You can usually tell when its time for the Aldeburgh Food Festival. More often than not, in the preceding week before the event, the skies clear, an enveloping blanket of high pressure descends, winds abate, the sea flattens and slowly the first autumnal hues appear in the hedgerows.
Not so much an “Indian Summer” this year as the falling night-time temperatures bear witness to, but nonetheless a delightful and becalming late-summer fine spell, which bathes our beloved Suffolk countryside in a delicious and golden light, crystallising the views and opening up the skies, with the only interference coming from gently drifting cumulus, that head seaward and slowly disappear.
Aldeburgh is a slight misnomer for this epicurean wonder, as it’s actually staged (and now in its tenth year) at Snape, adjacent to the maltings and concert hall of Brittenesque fame and iconic destination for music lovers, artists, serial shoppers and foodies.
I’ve known Snape and the surrounding countryside at neighbouring Iken for most of my life and have fished, farmed and shot across its waters and fields for nigh on thirty years now. It’s only natural therefore, that a keenly accepted offer of help to my good mate and personal fishmonger Chris Wightman, allowed me last weekend, to be part of a local showcase of artisan producers and chefs and to afford me the chance to bask in a culinary heaven within sight of the spellbinding views that define the Suffolk Heritage Coast.
Having been put to the fishmongering test at Brixham earlier in the month, it was with huge excitement, I found myself bumping gently across the car park field and down towards the River Alde, just before sunrise on Saturday last, stopping briefly as the captivating and imbuing scene before me, catches me unaware and momentarily transfixes me as that particular landscape has always done.
Chris is eager to set up and our stand (although slightly mis-positioned for the sun) is soon transformed into a veritable and burgeoning, smorgasbord of sustainably and responsibly caught seafood from around the shores of the UK. The selection that Chris has assembled is beyond belief eclectic. Local lobsters landed at Lowestoft, stunning South Coast brill, turbot, squid and cuttles from the Brixham beamers. John Dory, plaice and mighty cock crabs from the Looe dayboats, sit alongside magnificent sides of green, spotted, now-plentiful and just re-acclaimed, (“Hurrah and about bloody time you noticed!” ) cod from Peterhead. Hake too, from the same Buchan port, another species in the resurgence and of exceptional quality, provided by hugely knowledgeable Will Clarke of Wilsea Fish Merchants.
In the chilled cabinet we have the range of home-smoked offerings. Smoked salmon mousse, smoked Atlantic prawns, crevettes kippers and mackerel, dreamy cayenne-and-nutmeg-laced potted shrimps and of course the jewel in the Maximus crown, the sublime and exceedingly moreish coffee-cured smoked salmon that is the justifiable signature of this rich seam of quality seafish and shellfish.
With just enough time to indulge one of David Grimwood’s bacon rolls and a coffee in hand we man the stall as the visitors arrive in number. The best and most rewarding part of the whole experience for me is engaging with people who either don’t understand seafood or who are keen to learn of its provenance and to dwell a while longer just to hear how it has arrived from the whichever grounds, to within just hours of their plate. I’m only to happy to oblige, but need put my knowledge in context especially when listening to Chris, who having had 20 years of fishing experience under his belt, makes me look a complete deckhand.
The throngs gather and brim in front of us, like a flooding tide and steadily our stock dwindles. Potted shrimps are suddenly gone, cuttles sell out and the appetising allure of the freshly sliced smoked salmon samples proving too irresistible for many, the 200g vac-sealed packs flying off the stand.
There is a buoyant, almost jubilant atmosphere to the event and traders exchange knowing nods and glances as the organisers attend to the various needs and dilemmas that manifest themselves throughout the day. Breads, meats, chutneys, oils, game, spices and chocolate change hands within feet of our pitch. Outside, the catering stalls offer up captivating aromas of grilling and roasting meats, fresh local cod & chips from the creative Nick Attfield and crepes and wraps whisked up on the spot.
Although probably more than a little obsessed with the fruits of our seas, I do also profess a profound affinity for the wild meat that our fields and woodlands have to offer. During the course of the festival I’m delighted to meet up with Steve and Lynn Tricker of Truly Traceable. Lynn’s passion for crafting her own pastry-encapsulated game products, is matched in turn by Steve’s skill in hunting and procuring the local venison, rabbit, pigeon and feathered game for inclusion in a sumptuous range of pies. Fantastically short homemade pastry, combine with perfectly hung and seasoned slow-cooked game, produce for me, one of the flavour sensations of the weekend.
There are many “artisan”companies that I’ve come across over the years, all professing in their own right, a unique and traceable product that oozes sustainability and seasonality. Steve Tricker takes this a stage further.
All venison, be it Red, Roe, Fallow or Muntjac is stalked and culled on Suffolk farms and estates by Steve, who goes literally miles out of his way to ensure only animals of the utmost quality are sourced. Trained in deer management and their butchery, the task of dispatch and then the processing of the quarry is then carried out entirely by himself. This reveals one incredible and remarkable selling point, namely that the provenance of each product, is taken right back to the very spot where the animal fell and its journey thence to the table. The same too for other seasonal game, rabbits and pigeons.
Using locally reared pork for the sausage meat and chicken from Sutton Hoo, Lynn crafts a clever blend of well-seasoned and slow-cooked meats that constitute the range of delectable and hugely appetising bakes that she offers for sale, not just at local shows and farmers’ markets, but noted delicatessens around the county. For me that ticks every box I have.
Another year, another “Aldeburgh”. As the organisers enjoy continued throngs on the second day, the weather performs yet again and under cloudless skies, the festival buzz endures well into the evening. An undoubted success. A wonderful opportunity to relish all things delicious and now over for another twelve months.
But there’s one more endearing feature, all this incredible produce is not only local, but seasonally and readily available………all year round!