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In idyllic East Anglian countryside, chef Galton Blackiston has held a Michelin star at Morston Hall for more than 20 years – not bad for a boy who seemed destined for the crease, not the kitchen, says Alex Mead
It’s not only on the best of mornings that Galton Blackiston is reminded of his enduring passion for his home county of Norfolk – it’s every morning. ‘We’ve got a cocker spaniel and the first thing I do when I wake up is let the dog out,’ he says. ‘I did it earlier and could hear geese come over the top, thousands of them. It’s a racket, but a beautiful racket. That’s the sort of thing I really enjoy, when you know you’re in the countryside. I’m a countryside person.
‘It’s so laid-back here,’ he goes on, ‘and it hasn’t changed too much over the years. There’s no motorway in Norfolk, that’s the appeal. Some say it’s to the detriment of it, but I saw how the Lake District changed dramatically when you started to get day trippers from places like Blackpool and Manchester.
‘There’s nothing wrong with it, but in places like Windermere and Bowness they’re now absolutely heaving, whereas here I could still take you around this coast in the summer – when it’s at its busiest – and you’ll find places where there’s not a soul to be seen.’
Blackiston is to Norfolk what Rick Stein is to Cornwall, Nigel Haworth is to Lancashire and Michael Caines and Mitch Tonks are to Devon – voices of their culinary counties, championing every root, shoot, fish or fowl that hails from the place they call home.
Whenever you’d see him on Great British Menu, MasterChef, Saturday or Market Kitchen, Blackiston would extol the virtues of the place where he’s maintained a Michelin star at Morston Hall since 1998. Service began at what was then a four-bedroomed country bolthole in 1992, and it signalled not only Blackiston and wife Tracy’s first joint solo venture, but a homecoming for the chef.
‘I was born and bred in Norfolk, but then we moved as a family to Kent,’ he explains. ‘I was the youngest of five boys, so family cooking always played a big part at home, in particular Sunday lunchtimes, but the most important part then for me is the same today – desserts and puddings.
‘I’ve always had a sweet tooth. Mum used to make a really boozy trifle and apple pie, things that were simple and homey.’
Blackiston may have first learnt his trade at his mother’s stove, but cooking was never on his career radar. ‘I left school to play cricket,’ he says. ‘Having a name like Galton Blackiston [after 19th-century anthropologist Sir Francis Galton] was a disaster at school, so I immersed myself in sport, and I still do.
‘I was taken on by Kent [County Cricket Club] as youngster, and spent 18 months with them, but I wasn’t good enough.
‘You can be good at sport, but to be professional, you have to be extraordinary to make it. When I was told I was not good enough, my mum was pragmatic and said, “well, you’re not academic, what are you good at?” Cooking.’
To get up and running, Blackiston headed back to the kitchen he knew best – his mum’s – where he started baking and making preserves for his first outlet. ‘It was called Galton’s Goodies, and it was a stall at Rye market,’ he says. ‘It was my mum’s idea and I made cakes, biscuits, pies – it was really successful. I remember one December, I’d been selling Christmas cakes, but people wanted icing on them and it had to be royal icing.
‘To get it all done in time, I was up in the early hours and late at night icing these cakes, which is not easy to do.’
The 17-year-old Blackiston did, however, have one teacher to help him out. ‘Geraldene Holt’s books were my bibles,’ he says. ‘I must have made every recipe from her books on cakes.’
On a trip to the Lake District, his parents then stumbled upon Blackiston’s next career move.
‘When they were there, by chance, John Tovey [of hotel Miller Howe on the Lake in Bowness] was looking for a youngster to train in pastry and I applied and got the job. I’ve never been to college,’ says Blackiston. ‘And now I’m one of the few chefs who was never college trained, Raymond Blanc is another, and I think it can be an advantage.
‘I think colleges have a great role, a huge role to play, but there are colleges and there are colleges, and learning at the coalface is not to be sniffed at.
‘I was prepared to start at the bottom, learn through the school of hard knocks. Now you have students coming to us from Oakham and Arundel, private schools, and I just think “oh my god, your parents spent a small fortune on your education and now you’re here!’’’
