Posh Pub Grub – and the charming English county of Suffolk

A trip to the United Kingdom would not be complete without a few – or many – trips to the pub. Each time I visit I am reminded of how much character and tradition they add to the country. To my knowledge I’ve never visited an English village that doesn’t boast a charming local or two. There is something extremely satisfying about settling in a warm, cosy pub and ordering a plate of hearty pub grub.

But while you may struggle to replicate the experience of an English pub at home, there’s no reason why you can’t serve up a bit of pub grub in your own kitchen. And now that the weather in New Zealand has taken on a definite winter chill this is the time of year when it’s most welcome.

Later I’ll be giving a recipe for my excellent bangers and mash with onion gravy!

During our recent visit to the UK my husband and I went on a small road trip with family to visit the county of Suffolk. It is a beautiful part of the country, although I dare say most Brits would say the same of their own county.

We chose to stay and base ourselves in the village of Lavenham. Conjure if you will an image of the perfect English village and Lavenham would certainly live up to your expectations. It is the very epitome of a quintessential English village, dripping with charm and history.

What I particularly liked about Lavenham was the market square. This in itself has you imagining what the village must have been like a hundred, two hundred years ago – and of course its history dates much further back.

Firstly, where to stay? We chose the Angel Hotel, a county inn set in the heart of the market square. A county inn – how marvellous! It was perfectly comfortable, had a fantastic bar area and a good breakfast (an absolute must for any stay in England). They also serve lunch and evening meals. Definitely recommended. There is also The Swan on the High Street, which is a fabulous historic hotel that is beautifully appointed. A little more costly but if you’re after a spot of luxury this is for you.

So what to do in the delightful county of Suffolk? You could easily spend a day in Lavenham. It has a charming high street, some lovely shops and tearooms and rest assured there is no shortage of pubs. I was particularly taken with the wonkily erected buildings and houses. Not much chance that they would pass any building code in today’s world but they certainly add a quirky note to the village.

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While in Lavenham, make sure you also pay a visit to the Guildhall. This is a traditional timber-framed building that dates back to the sixteenth century and has many interesting exhibits that tell the story of Lavenham’s history.

As for the rest of Suffolk, sadly we only had a couple of days but I have two highlights to share with you to get you started:

Framlingham Castle

This was a very interesting visit. The castle was once a fortress and has an impressive wall surrounding it that has stood for some 800 years. And it was behind these walls that Mary Tudor was proclaimed Queen of England. You must do a tour of the ramparts, which elevates you ten metres from ground level and allows for incredible views of the surrounding countryside. We chose to do the audio tour as we made our way around the wall, which gives you a fascinating commentary about the history of the castle and its past inhabitants. Well worth it.

Flatford

This is a picturesque hamlet situated on the River Stour. The hamlet is notable for Flatford Mill, a watermill that was built in the eighteenth century and is attached to a miller’s cottage dating back to the seventeenth century. Both are Grade I listed and the mill was once owned by the father of the painter John Constable. In fact, the mill and its surroundings are famous for being the inspiration for some of John Constable’s most well-known paintings, including The Hay Wain. It’s well worth visiting The John Constable exhibition while you’re in Flatford, which tells the fascinating life story of this famous painter and his family.

Of course, at the heart of this hamlet is the River Stour. You can take one of the lovely walks or see the river by boat. It takes forty minutes or so to make the walk from Flatford to Dedham, another village worth a look.

And if you decide to stop for a spot of lunch in Flatford, can I recommend the tearooms that sit directly on the river – such a beautiful setting and the most delicious scones!

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I must confess that I have a particular fondness for England and our short trip to Suffolk reminded me of why I love it. The country is so rich in tradition and history and blessed with such breathtaking beauty. Often when we travel to the UK we don’t make it out of London so busy we are catching up with friends and family. But it really is worth your while to get out of London and see some of the countryside. May I suggest Suffolk as a worthy place to start?

Well, now that you’ve read enough to hopefully be sold on a visit to Suffolk, let’s get back to pub grub. I decided to go with bangers and mash because it is a staple of many a pub menu in England. But this dish can be raised a level when cooking it at home by making your own gravy. I realise it may seem an unnecessary chore considering there are so many packet varieties that can be whisked up in a minute or so. But my onion gravy is easy to make and so much more delicious than anything created from a packet. It raises the bar on the humble bangers and mash and turns it into a meal you would happily serve up when you have friends over.

One other note – it is important to source good sausages. Sausage quality varies greatly and I think this wonderful meal would be let down by cheap, gristly sausages. My opinion is a relatively plain pork sausage is best here. The meat shelves are crammed these days with every flavour of sausage you can imagine – chicken and cranberry, lamb and rosemary, etc. But sometimes only a good old-fashioned pork sausage will do. One of my favourites is London Pride by Hellers.

When it comes to cooking sausages, I have always, always cooked them in the oven. I can’t bear all that spitting and turning when you cook them in a frying pan. Pop them in a shallow oven dish, drizzle with a small amount of oil and then into an oven preheated to 200 degrees Celsius for forty minutes. Turn over halfway through. Done. Easy.

As for vegetables, it really has to be mashed potato. This is one of my favourite comfort foods. I don’t make it that often but when I do it has to be the real thing, by which I mean using real butter. Once the potatoes have had a good mash, season and add butter as you go and taste small amounts until you’re happy. You’ll know when it’s perfect.

I always like to serve a green with bangers and mash. You’ll see from the photograph below that I’ve gone with brussell sprouts. They’re in season at the moment in New Zealand and also happen to be one of my husband’s favourite vegetables. But green beans or, indeed, good old peas would work just as well.

Now for the star of this delectable meal:

Onion Gravy

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 medium onions, sliced thinly

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 heaped teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1½ tablespoons plain flour

500ml beef stock, heated

Salt, pepper

1 tablespoon butter

IMG_1699Heat the olive oil in a pan big enough to take the raw onions and sauté the onions on a low to medium heat until they are soft and golden. This will take a good 10-15 minutes so you do need to be patient. It’s okay if the onions catch a bit but you need to stir regularly to make sure they don’t burn. The photo will show you how the onions should be looking before you go on to the next step.

Now add the red wine vinegar and let it bubble away for a minute or so until it’s been absorbed. This will also help to deglaze the pan. Add the mustard and brown sugar and stir in well. Once the sugar has dissolved into the onion mix add the flour. This needs a good stir and the mixture will go quite thick but don’t panic. Stir well for a couple of minutes to ensure the flour is cooked off.

Have the beef stock ready to go at this point. I usually put it in a glass jug and heat it in the microwave for a couple of minutes so it’s nice and hot. Add a small amount of stock first and stir well so that the mixture starts to take on more the look of a paste. Now keep adding the stock, slowly, stirring continuously.

Once all the stock has been added, sprinkle in the salt (about 1/2 tsp ground sea salt or a bit less if using table salt) and a good grind of black pepper before bringing it to a good simmer. It will be quite light at this stage but the colour will deepen as it cooks. This is not supposed to be a dark gravy though so you’re not looking for it to turn a dark brown.

Leave it to simmer gently for 15-20 minutes.

Now it’s time to have a taste and check to see if you want to add anything else – a touch more seasoning or sugar if it’s a little sharp?

The last thing to do is add the butter and stir in until it has melted. Although it’s only a small amount it rounds out the flavour beautifully.

You’re ready to serve. Dish up the vegetables and sausages on the plate and pour over a ladleful of this divine gravy. It’s a wonderful moment and by this stage you’ll be desperate to get the plates to the table!

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