Sometimes it's nice not to be surprised. Driving through rural Suffolk, one of England's most bountiful natural larders, that's exactly the case: you're greeted by green fields, flat arable land, and farms full of livestock so healthy-looking it's practically beaming – and that's exactly what I expected. The Bildeston Crown makes a great base for exploring this abundant county’s food scene. Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds have their own unique identities, but much of Suffolk’s hidden food delights can be found in the picture-perfect villages dotted in between them, like Bildeston.
The Crown combines a cottage feel with ultra-modern amenities; winding, gnarled corridors with vaulted ceilings and huge bathrooms; a cosy, antiquated hotel bar next to a modern, seasonal, cool restaurant. With local produce as good as Suffolk's, chef Chris Lee’s food – served à la carte from two menus, or via a tasting menu – doesn't have to overcomplicate. Sun-yellow yolk oozes from the first cut into a tangy haddock fishcake, and asparagus – as seasonal as it gets, in May – bursts with flavour, too. And my main, a braised collar of Suffolk ham, drenched in warming mustard sauce and served with crispy croquettes, is another example of a light touch applied to a piece of local meat that sings with flavour.
When it comes to the farmable land, Suffolk's got most of the bases covered: lots of coastline; fertile, flat land; and a long, rich history of growing and producing food. The Suffolk Food Hall – which is much more of a destination than the name might suggest – is where all of these elements meet. An enormous farmers' market which includes a deli, bakery, fishmonger, as well as a butcher, that makes use of the farm's own herd of Red Poll cattle. The distinct operations run on as much of a closed loop as possible, to minimise waste and food miles, and maximise the sense of the area's identity present in the food. It's also home to Cookhouse, a fine restaurant that's as farm-to-table as it gets, which serves relaxed, unfussy food with a view of the Suffolk cattle outside. Not only that, there are rooms on-site that act as an incubator for local talent including gin makers, bakers, caterers and more. Perfect for a quick shop, a day out, or anything in between.
Yep, you're in real ale country – as opposed to the big, hoppy, American style that's steadily taking over London – but that doesn't mean there aren't new and exciting brewers here keen to put their stamp on some of Britain's best-loved ale styles. Bury St Edmunds' Old Cannon is both a microbrewery and a pub with rooms. It's no slouch, either: as well as the weekly batches of its well-loved Best Bitter, Hornblower and others – which it brews with English barley and hops on the majestic polished-steel machinery you'll see as you walk in – it also distributes Old Cannon ales to a network of pubs around the area. Buy it by the cask, in take-away containers, or prop up the bar and let the staff take you through the selection they're so proud of – and rightly so.
If you want to know where Tuddenham Mill's reputation is heading, the fact that since we returned from Suffolk last month there's been yet another industry award given to its kitchen team should show you. The esteemed Acorn Award, awarded to head chef Lee Bye, follows local accolades for its commis chef Max Cameron and one for the restaurant itself. From the starter – Jacob's ladder short rib absolutely bursting with East Asian spice – it's clear this is a restaurant that values creative, progressive cooking. Seasonal asparagus with duck egg makes for a lighter option before the main arrives: a breast of guinea fowl glazed in salty-sweet malt, served with nero barley and laced with a sloe gin reduction. The room is beautiful (it's clearly the area's best-thought-of 'destination' restaurant), and there's a real focus on sourcing characterful, interesting wines, too.
The Six Bells, in the tiny village of Preston St Mary, is part of London's ETM Group – the only site outside central London, in fact – and its top-notch gastropub fare seems more at home surrounded by green than grey. It's 15 minutes' drive from the Crown, and rears its own pigs out the back to complement the produce it sources pretty much entirely from the county – and serves it at its Grade II-listed, quintessentially British pub. I start with a generous plate of creamy and meaty oysters from the obliging Suffolk coast, and continue with new season lamb from nearby Bridge Farm with peas, spring greens and gnocchi. The meat blushes pink and the minted peas and greens have a pleasing crunch and zest – a classic, fresh plate of late-spring English food with only the tiniest of twists by chef John Tremayne. A panna cotta made with tonka beans, served with lavender shortbread and summer berries, is a refreshingly light British pudding – especially if the all-English cheese board just won't fit.
Getting there: Trains from London Liverpool Street to Ipswich start at £76.20 for an open return from trainline.com. Once in Suffolk, a hire car is probably the best way to get from hotel to hamlet to farm to restaurant, and vice versa.