Buying a Christmas tree and choosing decorations can be tiring, especially with kids in tow and the Little House of Cooking at Blackthorpe Barn in Rougham offers a welcome respite for hungry shoppers who come here to enjoy the ever-growing Christmas shop, craft fairs and walks through the estate woods.
Now in its second year, and run by Ruth Bolton (formerly of The Chalice restaurant in Bury St Edmunds) and her niece, Afiya who flew in from Barbuda especially, customers can enjoy a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie at the original Little House of Cooking caravan outside in the yard at Blackthorpe Barn or sit down at the cafe inside the main barn which serves two kinds of soup per day and small lunches such Welsh rarebit, bacon rolls or avo on toast.
Scones are baked daily as are a plethora of cakes, pastries and biscuits and customers with food intolerances have a decent choice: date, apple and apricot slices and citrus, almond and polenta cakes are just two of the dairy or gluten-free items on the menu whilst the ginger, molasses and orange cake’s rich and Christmassy flavours are a modern alternative to Christmas fruit cake. There’s the classics too: coffee and walnut cake, fruited cakes, Victoria sponge, and daily specials such as pecan pies (I loved Ruth’s version and I am very fussy about this southern speciality) and super moon biscuits. “I love baking and do as much of it myself as possible,”Ruth says. “I also employ a local young lady who is a trained pastry chef and she bakes for me every day, too.”
On warmer days, Ruth and her daughters Alice and Scarlett get the Dancette record player out and serve customers from the caravan to the sound of Mrs Mills records. “It generally gets very busy, especially when the Christmas tree sales start,” Ruth tells me adding that “if you get a seat at the table you might get offered a cheeky cherry brandy in a proper glass.” For drivers, there’s hot spiced apple juice. The blend of vintage royal china, the cheery livery of the caravan and the green of the Christmas trees as families drag them across the courtyard to be netted and then roped onto car roofs is a quintessentially seasonal scene and one of my Christmas highlights.
Blackthorpe Barn’s Christmas event has grown over the years to become one of the most popular destinations for locals. Ruth used to provide the catering for the Christmas craft weekends between 1995-2005 in the days before the Blackthorpe Christmas shop opened and then handed over to another caterer before returning last year to take over the newly-enlarged cafe space which holds a 5 star hygiene rating.
“I think people enjoy the fact that all of our food is truly home-made and tasty,” Ruth says, telling me about her customer base which is extraordinarily broad, ranging from lycra-clad cyclists who walk in famished and entire families on an afternoon out, to people with food allergies and intolerances who seem to appreciate the no-fuss way they are catered to. This lovely old flint-walled cafe filled with the scent of good cooking perfectly compliments the glitter and pageantry of Christmas.
Blackthorpe Barn’s Christmas Festival runs until December 22 and the cafe is open during those hours.
-- Nicola Miller is author of the The Millers Tale blog.