Ringing the changes at Saxmundham

PUBLISHED: 08:46 29 April 2014 | UPDATED: 08:46 29 April 2014

Chef and owner of The Bell Hotel in Saxmundham Johnny Nicholson creates dishes using local asparagus in his kitchen.

Chef and owner of The Bell Hotel in Saxmundham Johnny Nicholson creates dishes using local asparagus in his kitchen.

The Bell at Sax was closed and unloved until Jonny Nicholson and partner Natalie took it in under their wing. Tessa Allingham joined them for some new season asparagus

Chef and owner of The Bell Hotel in Saxmundham Johnny Nicholson creates dishes using local asparagus in his kitchen.Chef and owner of The Bell Hotel in Saxmundham Johnny Nicholson creates dishes using local asparagus in his kitchen.

When Mrs Simper popped into the Bell one morning in late March, she made head chef Jonny Nicholson a very happy man indeed.

She came with a box of asparagus, some of the first of the season, and this year – thanks to the mild winter and a bit of protection – a good four weeks before the official St George’s Day start of the six-week season.

Jonny didn’t think twice about what to do with the spears. He moves deftly round his kitchen, working fast and talking fast as he jiggles a pan, bends for an ingredient, curses a burnt finger.

“It’s rare for asparagus and blood oranges to be available at the same time, so I’m serving them with a sauce maltaise [hollandaise with the zing yaddition of blood oranges], and pan-fried wild sea trout with gremolata.”

The Bell Hotel in Saxmundham. Jonathan Nicholson and Natalie Ager.The Bell Hotel in Saxmundham. Jonathan Nicholson and Natalie Ager.

Hours, barely, after being cut from the Simpers’ beds – Clare Simper and her husband Jonathan grow around 200 acres of asparagus in the well-drained light soil around the River Deben – the spears lie in an orderly, vivid green row on the plate. They’ve been trimmed, blanched, plunged into ice water to halt cooking and preserve colour, then heated through at the last minute with butter, a squeeze of lemon juice and seasoning.

“Lovely,” Jonny pre-empts my words, as we taste the dish together, the asparagus still firm under the knife, the pattern of the tips still defined.

“Such a fabulous ingredient, I love the way asparagus works equally well with sharp flavours or cheesy flavours. It’s fantastic wrapped in Parma ham and chargrilled, and I love it cold with a vinaigrette made with sherry and

walnut oil and a few shallots.”

He and his second Wayne have had a busy service, turning out around 30 lunches, mainly to walk-ins. He seems glad to take a break and graciously acknowledges feedback – “jolly good grub, thank you,” says one customer – from the last people to leave the dining room.

Jonny has been at the stove at the Bell at Sax’, as he’s renamed this High Street eaterie, since November last year with his partner, Natalie, running the front of house team. It’s an imposing, high-ceilinged Victorian building that had been shut, unloved and brown-carpeted, for six months before he and Natalie were tempted to bring it back to life.

They did some swift redecorating in the bar, two dining rooms and 10 bedrooms, and put together a menu and a ‘message’ that they hope will attract locals year round and holiday makers in season.

“We see this place as a neighbourhood ‘restaurant with rooms’, not a hotel [listed building regulations mean the ‘hotel’ sign on the front cannot be removed], or a gastropub,” Jonny explains. “I want to cook food that is of course local and seasonal but also really good value. There’s no need to sting people!”

True to his promise, there’s a ‘two-courses for £10’ offer at certain times of the week, and a pot-luck supper, including a pint or glass of house wine, is a £10 option on Sundays and Mondays – it might be a cheffy shepherds pie made with slow-braised lamb, or a hearty oxtail stew. A la carte, starters are around the £5 mark, mains average £10, and all puddings are £4.95.

Jonny is no newcomer to a ‘revival’ project like this. The Carlton Manor hotel was in a sorry state before he took over and he turned the George at Cavendish into an acclaimed gastropub.

Other career highlights include surviving the rigours of being Marco Pierre White’s senior chef during his two-Michelin starred Harvey’s days, heading up brigades at Conran Group restaurants such as Pont de la Tour and Bluebird, and earning three AA rosettes at Congham Hall, north Norfolk. Most recently he managed Southwold Pier, ending a two-year tenure there the day before he took the keys to the Bell.

Clearly not one to hang around, Jonny has been quick to line up some of the region’s top suppliers.

Simpers of Suffolk provides oysters and mussels as well as asparagus; he goes to Clarkes at Bramfield for meat which might appear on the spring menu as Darsham Red Poll ribeye or sirloin steak with hand-cut chips, or the popular roast confit spring lamb with parsnip mash, curly kale and rosemary jus.

Pork is from Blythburgh, and much of the cheese is local, a baked Brie with cranberry chutney starter made with Baron Bigod cheese, and the cheeseboard including the likes of Shipcord and Suffolk Gold.

We finish talking and Jonny heads quickly back into the kitchen. It’s not long till dinner service and there’s fresh asparagus to trim.



Asparagus and mussel linguine (serves 4)


1kg of mussels

1 small onion, roughly diced

1 peeled garlic clove, sliced

75ml dry Vermouth

2 bunches asparagus

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced

2 cloves garlic, squashed

herb stalks such as parsley and thyme

vegetable trimmings (eg fennel bulb, celery, leek)

butter to sweat vegetables

Dried linguine (my favourite is De Cecco)

unsalted butter or local rapeseed oil

125ml dry white wine

250ml double cream

150g of spinach leaf

zest and juice of one lemon

chopped chives to garnish

salt and pepper


Put the cleaned, debearded mussels (discard any that do not close with a tap) in a large, very hot pan. Add the onion, garlic and Vermouth and cover immediately. Leave on a high heat for 2-3 minutes, depending on how powerful your stove is, shaking the pan every minute. Take care not to overcook them! Once the mussels are all cooked and open (discard any odd closed ones), pour them into a colander set over a bowl to catch the stock. Pick out the mussels, remove the empty half of the shells, keeping the meats in the other half. Set aside.

Snap off the woody bases of the asparagus spears and set aside. Cut off the tips of each spear so you end up with three piles: tips, middles and woody bases.

Over a medium heat, melt butter in a deep pan with a lid and sweat off the onion, garlic cloves, woody asparagus bases, herb stalks and vegetable trimmings. Cook till softened but avoid browning the vegetables as it spoils the colour and flavour of the stock. Set aside.

Cook the pasta till al dente while continuing the recipe below. Drain, glaze with unsalted butter or local rapeseed oil, season to taste and set aside in a warm place.

Meanwhile measure the mussel stock and top up with boiling water to 500ml. Add to the pan with the vegetables, along with the white wine. Boil uncovered until the liquid reduces by half, stirring occasionally. Roughly slice the asparagus middles and add to the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook until the asparagus middles are just tender.

In a separate covered pan, blanch the asparagus tips until just tender, drain and keep warm.

Meanwhile, add the double cream to the vegetables, bring back to a simmer, stir in the spinach and take off the hob straightaway. With a hand-blender, process the soup until smooth, mix in zest, lemon juice and seasoning to taste, and strain through a fine sieve. Keep warm.

To serve, reheat the sauce and fold in the half-shelled mussel meats. Ladle the soup over the pasta and garnish with the asparagus tips and chives.


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