Within minutes of arriving at Linda Duffin’s mid-Suffolk home I decide I want to move in. A slip away from the busy A140, on the dull(ish) day I pull into the driveway, the Tudor property seems encapsulated in its own microclimate. 

Linda’s husband Robert is basking in the sun on a bench alongside the family’s two pet hens, tinkering with something mechanical-looking, the wireless softly playing in the background. 

A faint breeze jostles through the last heads of autumn’s flowers, including some dainty-looking Japanese anemones. 

As I step inside, I’m smacked by the heady perfume of fuzzy quince, set out in still life on the dining table...offset by the savoury promise of lunch – a fug of homegrown vegetables in a Parmesan-spiked broth - bubbling away on the stove. 

East Anglian Daily Times:

Linda leads me into the kitchen, home of her Mrs Portly’s cooking classes. It is swoon-worthy. But not in a crisp, dazzling, Insta-gloss-poser way. No. This kitchen has been designed for living. For life. For actually cooking in. Its pots have had stories stirred into them. Its utensils have been carefully chosen not just for aesthetics, but for longevity and craftsmanship. 

The cupboards swell with ingredients with which to enhance the enormous bounty gathered from the couple’s two-and-a-half-acre plot. Gluts of veg, pears, apples, berries, transformed with time, sugar and spice into covetable jars and bottles of kitchen alchemy. 

Being a culinarian, my eye is immediately drawn to the heavily laden book shelf. Like myself, Linda has more than she can count. “We’ve still got boxes and boxes from the move we haven’t unpacked,” she sighs, admitting, like most collectors, she cannot bear to get rid of any of them – just in case. I tell her about one of my favourite baking books, Short and Sweet by Dan Lepard (former Guardian columnist, and Australia’s answer to Paul Hollywood). “Oh I must get that one,” she notes...but not before I spy a copy of the pastel-shaded tome. 

“See - I have too many don’t I?” She laughs, setting about making a cuppa, carving up a loaf of Wooster’s bread for the soup. 

“That shelf!” She adds, launching into a story about its chequered past. Having loading it up with her favourites after it was installed, the wood promptly collapsed...onto the farmhouse table...and litres upon litres of homemade sloe gin. She was not amused!  

We tuck into lunch. An Italian-style broth, charged with vitality-giving roots and greens, and teeny-tiny pasta stars. Then, for afters, a crumbly, buttery traybake slice, jammy with blackberries. 

We are kindred spirits, Linda and I. We share (in addition to our addiction to books) a desire to make and share food. To nourish and nurture. And the former journalist and news reporter has made a career out of this desire, opening up her home to teach a multitude of kitchen skills to eager learners – many of them fans of her Mrs Portly’s blog, which began as a way of charting her move to the countryside. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Linda Duffin in her orchardLinda Duffin in her orchard (Image: Charlotte Bond)

An upcoming class with Catherine Phipps on the topic of pressure cooking (on November 19), couldn’t be timed better, says Linda. People are understandably worried about the cost of energy since the price cap went up in October, and they’re looking to more economical cooking techniques. They want to know how to get the best out of thriftier cuts of meat, pulses and hearty veg. 

Sales of multi-cookers and pressure cookers are on the rise. And in her four-hour session, Catherine will demonstrate how the devices work, why they’re not the explosive danger traps we might think they are, and how delicious dinners can be delivered to the table in a fraction of the time they’d take in the oven or on the stove. 

“I went to a demonstration in Norfolk by Catherine,” says Linda. “She has two books on pressure cooking. The latest one is 10 years on from the first and I was very impressed by the sheer range of what she was doing. I had one [a pressure cooker] years and years ago. It was all stocks and brown food then, but she was making all sorts of things – pasta, soup, puddings – even cake. I was completely blown away, so I asked if she’d join me for a class. 

“I think a lot of people are worried about the price of food and fuel going up. If you can make a meal in a pressure cooker in 15 minutes as opposed to turning on the oven and heating it up, why wouldn’t you? 

“I had no intention of ever buying a pressure cooker again (I have a house full of gadgets and gizmos), but Catherine certainly inspired me. There are 200-plus recipes in her latest book. And they’re not your bog-standard beef stews – not that I have anything against those!” 