Blackiston worked his way up to head chef, and was also sent out to experience kitchens across the world. ‘We were ambassadors for British Airways, and they were sending us out to fly the flag for British cooking, that it’s not just rotten cabbage and overcooked beef,’ he laughs.
The programme took him to Canada, South Africa, London and New York, with the last having one major impact on him. ‘I was at a very smart hotel called The Pierre, and they had these extraordinary functions which always featured a giant ice carving – the work that goes into them is amazing,’ he says. ‘We brought that idea back to the Lake District and rather than just have butter, we made swans out of butter! It’s incredibly hard to do but they were great, I thought about doing them here.’
Blackiston and Tracy – who he’d met in Lake District, she was his restaurant manager – opened Morston Hall in 1992, having bought it from two retired silversmiths. The concept then is the same as it is now: a tasting menu of the best seasonal produce. ‘I was on my own in the kitchen so it made sense to just use the best fresh produce and have a no-choice menu.
‘It was pretty basic to begin with, though. People were very sceptical about what we were serving, but when you look at it now, we were pioneers of the tasting menu. It was only four courses then, we now do eight, but it’s the same concept.
‘Of course, back then the
only option was meat or no
meat, whereas now dietary
requirements play a major part
of it all, you have to be so
careful, it impacts on every
single service, so you have
to be on the ball.’
Although winning awards and plaudits from the year it opened, not everyone loved what they found at Morston Hall. ‘In the first three months of us being open, we got hit with AA, Michelin and somebody through Egon Ronay, all in on same night. A Good Food inspector also came in. I’ll never forget it. He doubled up as a writer for the Sunday Telegraph, and he just ripped to shreds everything I did.
‘You can take criticism like that one or two ways,’ continues Blackiston. ‘You can say “he’s wrong, I’m right”, and carry on as you were, or you admit there’s something you’re doing not right. I took the latter approach and I immersed myself in classic French cooking, and who does it better than Michel Roux Snr, so I read every one of his books. He’s been iconic all throughout my career, I’ve hero-worshipped him – he’s the Alex Ferguson of cooking.’
The study of his hero, like that of Holt, paid off and he was awarded 9.5 by Matthew Norman in The Telegraph. ‘He came back a year later to see if lightning would strike again, says Blackiston, ‘and it did.’
A Michelin star arrived in 1999 [that is yet to leave the building], the first book in 2002 [Cooking at Morston Hall] and an appearance on the first-ever Great British Menu in 2006 was followed by countless others.
SURF AND TURF
Blackiston was part of a golden generation of chefs that shaped the modern dining scene, and a group that remains close.
‘I love being outside and I’ve got into shooting big time, he says. ‘I think game is really underused. It’s sustainable, it’s good for you, but it’s not used enough by chefs, so we started a chef syndicate.
‘Once a year, we meet for a shoot. This year we had a collection of Michelin star chefs – Sat Bains, Tom Kerridge, Claude Bosi, Paul Ainsworth, James Martin – and we went to North Wales, stayed in a castle and had a day’s shooting. Every bird shot went back to a restaurant and we all left with car boots full of game.”
When not shooting the breeze (and birds) with fellow gastronomic game-changers, Blackiston has his hands full with not only the 14-bedroom Morston Hall, but No.1 Cromer, his fish and chip shop on the Norfolk coast. ‘People asked us all the time whether we’d do another Morston Hall, but we always shied away from it because we’re not that business orientated. Off the cuff I once said the only thing that interests me is fish and chips.
‘Three weeks later, people came over and asked us to look at this place in the seaside town of Cromer, which never had the best reputation, but was one of the few towns with a working pier show.
‘This building was huge, with every window overlooking the sea. It was a run-down café – dilapidated but beautiful. I’d never done fish and chips, but it was a no-brainer.’ Opened five years ago, it now has 84 seats downstairs, 68 upstairs and, at times, is bursting at the seams. ‘In August, we did 3,000 covers in one day,’ he says.
A development kitchen and an unconfirmed project involving the National Lottery Heritage Fund are just two of the items on Blackiston’s agenda. Even after almost three decades of running his own show with Tracy, he’s showing no signs of letting the grass grow. ‘From the day I started cooking, I’ve never not been in love with it,’ he says. ‘Even now, the passion is still there and I’ve got the fire in the belly, in fact I think I’m cooking better now than ever before.’
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