Breakfast, lunch and dinner

Lamb kleftiko with Greek salad at the Ostrich, Castle Acre

Lamb kleftiko with Greek salad at the Ostrich, Castle Acre - Credit: Rowan Mantell

This month we're in Drayton, Wreningham and Castle Acre 

BREAKFAST

The Willows Cafe and Bistro, Drayton

There is something about a really good breakfast which properly sets the tone for the day.  

A piece of granary toast and a black coffee says ‘I am feeling virtuous and slightly smug, but give me a wide berth until lunch.’ A bowl of porridge says ‘I am feeling virtuous and slightly Scottish, but give me a wide berth until Hogmanay.’ 

A muffin with a sausage patty, some smoky back bacon, a slice of spicy black pudding, a fried egg and cheese says ‘I am feeling not in the least virtuous, let’s just crack on.’ 

Our venue for this month was The Willows, a happy little fairy light-lit cave of a café in Drayton, on the outskirts of Norwich. It was a late-ish start to the day and we were hungry; as we gave our order to our server I boldly asserted; “We’ll probably have the pancakes for afters as well.” Good job that I only said ‘probably’. 

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It’s a broad menu here, offering more than a dozen options. I had been veering towards the relative safety of eggs royale when Mrs C diverted me to the Three Pigs muffin. “You know you want to,” she said, with a devilish glint in the eye. 

Poached eggs and avocado, with a chilli spin, at The Willows

Poached eggs and avocado, with a chilli spin, at The Willows - Credit: Dominic Castle

Her choice of a couple of poached eggs served on smashed avocado with griddled mushroom, cherry tomatoes and sweet chilli sauce on a toasted muffin was a fine one; a spicy twist to the egg and avocado theme which worked very nicely indeed. 

And I made a bit of a porker of myself with the Three Pigs muffin; it is a substantial beast (aided and abetted by a couple of hash browns) and unsurprisingly, had to decline the idea of pancakes for ‘dessert’. 

After a fine cup of coffee, we trotted off into the sunshine. I didn’t feel in the least bit virtuous, but was certainly properly set up for the day and ready to crack on. 

Dominic Castle

thewillowsdrayton.com 

LUNCH

The Bird in Hand, Wreningham

I have spent a while sitting thinking if there is some wordplay around ‘Bird in Hand’ that I can employ to open this review of lunch at the eponymous Wreningham pub. But I can’t. 

So down to brass tacks, then. The Bird in Hand is a traditional pub with all that you would expect, and want, in a country hostelry. 

Halloumi salad from the Bird in Hand, Wreningham

Halloumi salad from the Bird in Hand, Wreningham - Credit: Dominic Castle

When we rolled in, we were told that there was a new sheriff in town (well, chef in the kitchen) and that the menu was shortly to be updated. But what was on the card in front of us looked very acceptable; so, it was a posh fish finger sandwich for me and a grilled halloumi salad for madam. 

There is not much that you can do with a sandwich, apart from get it right, and the Bird in Hand had it spot on. It was a seriously thick thing, super-soft bread stuffed with goujons of Whitby Bay fish; I have no idea what Whitby Bay fish are – but it was good. The home-made tartare sauce, though, was outstanding, properly caper-y and sharp.  

Throw in a pot of fat, crispy chips and enough salad to balance the carbs and you have a thoroughly decent, simple and well-executed lunch. 

On the other side of the table Mrs C’s halloumi salad did look very appealing indeed; little nuggets of cheesy goodness on a nest of sugar snaps, tenderstem, sweetcorn, leaves and beetroot. It was excellent, she reported, though a cube or two more of the crispy halloumi wouldn’t have gone amiss. 

A fine example of the humble crumble at The Bird in Hand

A fine example of the humble crumble at The Bird in Hand - Credit: Dominic Castle

Shall we have dessert? Of course we shall. It was a bit of a glum day, weather-wise, so I cheered myself up with a sticky toffee pudding and a dollop of the very good Alburgh ice cream. It hit the spot and brightened it up no end. 