During the class Catherine will talk guests through different models and types of pressure cookers, explaining how they work, while Linda plays ‘kitchen fairy’ making tea and coffee, passing around homemade biscuits or cake, and plating up each of Catherine’s dishes as it’s ready, for everyone to try. 

“We’re still finalising the menu, but we’ll definitely have some Christmassy things,” says Linda. “We talked about Marsala-soaked cranberries with sprouts, red cabbage, risotto or pasta, pork ribs (which are gorgeous in the slow cooker), and maybe her steamed chocolate pudding or a rice pudding with quince. 

“People will get to try everything, and will learn so much, as I have, from watching Catherine.” 

Other upcoming classes will teach pies and pastry (“who doesn’t love a good pie?”), world breads, a proper high tea, and Italian cuisine. 

“I’ve never seen such excitement in a class before,” Linda tells me of the most recent Italian kitchen adventure. “We had a couple of pasta virgins on the last class and the looks on their faces when they made tagliatelle for the first time? It was wonderful. We did some coloured pasta with beetroot powder I made from beetroot out of the garden, and window pane pasta laminated with herbs. So beautiful. That’s a lovely, lovely class.” 

She’s also looking forward to a class focussed around winter veg in January – one of the most challenging times of year when it comes to seasonal produce. “If you get a veg box delivery you’ll probably be thinking ‘oh my giddy aunt – it's another swede!’ We’ll show you how to use all those green things from the garden in the most delicious ways.” 

Linda came later than most to this cooking malarkey – not learning many of the basics until she was in her 20s. Her mum was a very traditional English cook. A practical woman who probably only had one cookbook, and largely relied on her instincts to produce family meals from what Linda says was a meagre budget in her formative years. She did not relish the thought of anyone else interfering in her culinary endeavours though, so Linda and her sister were relegated to watching, and smelling, from the kitchen door...or washing up. 

“She was really good at the classics. She made fabulous pastries, really good cakes, pies and stews – most of it from memory. We weren’t rolling in money, but we never went hungry. We always had food on the table. And it was absolutely delicious food." 

Apart, perhaps, from the odd occasion? 

“I remember her making spaghetti Bolognese once. It was awful. Basically tomatoes and mince served with overcooked pasta. She didn’t do it again. My father liked rather plain food. He didn’t like the smell of spices.” 

But there’s nothing wrong with traditional, adds Linda, relishing the memories of properly cooked, flavoursome chicken thighs, and rib-sticking bowls of gelatinous, slow-cooked beef. 

“Some food writers say English food was duff until Elizabeth David came around. But that is just not the case. We have a fantastic tradition of recipes and food in this country. In Tudor times they used spices we don’t use any more, and their herb gardens were so much more varied and populous than the half dozen herbs most people use nowadays.  

“It makes me cross when people say English food is bad!” 

Linda was born in Lincolnshire, moving around the north and Midlands as her father (a teacher in approved schools) took on different positions. 

Eventually they would land in rural Warwickshire, three miles from the nearest town or village. When she wasn’t climbing trees, dashing through puddles, or getting up to tomboyish mischief, Linda was reading. Always. Voraciously. And often to her mum’s chagrin. “I had a book of narrative verse and my father and I would take it in turns to read, getting carried away. Mum would be shouting from the dining room ‘your tea’s ready!’.” 

Her dad actively encouraged Linda’s bookish nature. “I’ve read some of those verses to children and they’re very very long. I got bored...but he never did.” 

Linda laughs as she recalls a boyfriend getting justifiably offended by her complete ignorance of him in deference to her latest read. “I would get absolutely lost in the stories. It doesn’t work so well anymore. I wish I could have that complete concentration!” 

Favourites were the Narnia tales, or anything by John Masefield and Alan Garner. 

Linda, who could read before she started school, was spurred on to put her own words to paper. Ambitious from an early age, she wrote a newspaper at just seven, moving on to prose and poetry which she calls very “drippy and pantheistic”. 

“I used to tiptoe around country lanes apologising to flowers for treading on them, I suppose,” she giggles. 

Delving into the world of work first saw Linda take up a job at a greengrocers. She wasn’t very good, and is ever grateful for the watchful eyes of the owner, who stopped her selling daffodil bulbs instead of shallots to a customer. 

