Marcus Janssen travelled to Morston Hall in Norfolk to meet the Michelin-starred chef who is encouraging other gastronomes to take up game shooting.
Have you heard about the 12 Michelin-starred team of Guns? I'm serious; it includes Michel Roux (Waterside Inn, 3 stars), Sat Bains (Restaurant Sat Bains, 2 stars), Claude Bosi (Hibiscus, 2 stars), Brett Graham (The Ledbury, 2 stars), Tom Kerridge (The Hand and Flowers, 2 stars), James Martin (Saturday Kitchen) and Mark Edwards (Nobu, London), who all get together for a day's driven shooting in Norfolk each year. Can you imagine what the shoot catering must be like? Not a pork pie or sausage roll in sight.
Well, the man behind this quite remarkable congregation of firearm-toting gastronomic big guns is Galton Blackiston, the award-winning chef-proprietor of Morston Hall, who happens to be an über-keen game Shot. Indeed, having found himself immersed in the world of driven shooting in rural Norfolk over the past 23 years, he is now on a mission to share his passion with both his customers and fellow chefs alike.
“I really am quite passionate about it,” he said over a coffee in the sun-drenched conservatory overlooking Morston Hall's manicured lawns, “and want to get the message across that shooting and food really do go hand-in-hand. So, I had this idea to get a group of chefs together for a day's shooting in the hope that they would enjoy it and begin to understand the important role that it plays in the countryside. And I think it has worked.” Indeed, from what I can tell, most of the chefs who have shot with Galton are now shooting mad.
Although he spent the first 12 years of his life in Norfolk, his family uprooted to Kent in 1975 after his father was promoted to director of the oil company he worked for. “So that's where I went to school,” says Galton. “And the only thing I really enjoyed at school was sport.”
Indeed he excelled at cricket and was taken on by Kent to play for their under-19 team. But after one season, whilst he did pretty well and averaged 30 or 40 with the bat, they were looking for guys who were making regular centuries, so they let him go.
So, having not been particularly academic at school, his mum prompted him to consider taking up cooking, something he had always enjoyed. “Having had no formal training, I decided to do a market stall,” he explains. “Every Thursday I would take two trestle tables full of homemade cakes and biscuits to our local market in Rye on the Kent/Sussex border. I would make my fruitcakes in advance because they would keep, and I'd make my sponges and scones the night before. And it was an instant success – they always sold out.”
Galton continued to run his market stall for about six months until his parents went up to the Lake District for a holiday and stayed in the well-known Miller Howe, owned by John Tovey, and discovered that they were looking for a young pastry chef. So, again encouraged by his parents, he applied and, because he could recite the recipe for shortcrust pastry off the top of his head in the interview, he got the job, despite having had no formal training. And within eight years, he had worked his way up the ranks to head chef.
But having never really travelled outside the UK, Galton then got itchy feet and headed for the U.S. and South Africa to broaden his culinary horizons before eventually moving back to the Lake District. “But I had always had these yearnings to move back to Norfolk,” he says. As children he and his family (he has four brothers) spent their summer holidays at the Watch House near Blakeney. “It was magical,” he says with obvious nostalgia, “and it was there that I actually made my first forays into cookery – I would go shrimping, cockling and try to catch flatfish.”
And so, after a 20-year hiatus, the draw of Norfolk finally proved too strong and Galton returned with his wife Tracy and bought the then very run-down Morston Hall in Morston Quay. And the rest, as they say, is history. That was in 1992 and they have never looked back.
“I love my life here,” he says. “I am very biased, but this north Norfolk coast in particular is really beautiful. Although I didn't originally set out to be a chef, I am happy that I managed to find something that I am half decent at,” he says with genuine modesty. Indeed, he also never set out to win a Michelin Star but has held one since 1998.
Galton believes that the UK's culinary landscape has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. “I would say that people are definitely more open-minded, educated and are far more willing to try new things. Provenance, seasonality, quality; people didn't give a toss about these things 20 years ago, but they do now. But these things have always been important to me, particularly here in Norfolk where we simply have to work with the seasons.”
He describes his cooking as modern (he has a state of the art kitchen with full induction hobs, water baths, convection ovens etc.) but with a strong focus on fresh, local, seasonal produce. Indeed his seven-course degustation menu at Morston, which changes every night of the week, always reflects this passion for local and seasonal ingredients. “We have such a fantastic natural larder here,” he says with unbridled passion, “world class seafood, wonderful venison, hare, pheasant, partridge, wild duck, woodcock, snipe, you name it.”
Galton's culinary affinity with game and wild ingredients stems as much from his love of cooking as it does from his deep-seated love of wildlife and the outdoors. “I'm not a twitcher,” he says, “but I just appreciate nature in all of its forms. I have always been able to identify different species of plant, bird and mammal.”
And with his return to rural Norfolk and his burgeoning reputation among East Anglia's foodies, Galton found that more and more shooting parties were coming in for their annual shoot suppers. Over time, he has crossed paths with some of the great and the good of Norfolk's shooting fraternity, including David Flux who Galton says was instrumental in his introduction to game shooting. “I expressed an interest,” he says, “and was duly invited for a day. So I got myself a shotgun certificate and went along. I can't say I shot particularly well, but I really did love it and couldn't wait to try it again. That was it, I was hooked.”
Through shooting, Galton has become firm friends with a number of keen Shots who have all been incredibly generous. “Although I did my best to reciprocate by cooking dinners for my hosts, I decided to start taking a day or two each year on a friend's shoot so that I could return the favour.” Which, incidentally, is how the chefs' shoot came about.
“I wanted to share my love of shooting and the countryside with as many chefs as possible because, as chefs, we have a responsibility to get the message across to our customers how important the game season is,” he adds. “And only through shooting do you really begin to understand the importance of this resource, not just in terms of food, but the role that it plays in rural communities and conservation. So we should all be cooking, serving and eating a lot more game in the UK.”
Amen to that.
Click HERE for Galton's delicious partridge terrine recipe
FISH AND CHIPS, TOO
If you find yourself on the north Norfolk coast near Cromer, make sure you look out for Number 1 Cromer, Galton's new fish and chip restaurant. With 80 seats upstairs and a further 80 downstairs, they get through two tonnes of potatoes and average over 1,000 covers a day! Downstairs you can have fish and chips – haddock, cod, plaice, lobster etc. – and upstairs there is a tapas style menu which includes fish and chips as well as dishes such as venison tempura or partridge goujons and chips.