The Norfolk Foodie – Galton Blackiston
No series on food and drink in Norfolk would be complete without an interview with Galton Blackiston. Through his own Michelin-starred restaurant, Morston Hall, and latterly No1 Cromer, Galton is deeply embedded in the local food and drink scene. With his passion for Norfolk and its produce regularly broadcast across the country through television screens, Galton has been a leading advocate for all things Norfolk for well over 20 years. With that in mind, I take the opportunity of lockdown to speak to one of, not just Norfolk’s, but the nation’s most endearing chefs.
“Three months into the dream of Morston and a raspberry nearly finished us!” recalls Galton as we chat over the phone – the wonders of the Norfolk internet letting us down for the planned Zoom call. “A devastating review in the early days made me change what I was doing overnight, and I have continued to evolve ever since. That is the wonderful thing about food – you never stop learning and you never stop changing.”
So speaks Galton Blackiston, a chef born and bred in Norfolk and who has won some of the highest accolades in the business. “Even when I had to leave Norfolk, it remained a huge draw for me. It was inevitable that I came back, especially to North Norfolk. I think that when you grow up here, you remain deeply rooted to the county.”
Born in Hainford, Galton grew up attending the local village school before his parents moved to Kent when he was 12 years old. “I was mortified when they said that we were moving,” recounts Galton. “I loved everything about growing up here in Norfolk, and it was a real shock to leave.” However, that decision to leave the county may have set Galton on the path that he is on now. He loved sport and it is no secret that he explored the possibility as a career as a professional cricketer. “I did alright at cricket, and I was also okay at football,” he explains. “I was on the second XI team in Kent for cricket and also the U19 team. I was told after one season – and this was at the time when Kent had a very good county team – that I wasn’t up to the standard that they wanted. I already knew that. You have to not just be talented to be a top sportsman; you also have to be mentally tough. I used to lose concentration all the time – and I knew that I wasn’t cut out to make it to the top in this competitive sport. I don’t regret not furthering my sporting ‘career’ at all.”
Meanwhile, with academia not his thing, Galton’s parents suggested that he turn his attentions to cooking. “The Sunday roast was always a big thing at home,” he explains. “I was always helping prepare the roast and I found cooking both interesting and enjoyable. My mum suggested that maybe I should move into cooking and I listened to her. And it all went from there.”
Galton became a regular fixture at Rye market, holding a stall, Galton’s Goodies, every Thursday. There, he sold cakes and preserves among other homemade items. “Everyone loves homemade produce to this day,” smiles Galton. “Every time the WI have a stall, people are drawn to them. Nothing but nothing beats good homemade produce.”
I ask Galton if that is his ethos still, although naturally on a much more elegant level. “In a manner of speaking, yes,” he replies. “My main ethos, then and now, remains that the food has got to be seasonal. We should only be eating with the seasons; it is so important. That has been one of the worst things about lockdown – we have missed a whole season. We always make such a feature of asparagus, and now we need to wait until next year.
“I used to be all about everything being regional, and as much as I love our regional produce, it is fanciful to think that you can get the best quality for everything you need in my neck of the woods. I want to be able to give the customer the best of what I can get, and that means sourcing the best ingredients. The British Isles remains my main focus when sourcing produce, but sometimes I will get elements from Spain or Italy. It is all about creating the very best meals from seasonal produce for our diners.”
With the ethos of seasonal produce at the heart of Galton’s ideology since he was 17, there is no surprise that he has gone on to become such a champion of that idea this century. Also learned in that time and something that he has carried through his career is the idea of hard work. “Christmas was the best part of the year,” he laughs. “I will never forget it. I used to do Christmas cakes, including making all the royal icing and decorating the cakes. I had an order book and had to make well over 150 Christmas cakes in just two weeks – a very short period of time to make that many cakes. I remember putting the royal icing on cakes until the early hours of the morning!”
Change came when, a year later, Galton’s parents travelled to the Lake District and there they met John Tovey of Miller Howe, set on the banks of Lake Windermere. “It turned out that John was looking for a pastry chef,” recalls Galton. “I went up for the interview – that was a weird one! John sat down and asked if I could recite the recipe for shortcrust pastry which, of course, I could. That was it – I got the job. Miller Howe was a well-known place in its day and while finding the right staff is really hard nowadays, back then John would have had the pick of the bunch.”
Less than seven years later, Galton was head chef at Miller Howe. “I was definitely bitten by the bug at that point,” he explains. “I knew without doubt that being a chef was what I wanted to do. You can see it now – the bright spark coming into the kitchen. For me, there is nothing more fulfilling than to see people going on to do really well, knowing that they have done their grounding at Morston Hall. There have been several who have gone through our kitchens who have gone on to shine. Frantzén in Stockholm, Sweden, has been honoured with being one of the best restaurants in the world and Kate Austen now works there, while Stuart Barber worked for us and is now sous chef at the Fat Duck. And, of, course, there is Richard Bainbridge who now owns his own restaurant, Benedicts, in Norwich.”
