I am not sure that there is anything better than going out for a drive through the beautiful countryside we have in this part of the world, knowing that at the end of that journey is a countryside pub, full of charm and character, offering delicious food. Sister properties, The Dukes Head at Somerleyton and The White Lion at Wheatacre, ooze charm and good food in spades, and Samantha Mattocks headed on over to find out more.
Jay Meades is the man behind both pubs, having first owned The White Lion in 2017 – which also boasts four bedrooms – and then added The Dukes Head in 2021. “My passion is to share a beautiful pub, an inviting space, with our guests, where people can come and enjoy great food, good drinks, and catch up with friends and family,” Jay tells me enthusiastically. “Both venues offer this, and since taking over The Dukes Head, I have worked hard to bring together a great team, both Front of House and on the stoves. I am excited about the future, and that it holds for us!”
Part of that new team includes Executive Chef Terry Balme – who many nourish readers will remember as being at The Hog Hotel in Pakefield before it closed. “The day they announced The Hog was closing, I had a call inviting me to come and see Jay and the rest is history!” smiles Terry. “It was great not to have to go through that ‘worry’ moment – and I brought Archie Thomas with me, who also worked at The Hog. He is now Head Chef here at The Dukes Head, and I am enjoying passing on my knowledge to him.”
Proving how word-of-mouth really is everything, it was Jacob Oddy, General Manager at The Dukes Head, who put Jay onto Terry – having worked with him at the Honingham Buck, where Terry was before he went to The Hog Hotel. “I was head-hunted through Instagram to join The Hog,” Terry tells me. “Instagram really is a chef’s rolling CV these days, and you never know who is looking at your page! As soon as Jacob saw that The Hog Hotel was closing, he spoke to Jay and here I am. I live locally, with my wife, Katherine, and two young children, Oliver and Emily, so it is important that I work close to home. Work-life balance is everything – and Jay is very good at making sure his whole team has that.”
Terry goes between The Dukes Head and The White Lion, where he has Sous Chef Lucy Hickman heading up the pass when he is down the road. “As the crow flies, the two pubs are incredibly close,” laughs Jay. “However, by car they are around 15 minutes apart!”
Both places offer an inviting space, with Jay’s mark firmly put on The White Lion and final flourishes now being added at The Dukes Head. “We have a beautiful conservatory area at The Dukes Head,” continues Jay. “We have worked to make it more inviting – and the views across the fields are spectacular. Somerleyton Marina is just a five-minute walk away, so in summer, especially, we have people sailing down the Norfolk Broads, tying up their boats, and coming up to us for something to eat and drink.
“There is no doubt that both our properties are destination pubs, but our customers return time and time again. From cosy lunches by the fire to alfresco dining in our gardens, we have something for everyone – first dates, family lunches, ladies who lunch, everything!”
Central to this is, of course, the food. “Both venues have different menus,” Terry tells me. “We are lucky in that Jay trusts us to bring the best food of the season to the pass, and we use lots of local produce including from the Somerleyton Estate, and we are looking forward to featuring their spring lamb this Easter. We also use Clarkes Butchers in Bramfield, who are wonderfully consistent.”
At the time of going to print, the menu is changing at both The White Lion and The Dukes Head to reflect the change in seasons and the brighter colours of spring coming through. “Archie is very much in charge of the menu at The Dukes Head,” says Terry. “Many of the dishes on the menu there are his. Although I came from the era where kitchens were an aggressive place to be, so many chefs also helped me over the years, and I like to encourage up-and-coming chefs now. Archie is one of them, and I think he has a bright future.”
Speaking to Archie, he tells me he got into cheffing as “I like the creativity of it all. I love designing menus and coming up with new riffs on classic dishes – such as my miso and dulce de leche ice cream, which is a take on salted caramel. It was Terry who trained me, and who gave me the confidence to take on the Head Chef role, backing me all the way. He and Jay have been brilliant, and I love running the kitchen.”
Meanwhile, at The White Lion, Lucy will soon be joined by Kieran Robbins, who was also at The Hog Hotel with Terry. “Lucy is a brilliant Sous Chef,” says Terry. “Like so many of us, myself included, she started with washing pots in the kitchen and has worked her way up. She can head up a manic Sunday service and is a great asset to our team. Kieran will fit in well there.”
