cromer crab meat is both tasty and healthy, being packed with Omega-3 and having very little fat. Available from April onwards every year, it is often eaten simply with black pepper, a twist of lemon juice and a sprinkle of smoked paprika on buttered brown bread, though it is sometimes also served with avocado or cucumber.
Norfolk is also well known for its famous flocks of black turkeys. These are most popularly eaten at Christmas, but the lean, versatile and healthy meat that they provide is an ideal food for any time of the year.
Historically, Norfolk has in fact been the leading poultry producer in England, mainly as the birds are able to feed on grain that is left over from the plentiful local arable harvest. At one time, geese were the main poultry livestock, but from the early 16th Century, when Spanish explorers first returned from Mexico bringing with them these strange, jet black birds, turkeys have been taking over. The fertile and flat plains of the county made the ideal habitat for these distinctive birds to thrive in and the turkey has long since replaced the goose as our favourite winter feast.
Asparagus is a delicate and seasonal vegetable that has been held in high regard since the Romans first came to England. Asparagus is technically just the young shoots of a cultivated lily plant, and can be difficult to grow, but is considered to be one of vegetable world’s most luxurious treats.
The light soil in the Norfolk region makes for perfect asparagus growing conditions and if you drive around the county, you will soon find plenty of roadside stalls and farm shops that sell these delicious shoots. Norfolk asparagus is also greatly in demand in the food industry and features in the dishes of many of the country’s top restaurants and other eateries.
Many English counties have their own speciality cheeses and Norfolk is no exception. The county can produces an impressive array of cheeses to sample. One of the best is Binham Blue, a soft blue-veined cheese that is produced at the Copys Green Farm at Wighton with milk from two herds: the Chalk Farm herd of Holstein Friesians and the Copys Green herd of Swiss Browns. You should also look out for Copys Cloud, which has a fluffy white rind and soft centre; the delicious fresh curd cheese known as Wighton and Warham, which is a semi-soft cheese that is available in a variety of flavours.
Another seafood delicacy, the clean harbour waters that can be found in the coastal town of Brancaster Staithe on the Norfolk coast ensure that this area is an ideal place to find shellfish. Brancaster mussels are collected at a stage while they’re young and are then moved to beds in the local tidal creeks, where they can mature before being harvested. Enjoyed from September through to April, Brancaster mussels are a tasty treat that is eaten throughout England.
Marsh samphire is sometimes known by the name of ‘sea asparagus’, and it thrives in the tidal salt marshes and creeks that are characteristic of the North Norfolk coast. This curious plant actually looks like a small cactus, though without the tricky spines, and it has a fresh crunch when you first bite into it, along with a distinctive taste. Best served steamed and eaten with butter, it has a salty, delicious flavour and is one of the treats of any trip to Norfolk.
Kippers have long been considered a national dish, and their origins lie in Norfolk. Back in 1850 a local fisherman brought in a huge catch of herring in Yarmouth, one of the major towns of Norfolk. After selling some of his enormous haul, he was at a loss what to do with the remainder of the fish, so he split them and hung them in a hut that was kept warm with oak chippings. The result was a rich and tasty smoked food, and the rest is history. The delicious smoky taste of kippers has gone on to be a feature of many breakfasts. Look out too for the ‘bloater’, a whole fish, which is smoked in the same style, but over a shorter period.
Beer has always been an important part of Norfolk cuisine, with some breweries and beer making facilities in the county dating back to the 16th century. At one time, many famous English breweries including names such as Bullards, Steward and Patteson, Morgans, and Youngs Crawshay and Youngs were based in the Norfolk area, and although there was a decline in the late 20th century as bigger companies monopolised the industry, the recent resurgence in artisan brewing has produced a new generation of brewery operations in the county.
In fact there are over 40 breweries in the Norfolk area and a higher concentration of microbreweries than in almost any other part of the world. There are countless food and drink festivals throughout Norfolk that will give you the chance to try the fantastic variety of Norfolk beer, including the famous Fine Ale in the Fine City festival, which is held at St Andrews Hall, Norwich, in the early summer.