The seasonal crumble appealed to Mrs C; and being the season for rhubarb it was a very good call indeed. The fruit was cooked to perfection and with enough sugar to keep things the right side of zingy while the loose crumble was a buttery delight. 

A quick trip to the Bird in Hand’ s website suggests an updated menu; chef is clearly getting his (or her) pots in a row. On the evidence of our visit, go and check it out. After all, a bird in the hand is worth... trying. 

Dominic Castle

thebih.co.uk 

DINNER

The Ostrich, Castle Acre 

Castle Acre was recently named one of England’s best villages – and it is easy to see why.  Picturesque abbey ruins – tick. Some of the most impressive Norman castle earthworks in the country – tick. Quaint cottages around a village green – tick, tick. A medieval archway entry into the main village – tick. Quiet lanes and pretty riverside walks into open countryside – tick and tick. Village activities – tick (there was a church flower festival the weekend we visited). Good pubs and cafes, plus shop for normal groceries – all ticks. 

It was the Ostrich pub we were here for. At the heart of the village overlooking pretty Stocks Green, the 16th century inn has been a welcome sight for weary travellers for centuries. And we were suitably weary, and hungry, having walked 20 miles of the Nar Valley Way from King’s Lynn. 

The pub is a beauty, its mellow brick frontage stretching along the Green. Inside is handsome too, the bar has exposed old-brick walls, a beamed ceiling, terracotta-tiled floor and two huge stone fireplaces. It leads into an impressive double-height room reaching into the roof space, with another vast fireplace. Beyond, there is a large and attractive garden which makes another lovely drinking and dining space in summer. 

We chose a cosy corner table with a view out on to the green and down the bar – to the specials chalked on the blackboard. There was also a well-stocked main menu with small and large plate options. My husband was intrigued by the South African curry from the specials menu and I went for lamb kleftiko. It seemed the right royal thing to do on Jubilee weekend as the lamb had been raised on the nearby Sandringham estate. I’d like to think it had a palace-pampered or at least coastal breeze-bathed life before it was slow-braised in lemon, garlic and rosemary and served on a flatbread with roast new potatoes, tzatziki and Greek salad.  

It was wonderful. The lamb rich and tender, the slight oiliness of the meat soaking deliciously into the flatbread and set against the crispy vibrancy of the salad, served in a brimming bowl and packed with black olives, cubes of piquant feta and crunchy cucumber, and thin slices of pepper and onion, all topped with creamy tzatziki. The mini herby roasties made this a properly satisfying meal and portions seemed generous right across the menu. My husband’s curry, with rice and flatbread was delicately spiced with plenty of meat. 

Chocolate and biscotti cheesecake with home-made ice-cream, at the Ostrich, Castle Acre

Chocolate and biscotti cheesecake with home-made ice-cream, at the Ostrich, Castle Acre - Credit: Rowan Mantell

Eton mess at the Ostrich, Castle Acre

Eton mess at the Ostrich, Castle Acre - Credit: Rowan Mantell

And so to dessert – with the menu on a mini chalkboard and laden with delights including sticky toffee pudding and lemon posset, plus a wide range of ice creams and sorbets, all made in-house. I chose chocolate and biscotti cheesecake, swapping out the caramel ice cream for peanut (after a good several minutes agonising between peanut and pistachio, ginger, strawberry, espresso...first world problems!) Again, it was a generous portion, and again very good with a smooth dense mousse-like topping on an oaty, biscuity base, and perfectly matched with a very fine peanut ice cream. My husband’s Eton mess was pronounced an excellent balance of juicy strawberries and crisp meringue. 

The staff deserve a mention too. They were lovely – warm, friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about the food. In conclusion, it is no wonder a national magazine article had Castle Acre in its top 10 villages. 

Rowan Mantell 

theostrich.pub