Wolterton: Saracen's Head
Stuck as it is in the Matlaske Triangle, one of the selling points and truisms of this pub is the fact it can be rather hard to find. This is very much sold as an advantage.
There is nothing quite like constancy to lift the soul in our fast-changing world. As I cycled out towards Erpingham from North Walsham the next morning, the familiar feel of a decent length bike ride was the first reminder. Into Ingworth, off the main drag and up the hill before freewheeling down an impossibly narrow lane to cross the normally dry ford over the River Bure, up a gentle but peskily long rise and past the familiar whiff of a dairy farm - another series of unchanging prompts, this time geographical and olfactory.
Round the long right hand bend and the Saracen's Head came into view, sat neatly and squarely into a field of flowering oilseed rape in its prime, both in appearance and odour.
Chalk boards have long announced one's arrival at the Saracen's, with oft-changed, tongue in cheek, bold, irreverent, occasionally self-deprecating comments. Yet another cue.
I assume my memory serves well, but I am fairly sure the chalk message this time read something along the lines of 'the gem of north Norfolk - and that's just the landlord!'. So subtle.
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There may be people who struggle to find this pub - sorry, inn - but having spent my youth round this way both on foot and bike, I am not one of them.
The night before we drove here, then took a taxi home (London cabbies wouldn't have a chance out here) and early the next day the bike was wheeled out to fetch the car.
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Stuck as it is in the Matlaske Triangle, one of the selling points and truisms of this pub is the fact it can be rather hard to find.
This is very much sold as an advantage - away from the madding crowd, leave the rat race behind, get away from it all. Bliss.
Location might work for estate agents, but for foodies it is only one of several important elements.
Mine host stepped out of the kitchen, inspected the menu (a chalk board, obviously) and - deadpan - announced “I just wanted to see what I had put on the menu!”
So we have humour. Nobody flinched by the way, this is not unusual behaviour from Robert Dawson-Smith, who has been at the helm of the Saracen's for longer than many of us care to remember. A little eccentric, a lot talented and bloody good at running a pub. Sorry, inn.
On the evening of our visit, Robert was, as usual, chef. Daughter Rachel was front of house, quietly and politely charming her way through the evening. A highly professional combination without hurry or anxiety, but with plenty of attention and ease.
Dishes of crispy fried brie with apricot sauce and crispy fried meatballs with mango and Thai spice were passed across the table between two. The pre-arranged sharing of the food was probably a mistake as we both preferred what had been put in front of us, while admitting the second option was well worth the experience.
Fried cheese is one of Robert's specialities and has been for many years. I reckon I was 15 or 16 when I first tasted it, which is more than half a lifetime ago.
Medallion of Gunton venison and grilled sea bass came next. Only a taste was exchanged this time, rather than a whole half.
All was good. Badly cooked fish is considered a crime in our family, but was not committed here, quite the reverse. And venison can be a brave dish to eat anywhere, but juicy it was, accompanied perfectly by red fruits.
Now I could write about the wine, but I won't. Other than to say it was fine.
Instead I will comment on how good the Wherry was, a Woodforde's brew from not too far away. Good temperature, good head, thank you for the handled glass.
It would have been rude not to have had a second pint, which also gave a good excuse for a bike ride the next morning back to this fine pub.
I mean inn, obviously.
t Saracen's Head, Wolterton; 01263 768909
Where is it? The key question. Either use an OS map, ask as you go (beware mischievous locals) or chuck the postcode into your sat nav - NR11 7LX. Just don't hurry if it's your first time.
t Car parking? Double yellow lines are considered alien life forms round this way. Plenty of space.
t Do I need to book? Described as “essential” at weekends and “strongly advisable” in the summer. In a word, yes, especially in the evenings.
t Are children welcome? Yes, as long as they have well-behaved parents, says Mr Dawson-Smith.
t Special dietary requirements? Plenty of veggie options, many of them as tempting as the carnivorous dishes. However, you will have to put up with a menu which pulls no punches in its celebration of meat and fish.
t Nearby places to visit? Out the back of the pub is Rachel's business The Shed, a workshop selling retro and rustic style furniture, interiors and gifts. And then there is the wonderful Wolterton Hall nearby.