It was during his time at Miller Howe that Galton met his wife, Tracy, who was the restaurant manageress. Travels around the world followed – from New York to South Africa, and Canada to London – and then the time came for them to settle.
“I always knew that I wanted to come back to Norfolk,” says Galton. “My parents had, by this point, retired to Blakeney. I always had a hankering to come back to North Norfolk – there is a strong lure that pulls people back. Our decision was confirmed when my parents drove past Morston Hall and saw that it was up for sale – with Harrods Bank, no less. We made an offer but were gazumped, only for it to be offered again for sale the following year. We entered a sealed bid and that was it. Morston was ours.”
Between first spotting Morston Hall and finally getting the keys, Galton and Tracy moved back to the area. That year, Galton spent grounding himself back into the Norfolk way of life, including finding the right suppliers for the produce that he wanted – something that he honed through hosting dinner parties for family and friends. He also joined Cromer Cricket Club, and fully embraced the life that he had left behind as a 12-year old. “That was a year well spent,” Galton fondly recalls. “It laid the foundations so that once we were able to open Morston Hall under our own name, we hit the ground running.”
And that, they certainly did. Within five years of opening Morston Hall, Galton was amazed to receive a Michelin star – something that he has held since 1998. “Honestly, earning a Michelin star never entered my head when we opened Morston Hall,” says Galton. “I just put my head down and wanted to cook; it never entered my mind to cook for Michelin. In 1997 we received the Bib Gourmand, seen as the precursor to receiving a star, which was a great surprise. Then to get the star itself was amazing… And once you have achieved that standard, you don’t want to lose it.”
Galton continues, saying that it grates with him that “some of the young chefs are obsessed with Michelin. For me, the cooking comes first, and it always will. Michelin will follow – not the other way around.”
Since 2015, Galton’s head chef has been Greg Anderson, who originally worked at L’Enclume in Cumbria. “He is fantastic,” enthuses Galton. “He cooks like I do – but with a bit more flair, innovation, and modernity. He is a great guy and a great chef. Since he arrived, we are closer to achieving that second star than ever before.
“People think that doing a pub, restaurant or hotel is something that anyone can do. But it is blooming hard work! It is a great career if you have tunnel vision and want to do your best. You have to be focused, and you have to go in with your eyes open. It is an unsociable job, with long hours, but if you have ambition, then it is a great career. Above all, never stop learning, and never look at the clock – just focus on the task in hand and do it well.
“As a career, it is very, very rewarding and moments such as receiving recognition from your peers reinforces that – not just the Michelin star, which will always remain our proudest moment – but moments such as being invited to be a Fellow of The Master Chefs of Great Britain also stand out. Things continue to happen all the time that amaze me, and it is so hard to pick the ones that stand out. Top chef John Williams has just invited me to join an elite group of chefs, the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. There are some top, top chefs in there and it is an honour to be included in such company.”
Which brings the conversation nicely to the aforementioned raspberry. “I will never forget that – it shook us all so much,” recalls Galton. “It was in the first three months of opening and in one night, we had an inspector in from Egon Ronay, the editor of the Good Food Guide, and the editor of the AA Guide in. Thankfully, we knew nothing about it until we were told the following morning.
“The inspector from Egon Ronay was a chap called Tom Jaine, who also wrote for The Sunday Telegraph. We received a call asking if they could come and take photographs, and they then ran a review. The opening line was ‘A raspberry in your starter?’ and the whole article ridiculed everything that we did. At that time, I was still cooking essentially the same food I had made at Miller Howe – and by the mid-90s, this was already very old-fashioned. I am pretty sure that the starter in question was melon with a raspberry puree and fresh raspberries, and then topped with champagne at the table. I also recall I did lavender roast potatoes at that time; the review said that they ‘smelt and tasted like the drawers of a National Trust wardrobe’. What a comment!”
Showing great tenacity, Galton and his team took the devastation that they felt at such a review and turned it around. “It can go one of two ways, something like this,” explains Galton. “Essentially, either they are wrong, or I am wrong. I read the review and decided to change what I was doing. Bear in mind, I had never been to catering college and had just picked up my style along the way. The next day, I went out and bought all of the Roux brothers cookery books and I read and re-read them, absorbing the elements of classical French cooking. I literally changed the way that I cooked overnight.”
