Having her cake and eating it

PUBLISHED: 06:49 13 October 2014

The Squire's Pantry, Felbrigg Hall. Manager Jess Frere-Smith with her team, left to right, Heather Grimmer, Julie Pratt, Flo Page, Jess Pratt, Belinda Northey, Bernie Simmonds.

The Squire's Pantry, Felbrigg Hall. Manager Jess Frere-Smith with her team, left to right, Heather Grimmer, Julie Pratt, Flo Page, Jess Pratt, Belinda Northey, Bernie Simmonds. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

It’s hard to put into words why Felbrigg Hall is such a special place. From the minute you turn off the road and head up the long, winding driveway, past fields full of cattle and thick wooded forest, it is as if you’ve entered a new world, peaceful and cut off from the stresses of everyday life.

So can you imagine spending every day there, doing what you love the most? One of those lucky people is Jess Frere-Smith, who joined the National Trust team as assistant catering manager in the spring. All those sumptuous Victoria sponges, coffee and walnut cakes and fruit scones on offer in the restaurant are baked on site by Jess and the team.

“Being a person that loves the outdoors, one of the things I really love about working at Felbrigg – besides all the gorgeous cake – is coming up the drive in the mornings, seeing all the wildlife and farm animals. It’s a very calming start to the day,” says Jess, 22, who originally comes from Norwich but now lives in nearby Sheringham. “It is a really good atmosphere here. I’ve only been in the job for about six months, but I already feel like I’ve been here forever – in a good way!”

Felbrigg Hall’s restaurant, Squire’s Pantry, has undergone a major refurbishment this year. All of these improvements only help Jess and the rest of the catering team provide an even better experience for visitors.

Regardless of the pretty and tranquil surroundings at Felbrigg, working in a busy restaurant kitchen will always be just that – busy. But for Jess, that is all part of the appeal.

“I love the fast-paced nature and creativity of the industry, the ability to explore food and drink and manage a brilliant team, in a slightly unpredictable environment,” says Jess, who also looks after catering at Sheringham Park. “The fact that I get all of this, in a picturesque estate with a beautiful historic building, is a huge bonus. It’s a really enjoyable place to be able to work.”

At Felbrigg, the estate’s own walled garden provides much of the produce and ingredients needed by the restaurant, picked fresh on a daily basis. But where that is not possible, the National Trust has a policy of buying local.

“We currently use a local bakery, butchers and fresh produce company,” Jess explains. “It’s important to support the local economy and local businesses. We believe strongly in using locally distinctive, seasonal foods and ingredients with minimal transportation, to ensure our food is fresh, local and environmentally friendly.”

It goes without saying that tradition is also important for the trust and that’s true in its kitchens too.

“We use many traditional recipes. Our scones are made with a very traditional recipe, as are all of our cakes. As these are tried and tested methods and ingredients, it ensures consistently great results, and cakes or scones that people enjoy, time and again.”

So of all the different cakes on sale, which one does Jess love the most? “My favourite recipe is our chocolate sponge. It is always very light and well-risen. Once we sandwich two sponges together with buttercream and decorate the top, it’s a very impressive cake, not to mention the perfectly chocolatey flavour. It’s always a very popular seller.”

When the busy day ends and Jess heads home down that long and winding driveway, with cattle in the fields on one side and thick forest on the other, it is the perfect way to unwind after a busy day in the kitchens. And the next day she’ll be back for another day doing what she loves the most, in one of the most splendid settings you could imagine.

Fancy a slice?

Felbrigg Hall’s top five selling cakes:

1 Scones (we sell hundreds every day, both cheese and fruit)

2 Chocolate cake

3 Victoria sponge

4 Coffee and walnut cake

5 Bakewell tart

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