All set to read English at uni, with designs on a career in journalism, Linda popped into the local newspaper office (more suited to her skills) for a summer job. As luck would have it, there was an apprenticeship going, and she practically accepted it on the spot – to the annoyance of her folks, who wanted her to get a ‘proper job’. 

“When I was about 12 I DID think about being an archaeologist,” she reflects, “or a librarian. But I soon realised they don’t pay you to sit and read books all day!” 

As an apprentice reporter for a very small paper she says “was known locally for holding vinegar very well”, Linda worked alongside two talented journalists who only stoked her enthusiasm further. It was tough going though. In addition to the nine to five, staff were expected to spend a couple of nights a week at social clubs earwigging for gossip, and the odd weekend working the desk. 

“You couldn’t possibly have done the job unless you lived at home with your parents. I think I got £18.50 a week, £28 by the time I left. By then I had a car and a home and I was constantly broke. I had to work as a bar maid to pay the rent.” 

Regardless of the unsociable hours and woeful pay, Linda didn’t give up on her dream job, eventually taking professional qualifications, and working through a stark time of print and journalist strikes. 

“I remember the provincial newspaper strike in the late 70s. The headquarters where the print works were was being picketed. Someone snatched my bag off me, and I realised it had caught fire! And we had this Irish executive who leaned out of the window, and I’ll never forget this, said: ‘Don’t picket...it might bleed’. 

“I grew up quite a bit then and learned a lot.” 

Her only irritation was being asked to write the women’s pages as she was the only female on the paper – she would have much preferred delving into the entertainment section. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Linda filming during the Serbo-Croat war in the early 90sLinda filming during the Serbo-Croat war in the early 90s (Image: Contributed)

Moving onwards, Linda took up positions in local and national radio and TV. 

Sharing a space at IRN (Independent Radio News) with LBC was fantastic, she says. “The whole place was full of complete loons, but hugely talented people. I learned so much there and covered my first big story, the Zeebrugge ferry disaster. It was awful.” 

Linda freelanced, worked on the Today programme, on local London TV stations that have since gone, and wound up at Sky as a general news reporter, where she would get her first taste of foreign correspondence, covering the Serbo-Croat war on the Serbian side, as well as the first Chechen war and first Gulf war. 

It was a strange time, she recalls, remembering the hustle to get the best scoop, while sharing a camaraderie with reporters from other channels.  

East Anglian Daily Times: Linda in Bosnia in the early 90sLinda in Bosnia in the early 90s (Image: Contributed)

“If push came to shove, everybody helped one another out. I made some very good friends.” 

And, for a spell, she became a kind of adrenaline junkie, living in a state of exhilarating fear as she carried out her assignments in Grozny. 

“Once I was interviewing some guys and suddenly a huge Russian helicopter gun ship, the sort with great big nose guns on the front, started up. We all dived head first down an old broken-down walkway. I think I got stuck on a bush halfway. 

“Sometimes I’d be driving down the streets of Grozny and a missile would fly past. It was terrifying, but, and this sounds terribly priggish, but I did actually very strongly feel we were there to bear witness to what a better armed army were doing to a civilian population.” 

Linda went on to work in Northern Ireland and Dublin, and as a freelancer for the BBC, eventually landing on The World Today, reporting on global events over 12-hour shifts. “It was a lovely lovely place to work, with the most incredibly intelligent people – they had brains the size of planets!” 

Along the way the broadcaster would, rather serendipitously pick up husband Robert, who turned out to be the brother of one of her best friends, Sarah. 

Invited to a party at Sarah’s dad’s house in Stoke By Nayland, Linda arrived to discover the one family member she’d never met before. Annoyingly for Sarah, who’d spent ages fretting over the finer details of her get-together, her dad had set about employing several of the party-goers in a spot of digging for a new drainage pipe. 

“She was trying to sort out the catering, and her workforce was up to their knees digging a hole. That’s when I first saw Robert. He looked very manly!” 

Naturally reserved, Robert was never (says Linda) going to make the first move, so she asked him out. They married two years later, living together in London, fostering their shared passion for cooking...and eating. Robert grew produce on an allotment around the corner for Linda to transform. And they’d go on cookery courses at the likes of Billingsgate or the Ginger Pig. 

