Downright delicious in Darsham

PUBLISHED: 12:40 22 September 2015 | UPDATED: 12:40 22 September 2015

The cafe at Darsham Nurseries.

The cafe at Darsham Nurseries.

Frances Hopewell Smith heads to the famed Darsham Nurseries cafe where there’s a bit more than a jacket potato on offer

The cafe at Darsham Nurseries.
Thomas Eagle and Lola DeMille.The cafe at Darsham Nurseries. Thomas Eagle and Lola DeMille.

When Darsham Nurseries cafe opened in 2014 word spread like wildfire about the exciting new venue with its exotic menu of tapas style, Middle-Eastern inspired food. Only open during the day, it was always heaving. Then, just before Christmas last the chef left for another venture and there was a huge gap in the local culinary map.

After a break of two months, it was back, so I nipped up the A12 to meet the owner and the new chef, and eat my way through as much of the menu as I could. And, just like old times, I’m taking friend Jules with me for the entertainment value.

The first thing everyone notices is the chic sign outside, so subtle and elegant. If you don’t know to look out for it you could find yourself in Lowestoft. (No, not really). Then the entrance to the cafe is through the chicest of chic garden shops, where single beautiful tools, eclectic ceramics, mouthwatering books and almost-too-good-to-use gardening gloves are displayed like an art installation.

Into the cafe itself where David Keleel, the owner, is waiting for us. We sit at one of the long tables to chat before lunch, looking out over the gardens. He is a softly spoken Californian who is a committed Anglophile and an enthusiastic bassoonist. Having trained in horticulture and garden design, he is just happy to have his nursery in sunny Suffolk – ten acres to grow his dream.

The cafe at Darsham Nurseries.
Katie Harper and Jasmine Eagle.The cafe at Darsham Nurseries. Katie Harper and Jasmine Eagle.

He supplies as many organic vegetables and herbs as he can to the restaurant and aims to crank up production so that there is always something fresh to hand.

“Of course,” he says, “Raymond Blanc has the finest example of a proper potager (kitchen garden), but I’m not quite there yet. But I think the use of wholesome, home-grown vegetables can’t be underestimated.”

We discuss the decor which is delightfully idiosyncratic and the result of a collaboration between David and his talented builder/carpenter, Charlie Hawkins. The centrepiece of the room is a half-wall made of recycled wood with a trough set into the top. Thus you are separated from some of the room by a regimental row of fresh flowers. Jules is definitely taken with this as an idea and I’m just waiting for it to appear in her kitchen.

It turns out that the cafe was not meant to be the focus of his venture, and although the concept isn’t new to customers, some still find it unusual that there are no jacket potatoes or the basic soup ‘n’ sandwich lunchtime specials. If you want something more adventurous and downright delicious, then Darsham is for you.

The cafe at Darsham Nurseries.The cafe at Darsham Nurseries.

The menu features a list of smallish dishes and the recommendation is to have three each. What joy. Remember that agony of choosing between three of your favourites? Now you can have them all. Just one snag though. Even with our combined knowledge of weird and wonderful ingredients, we’re stumped by a few things and need explanations from our waitress. Shakshuka, fregola, chicharrones, coolea, farinata, (even my auto-correct doesn’t get all of them).

Primed with our translations (eggs cooked in tomatoes, chillies and onions, cous cous, pork belly chunks, Irish cheese, chickpea flour pancake) we make our selections. Rabbit ragout, fried polenta, sorrel salsa verde. Jerusalem artichokes, confit fennel, stawley cheese. Chicharrones with cumin and lemon, and the Darsham mezze with yoghurt flatbread. But hang on, that’s only two each. We decide to see how we get on. We needn’t have worried – there was more than enough to eat. The mezze plate is a selection of seasonal vegetables, pickles and dips, largely from the potager, combining local ingredients with exotic flavours. It includes a walnut and harissa dip, baby beetroot, pickled turnips, carrots and cucumbers, chard and lemon sauté and a wild garlic and nigella seed flatbread.

The wonderful thing about this way of eating is that you legitimately get to try everything your companions have. Jules and I share nicely. The sheer variety of flavours, the spices and the mix of ingredients is so satisfying and earthily pleasing you just have to smile.

There was hardly anything left on the plates, and when we have our puddings I’m certainly glad we didn’t overdo it at the start. I have orange and almond cake with greek yoghurt and pistachios, and Jules goes for salted sourdough chocolate mousse with creme fraiche. She’s recently taken to making sourdough bread and seems addicted to it. They are fabulous – unusual and flavoursome and they complete the lunch with the perfect sweet finale.

The new chef is Lola De Mille, a bright, young woman from Norwich who, at 29, is the new star of this particular show. Self-taught, she has an admirable natural talent. She has worked in restaurants up and down the country, has travelled around Turkey and the near east, simply revelling in the food and cooking techniques there. It has stood her in good stead. When we talk to her she is self-effacing and slightly bemused by the attention she’s getting. “I just cook what I like,” she says, “working from what’s available from David and my local suppliers. I make 90% of the decisions and refine the menu all the time, but David trusts me because we both have the same attitude and taste in food.”

And very good taste it is too. Our conversation is cut short because she has to get back to the kitchen and create some more of her wonderful puddings, so I’m certainly not going to stand in her way.

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