Such boldness and ability to change would later result in Morston Hall receiving 9.75/10, twice, from restaurant critic Matthew Norman in The Times and The Telegraph. Since those early days, Galton says that they have been in every paper and food publication going, regularly being awarded honours and accolades along the way. These include Galton being voted Newcomer of the Year by the Caterer Awards, beating some big names in the process, and also Hotel and Restaurant Chef of the Year by the Craft Guild of Chefs. In addition, Morston Hall is regularly named in the top 100 places to eat in the UK, this last year being in the top 50.
Naturally, media recognition followed, and Galton has become a familiar face on our television screens, especially with his friend James Martin. “I enjoy it now,” grins Galton. “I know what I am doing cooking-wise, and I think if you can just come across with a sense of humour and not take yourself too seriously, then people like you. I do get on extraordinarily well with James and we have had some great adventures together.”
In spite of all this success and television appearances, Galton remains firmly dedicated to, and involved with, Norfolk. Every other weekend during the season, when he can, he will be found at Carrow Road, watching his beloved Canaries. Indeed, it was here that a new idea was born – that of No1 Cromer. “I was at a football match and was asked the question about opening another Morston – the most-asked question in my career, I think!” explains Galton. “I have always said that, while I am not likely to do ever another Morston Hall – although never say never – I replied that fish and chips interested me. I said that more to stop the conversation than anything else – but that was it and it all went from there!
“Nearly three weeks later, we looked at a really dilapidated building in Cromer, that had the most amazing space inside, plus nearly every window overlooked the sea along with brilliant views of the Pier. Tracy could immediately see the potential, and with those views, it was a no brainer. We opened summer 2013.”
No1 has a record that most restaurants would be envious of: Galton famously posted a photograph of the queues to Instagram last August and many of his Michelin-decorated peers commented. “We did over 3,000 fish and chips in one day that summer – it was amazing!” Galton laughs. “At times, we had to have 90 staff in at one time to meet demand. I guess you can say that it was my Forest Gump moment – fish and chips! Who would have thought…? And No1 Cromer I would do again, but it would have to have a view of the sea.”
Our conversation moves on to lockdown – something that has affected us all, and with the full impact on the hospitality industry yet to be seen. “No1 is now open for takeaways,” says Galton. “The weather has been so good lately, and it is still extremely popular. We only allow two people in at a time, and there is 2m distancing in place at all times. It has been great to get behind the fryers and cooking again.
“I look at what is happening in Europe right now with social distancing, and I am fanciful that we can follow what they are doing – albeit a few weeks behind them. They now have 1m distancing, and if we were able to do that, Morston Hall would not be affected as our dining area is so spread out. We have all the sanitising equipment, and I think that people will trust us. Naturally, we will be flexible so if people wanted to eat outside, they could, and I think that is the way we all need to be. I think that people will be cautious to begin with – but at the same time, we all want some normality back in our lives. I will never try to chase what we have lost these last few months. I don’t think that is possible. It is all about looking ahead.”
Galton adds: “On a wider scale, particularly in London, there will be a lot of places, pubs and restaurants, that don’t survive the effects of this pandemic. They have to pay such high rents, and all their costs are so much higher. London is the epicentre of the British food scene, and there are going to be horrible times for a lot of people. It will have a massive impact.”
Discussion then moves on to the proposed changes in the Agriculture Bill that would have guaranteed high standards for food and drink imported to the UK. “The biggest problem is that people won’t look at quality, they look at price, and that is where the problems start,” says Galton. “I always buy from a butcher, a fishmonger, a greengrocer etc, and I know that many do. But there are a great many more who go for the cheapest price because they cannot afford to do otherwise.
“I would love to think that, due to lockdown and people using more of the businesses on their own doorsteps, that they will become more self-sufficient and less reliant on supermarkets. Why do they sell Danish bacon when the pork reared here is so good? That is just one example. I did a programme a few years ago with James on hospital food, and I was shocked by what I saw – a hospital in Wales, with lamb on the hills outside, serving New Zealand lamb inside, while a hospital in Birmingham used milk sachets imported from Malaysia!
“I am truly shocked by the prospect of chlorinated chicken being imported to the UK, and I just hope that things may begin to change for the better but we need to insist on using our own local produce. I know that price is a factor for many, but it is so much better for a family to eat one piece of local, well-reared meat once a week than to eat imported produce where you don’t know its life-cycle. Always, always eat seasonal, and check where your food has come from.”
To reinforce this aspect even more in the menus at Morston Hall, a kitchen garden has been fully built by head gardener Lucy Birnie over the last two years in 10 big raised beds. “The plan was that we would have most, if not all, the fresh produce that we needed for the kitchen throughout the year,” says Galton. “With the restaurant being closed, a lot of this has ended up in the freezer. We have a lot of parsley oil and are now making a lot of elderflower cordial. I would like to use that in a welcome drink when we can reopen Morston. We are constantly adapting, and doing things slightly differently, developing new ideas along the way.”