When Robert’s dad passed away, there was the question of what would happen to the family home. “Everyone tried hard to persuade us to buy it - they were moaning they’d have nowhere to go in Suffolk anymore – but it wasn’t the right house for us,” says Linda, adding that Suffolk people have a strange homing instinct. They always come back here in the end. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Linda with one of her catsLinda with one of her cats (Image: Charlotte Bond)

With a bit of inheritance money in their pockets, they stayed with a mate on the coast at weekends, throwing themselves into house-hunting in the county for a cottage. None of them seemed big enough to host the ever-growing bevy of family members who might descend in the holidays. And Robert was never happy with the size of the gardens. 

“But we fell in love with this house,” Linda says, looking around the kitchen, telling me she’d written notes on the estate agent’s brochure: ‘Too expensive, too big, needs too much work’. 

Heart won over head in the end. They bought the former farmhouse, finding out later that the parents of the owners were husband and wife doctors who had been friends with Robert’s parents – also a pair of local GPs. 

“Our original estimate of the place was correct,” says Linda, “but we’ve never regretted buying it.” 

When they took on Bridge House, Linda and Robert certainly had their work cut out. The doctor’s surgery was still attached to the main home, and left as-is by the previous family, complete with a receptionist area and bed for patients.  

The kitchen was split in two, with jack and jill cupboards between the cooking space and dining room. “Every time I put something in one side, something fell out the other,” Linda laughs. 

The couple found themselves spending more and more time at their place in the country, tending to the garden, carefully following planning laws to update and restore parts of the house needing work. With Robert winding down his publishing career, and Linda thinking about her next step, they made the move proper 10 years ago. 

Linda, then working as a financial/business journalist, said she felt her soul shrink at the idea of going into a PR role. She wanted to do something creative. Something more in sync with her passions. A friend suggested she start a blog. And writing about food came naturally. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Linda teaching a class with Mike WarnerLinda teaching a class with Mike Warner (Image: Contributed)

She began writing about her foodie experiments at Bridge House as Mrs Portly, reeling off the dishes she was making with pickings from the garden. And soon Linda’s eloquent scribblings came to the attention of Suffolk Magazine editor Jayne Lindill, who loved her humorous tone, and took her on as a columnist. 

“It was all about what we were really cooking and eating. There are now hundreds and hundreds of recipes on the blog, and lots of inspiration. We’re pretty well self-sufficient from late spring, and I show people what I’m creating with our gluts. Even now we’re still picking courgettes and root crops and greens,” she says. 

Just before lockdown Linda took Mrs Portly’s one step further, launching cookery classes, which would initially end-up being one-one-one sessions due to Covid restrictions. 

She does find it ironic she’s ended up teaching, as she’s always thought it’s something she’s terrible at. “I was a rubbish teacher when I was helping younger journalists learn their craft. I hadn’t learnt how to unpick what I did in order to teach. But I suppose as it’s a topic I love so much, I really enjoy teaching my food classes. I have lots of five-star reviews!” 

Linda’s classes teach no more than six at a time, enabling everyone to get hands-on. “I wanted them to be quite intimate. I wanted people to come and have a giggle. And also I wanted this to be a place where you could come on your own and feel perfectly at ease. 

“This is very much about sharing our lifestyle, I suppose. Being able to go out into the garden to pick ingredients, stay in a lovely old house, eat and cook good food. 

“The classes are very professional. Everyone will go home having learned new skills and tips they can put into action at home. The big advantage of doing this in a domestic kitchen is we don’t have big shiny steel ovens and steam cookers and gadgets. People learn on the sort of kit they might have.” 

Of course, everyone leaves with a huge bundle of goodies they’ve made to devour later too. 

Some classes are run alongside trusted local producers Linda has met during her time writing about food in the county – one of her favourites being Steve Tricker of award-winning Truly Traceable, who is a mine of knowledge on the subject of game. 

“I feel so incredibly lucky to work with these people,” she says. “They are really important to me and a core part of what we do here. We have an enormous wealth of experience to draw on from Suffolk food producers. It’s marvellous. 

“I get such a buzz out of seeing people enjoy themselves when they come and spend the day with us. They really love it.” 

Accommodation is available at Bridge House for course goers and general stays. It includes a huge four-poster bedroom with rolltop bath on a bed and breakfast basis, and a new self-contained one-bedroom self-catering unit in the old surgery next door. 

Find out more at mrsportlyskitchen.co.uk