“Across both The White Lion and The Dukes Head, we try to capture current flavours and add a twist, such as different textures of rhubarb,” says Terry. Jay adds: “We also go all out on a Sunday! We regularly do over 100 covers at both pubs for Sunday lunch, and as well as the traditional roast, we also offer great vegetarian options such as butternut squash, red onion and spinach wellington with all the trimmings. We cater for everyone here, including all dietary requirements. We even offer toasted ciabattas with a mug of chips!”
Dishes that catch the eye include smoked dapple and ham hock croquettes, fig caramel, torched fig, cox apple; venison and pork scotch egg, black pudding emulsion; and pan-seared breast of pigeon, roast celeriac, buttered spinach, pomegranate, coriander cress and jus among the starters. Mains include slow roasted belly of Suffolk pork, pomme purée, tenderstem broccoli, burnt apple purée, black pudding bon bon and jus; pan-roasted sea trout, lemongrass, coconut and ginger broth, new potatoes, charred pak choi, wild rice tuille, lemon puree, chilli jam; and confit leg of Suffolk duck, duck fat pommes Anna, local honey glazed carrot, pickled rhubarb, rhubarb puree, duck jus. Desserts include dark chocolate fondant, forced rhubarb purée, macerated rhubarb, vanilla bean ice cream and plum Bakewell tart with burnt pear and amaretto ice cream among the more traditional crème brûlée and sticky toffee pudding with honeycomb ice cream.
The wine list is extensive, and there are local beers, gins, and other spirits available. “Wherever possible, we like to keep things as local as we can,” says Terry. “However, we also want quality produce, too, and we like to use the very best that we can get. We are lucky that there is much in our region that falls into the category!”
Terry and Archie cook a few plates to showcase both current dishes, plus ones about to come on to the menu. The pan-fried cod cheek with pistachio polenta cake with artichoke and truffle espuma and textures of rhubarb is light and intriguing, with the pan-fried salmon with new potatoes, buttered spinach, saffron sauce, salmon ceviche, and crispy skin is sublime, the ceviche bringing a freshness to what could otherwise have been a rich dish. Terry plates up his new lamb dish, complete with an olive caramel – which is amazing – and it has all the freshness of spring. As for the chocolate fondant, served with Archie’s miso and dulce de leche ice cream… I can safely say it is the best fondant I have had. Ever. These are chefs who know how to cook and bring in big, bold flavours that balance and do not overpower.
Speaking to Terry, whose career highlight has been earning two AA Rosettes at The Hog Hotel, it is clear that he has his own vision for the future. “I have worked at many restaurants with Rosettes, but to earn them yourself is something very different. I love the challenge of working here with Jay, covering the two pubs, and I go wherever I am needed most that day. Jay ensures that not only I, but all staff, have flexibility. I have my own goals for my future, and they are very much centred on working here with Jay. It is a great place to be.”
Mention must be made, too, of the rooms at The White Lion, where Emily Humphrey is the General Manager. There are four rooms, ranging from a double to a deluxe king, with prices starting from £75. All are beautifully decorated, with a fabulous Suffolk breakfast also available for guests. Both venues are dog friendly, with The Dukes Head even having its own resident pooch, the very handsome Duke.
Both venues host weddings and several events during the year, including live music. “The outdoor space at both pubs is great, but at Somerleyton, we overlook outdoor fields and we run an outdoor bar,” says Jay. Visiting on a busy February Friday, one can only imagine how busy it gets here in the high season, and there is no doubt that both places are firmly on the map.
“My dreams and ambitions for the past few years are now falling into place,” grins Jay. “I love both venues, and I have bigger things in the pipeline. There is so much scope for more – especially here at The Dukes Head with so much space. There are so many things that I want to work towards, and I feel confident that I have the right team in place around me to do just that.”
As I sit to write this article, one thing strikes me above all else. At both places, the team are so enthusiastic about where they work, and are proud to be associated not only with The White Lion and The Dukes Head but also as part of Jay’s team. At the essence are two destination pubs that focus on true hospitality and are full of rural charm. With spring just around the corner, now is the time to head out for a drive around our beautiful countryside and enjoy the delicious flavours of The White Lion and The Dukes Head.
Find out more, including how to book, at wheatacrewhitelion.co.uk and dukes-head.co.uk
Executive Chef Terry Balme shares this delicious spring recipe for lamb loin with pommes Anna potatoes, olive caramel, pea purée and spring vegetables
Head Chef Archie Thomas shares this delicious recipe and perfect beer snack – Smoked Dapple and ham croquettes, fig caramel, torched fig, cox apple
Photography by Sam Gee Photography unless otherwise stated