Tom savours a safe foodie haven on the bleakly beautiful, eerily atmospheric Norfolk coast.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Possibly the most terrifying of M R James’s ghost stories, a tale of eerie East Anglian beaches, ancient bone relics and vengeful apparitions. Never has a tattered sheet caused such abject fear.
The classic BBC adaptation was filmed at Waxham, a few dozen miles down the coast from where I’m sitting now, in The White Horse at Brancaster. But the view, over the salt marshes, has a fierce, desolate beauty, the big winter sky changing from brilliant blue to ominous grey as swiftly as that treacherous tide sweeps up the unwary. I half expect to see a sinister ghoul on the far horizon, beckoning me to my impending doom.
Luckily, though, the only spirit in the near vicinity is tequila, the base of a very decent passionfruit margarita. And the only fear I feel is having to move from my chair, in this most civilised of seaside pubs. It’s one of those places where the service is as warm as the food is unpretentious, where the kitchen has the confidence to let the ingredients speak for themselves.
There are tinned Catrineta sardines, some of Galicia’s finest, fat, luscious and sweetly oily. Lobster bisque mixes easy elegance with sonorous crustacean grunt, while a special of truffle and potato terrine is pure winter ballast, the poached egg yolk drawing everything together in an oozingly concupiscent embrace.
Brancaster Bay mussels are as fresh as you’d hope, being harvested a mere stroll away, swimming in the sort of thin, creamy garlic sauce that demands a hunk of bread. Barbary duck breast has the crispest of skins, the fat expertly rendered, while the pink flesh has satisfying chew. Pickled blackberry juice adds its tart retort.
Their seafood platter is abundantly generous for £65, with half a North Sea lobster, decently cooked. There’s a pot of saffron pickled cockles – an inspired creation – and a half dozen rock oysters, bold and briny, and some salmon, robustly smoked at the end of their garden. A few prawns get the same treatment, as do a couple of plump fillets of mackerel. The only letdown is a separate bowl of lacklustre fried squid.
Outside, the storm gathers and a chill dusk falls. Who knows what frightful wraiths stalk those sands? Inside, though, all is warm and safe and brimming with good cheer. M R James would most certainly approve.
About £30 per head. The White Horse, Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk; whitehorsebrancaster.co.uk
DRINKS: Olly’s wines with turkey
Go big this Christmas – pick the best wine you can. Red Rioja is a classic pairing thanks to its mellow power and ability to handle a spectrum of flavours from rich gravy to fruity sauces. For a lighter, silky treat, Pinot Noir from New Zealand or sacred sites behind French Burgundy are both charming. With a spicy rub or marinade, US Zinfandel is a fruity depth charge, or South African Pinotage has surreptitious spiciness. For a full-throttle bottle, Italian Amarone is ace. A rich white can also be fabulous: oaky Chardonnay or, for value, a peachy Alsace Pinot Gris.
WINE OF THE WEEK: JEROME GALEYRAND GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN BILLARD 2017 (13%), £43, The Wine Society. Treat yourself to this terrific, youthful, succulent Pinot Noir with layers of dazzling complexity and scent. A classic.
SPECIALLY SELECTED ALSACE PINOT GRIS 2020 (13%), £7.99, Aldi. Immense value for a plush peachy white that’s beyond delicious. Great for turkey curry, too.
PARCEL SERIES CENTRAL OTAGO PINOT NOIR 2020 (13.5%), from £13.99, Majestic. Silky and scrumptious, this is beautiful wine with near perfection in its fruity frame.
THE BEST AMARONE 2017 (14.5%), £16, Morrisons. Big as the Hulk’s biceps, this is a spicy wielder of joyful power.
L’AVENIR SINGLE BLOCK PINOTAGE 2018 (14.5%), £28, wineandsomething.com. Opulent as a bejewelled cranberry, this Pinotage has sublime structure and class. Wine to wow.