A taste for adventure
PUBLISHED: 12:03 01 December 2015 | UPDATED: 12:03 01 December 2015
Tessa Allingham dines at Pea Porridge in Bury St Edmunds, where simplicity and flavour triumph over fashion and fads
In these hipster days of cooking over flames, getting down and dirty with ingredients, and eschewing foamy flimflam in favour of simplicity and punchy taste, Justin Sharp is right on trend.
Even his Shoreditchy beard is on trend. Scan his menu and that too hits the sweet spot. There’s offal in many a brave guise, locally-shot game, vegetables pulled from the allotment. And then there’s Bertha, his handsome wood-fired oven.
For all of the above, Justin is quick to dismiss the idea that Pea Porridge and he as a chef is in any way slave to media-fuelled culinary fashion or fad. No, he insists, his menu and his way of cooking is a reflection of him as an adventurous, confident chef, someone who wants to bring the food he loves to his loyal customers. And anyway he’s always cooked this sort of food, he tells me bluntly.
Much of the menu is packed with Middle Eastern flavours, using the sort of muscular spices that demand a spellcheck (think za’atar, dukkah, ras el hanout, sumac), or gentler Mediterranean tastes. You just know that a fish stew will be an abundant bowlful of octopus, clams, mussels and shrimps with just the right amount of poke from chorizo and piquillo peppers, and the right amount of soothe from sweet datterini tomatoes and new potatoes. You can bet your bottom dollar that the sesame seed and coriander labneh – a Middle Eastern fresh cheese – will be the perfect sweet-sour partner to rich kibbeh (crisp-fried, torpedo-shaped nuggets of Lebanese-spiced pigeon, rabbit or lamb), and that that scattering of dukkah (a blend of nuts and spices typically used in Egyptian cooking) will give it the right finish.
We start with a Russian roulette of Padron peppers, roasted in Bertha’s fiery cast-iron insides. About one in ten of these innocuous looking mini peppers is palate-scorching hot. There are six on the skewer, skin-charred and sea salt-studded. We get away with it and finish the plate wanting more, but Justin brings us a blackened leek instead. It looks inedible.
“It’s been roasted in Bertha’s ashes,” he explains with a hint of mischief. But the incinerated outer leaves are removed to reveal tender, pale green, inner leaves. The leek is cut in three and served on pile of lentils braised with finely chopped onion and carrot, tiny capers and aniseedy tarragon. Garlicky, lemony, herby gremolata finishes a memorably simple dish. And so it goes on. Bertha is not Justin’s only source of heat, but he reckons to cook about 50% of his menu in her belly.
“Cooking in Bertha is basically like cooking on an indoor barbecue,” he says. “I’ve played around a lot with the heat levels and what fuel to burn, and have realised what an incredibly versatile piece of kit she is.” He will crank up the heat to sear an Aberdeen Angus flatiron steak in seconds, or let the embers die down a bit and cook vegetables direct on the ashy coals, or braise meat slowly, make a warming, creamy four-hour rice pudding, bake focaccia, cook scallops in their shell . . . Bertha’s fuel is supplied by local charcoal-burner Graham Sayell, who manages woodland around Hadleigh and supplies Justin with a mix of charcoal and logs.
“I’m not after a full-on smoky flavour, just a subtle depth, and I find using both logs and charcoal achieves that best,” Justin says.
Pea Porridge may be tucked away down a central Bury St Edmunds residential street, but it is a restaurant that has caught the eye of the national guides since opening in 2009. Michelin has awarded it a Bib Gourmand for its “good food at moderate prices” for five years running, the only place in town to have that accolade.
Justin and his wife Jurga’s outlook stretches way beyond the confines of their busy Bury kitchen too. Days off are spent eating around Shoreditch, Hackney, London Fields, Soho. They love the unfussy atmosphere, the small plate menus and interesting, often natural, wines served in places like Duck Soup, or Brawn and its sister restaurants, Terroirs and Soif.
“It’s much nicer to be in a busy restaurant that offers straightforward tasty food than in a high-end but half-empty place. It’s not really a fashion thing at all in my opinion. It just makes sense, and it’s been my ethos right from the start.”
Pea Porridge 28-29 Cannon St, Bury Saint Edmunds IP33 1JR