And so our conversation comes full circle, back to Norfolk once more. Galton is very self-depreciating when it comes to his achievements, although he acknowledges that his longevity with Morston Hall – now in its 27th year – has inevitably led to his being viewed as an integral part of the Norfolk food and drink community.
“I am very proud of Norfolk,” says Galton. “There are some incredibly good eateries dotted all around Norfolk, and as a county we have two Michelin star restaurants, the other being The Neptune. Cambridge has one, while Suffolk doesn’t have any. I think that we are definitely there or thereabouts when you look at how Norfolk fits into the UK food scene as a whole.
“I also think that you can go and eat extraordinarily well throughout Norfolk – and I don’t just mean in terms of places with lots of awards to their name. I am as happy at the XO Kitchen at The Artichoke, enjoying Jimmy Preston’s food, who was head chef at No1, as I am at many one-Michelin star restaurants.”
I press Galton on what he loves about Norfolk so much. He pauses, and then says: “Its laidback-ness. And you get all four seasons beautifully in Norfolk; we have a summer that is better than most of the rest of the UK. I love the open skies, and the flatness. And I also love that there is no motorway – you have to come and find us!
“As for my favourite aspects of Norfolk – definitely Carrow Road is my favourite place. The beach has to be Cromer – there is a really lovely walk from West Runton to Cromer when the tide is out. For pub, I would go with the Duck Inn at Stanhoe. And as for restaurant – that is a difficult one. I have enjoyed talking to the guys at Maison Bleu in Bury St Edmunds, and there’s also Kevin and Jackie from The Neptune Inn in Hunstanton – he is a lovely guy. I have also really got into Royal Norwich Golf Club, which opened earlier this year. The golf course itself is exemplary, and the potential of the restaurant side is amazing. And Rebecca at Old Hall Farm is good, too, with what she is doing.
“I also enjoy being able to join in the shooting season. As a chef, we use a lot of game on our menus. It is a sustainable food that is cheap and lean, and not a lot of people can cook it well. We have excellent game here in Norfolk, and I love to cook with it.”
I ask Galton which of his early dishes stand out for him, the ones that have stood the test of time. “Most of our fish dishes have evolved,” he explains. “I did a wild sea bass 20 years ago with a mushroom duxelles and a citrus beurre blanc. I would happily put that on the menu again now – it is so simple and delicious. Then there are things such as a lemon tart or a tarte tatin. And, of course, my egg custard tart! Marcus Wareing stole that recipe from me and won The Great British Menu with it!
“As for food, I love to cook with, lamb is my all-time favourite meat, be it a rack, rolled, or a leg. And of course, I love fish. Seasonally, right now, we have the first of the samphire coming in, and the Sharrington strawberries are amazing in both savoury and sweet dishes. I love a new potato, too. It is so humble, and yet it does so much. This is the best time of year for fresh produce.”
Pressed about his highlight over the years – awards, television, or even the four recipe books that he has published – Galton talks about the charity dinner he and his fellow chefs did for East Anglian Children’s Hospices, which raised £400,000. Held at Houghton Hall in June 2016, the menu was a celebration of Norfolk produce, and Galton says it was an honour to be so involved.
Looking ahead, Galton plans to continue what he is doing and to continue to improve upon the standards Morston Hall and No1 have created. “I may even do something away from Morston,” says Galton. “People keep saying James and I should do something together – and I could show him how to cook properly!
“At Morston, we have a good team around us, one that is full of creativity. Greg is extremely good at what he does, and he is a very humble chef. He buys so many cookbooks from around the world, and garners knowledge all the time – the same as I did 27 years ago with the Roux books. It is all the little things, such as perfecting our own sourdough recipe. We used to offer six or seven different flavours, but now we just do beer and treacle or plain rye. Both are unique and different.”
As our conversation draws to a close, so Galton goes back to talking about the sea. “Being by the sea and being able to walk along the coast with my dog is a great thing to be able to do. If I have had a bad day or need some space, that is where I head to. I also have a boat, and I love to be able to take that out.”
Finally, I ask Galton to sum up all that he does in one sentence, and he says:
“Consistent, quality, eclectic, seasonal, value for money – and Norfolk by the sea.”
And with that, our call is over. Galton may not view himself as someone at the heart of the Norfolk food and drink community, but there is little doubt that he has helped press produce from the county firmly into the minds of those who watch cookery programmes on a regular basis. Add in the influence that he has had on so many chefs across Norfolk – and beyond – and it is clear to see that Galton’s gentle manner hides the true determination within.