An awfully big foodie adventure in Devon
A two-week staycation in September turned from my second choice holiday into the best fun I’ve had since lockdown began. This summer, like many others, we would have been abroad if COVID had not scuppered our plans. We decided that a staycation would make a welcome alternative and were delighted to find accommodation in Devon, a county we had not visited in 25 years.
When on holiday I spend much of my time in restaurants, food markets and surrounding eateries where regional cuisine is served. I also cook if staying in self-catering accommodation, which is my preferred choice ever since my kids were toddlers and behaved rather riotously in a restaurant in Pamplona where the earliest opening times for dinner is way past bedtime. Devon food and drink is, by reputation, superb and I was looking forward to exploring.
Having purposefully booked a remote rental close to the South West Coastal Path which runs along the Devon coastline, we found that the nearest shop was a good twenty-minute drive. With no option of just popping up the street for a pint of milk, and wanting to avoid eating indoors at restaurants, self-catering took on a more organised form than usual. I packed all the basics we needed plus a box of spices and another of wine and lots of tea. Orders for delivery were placed at local shops. I was thrilled with the quality.
There is no better way to kick off a Devon holiday than with a cream tea, one of the quintessential culinary treats in the county. En-route to our temporary home in a converted barn, we stopped off at Darts Farm near Exeter where we picked up an attractive box containing a takeaway cream tea. Darts Farm is an award-winning farm shop and restaurant. The fresh produce is picked on the farm and sold directly to customers in the capacious food hall where a butchery, delicatessen and drinks cellar provide anything one could ever need for a staycation. There is much for the family to enjoy too, with farm animals to visit, a bird hide for wildlife enthusiasts and even bike hire to explore the Exe Estuary on which Dart Farm is situated. From a sit-down breakfast or lunch to afternoon tea, fish and chips, south-west artisanal food and drink, Darts Farm is an experience not to be missed.
On arrival in the hamlet barn that was to be our home, we set the deckchairs out in the sunny garden and put the kettle on for a pot of strong tea from The Brew Tea Co. The box from Darts Farm included packets of Ryder’s Bakery scones along with Rodda clotted cream and Waterhouse Fayre’s award-winning strawberry jam. This is the finest clotted cream in my view, such a treat along with the jam which contained lovely chunks of fruit. Extra refreshment came in the form of bottles of Luscombe Sicilian lemonade, a citrussy thirst-quenching addition to the tea.
The next few days brought a simply splendid set of local deliveries. First, Salcombe Brewery Co. dropped off a selection of cider and ales. The state of the art brewery is built on the site of a decommissioned water reservoir which uses the natural ambient temperature of the underground facility for storing the ales at perfect conditioning temperature. Visitors can arrange a tour of the brewery or participate in brew days with the brewers. The Brewery Shop near Kingsbridge sells beer, gift packs and branded merchandise and also offers brewery tours.
Not only does Salcombe Brewery have great packaging – I love a sturdy bit of cardboard with a well-designed label – it tastes good too. Returning home from a long hike we flopped into the deckchairs, reached for the bottle opener and spent a staycation happy hour tasting our way through the selection. We enjoyed the three ales – Island Street Porter which I thought had a wonderfully rich chocolatey, coffee finish, Pale Ale, and a new addition called Sundrop which is a gluten-free and vegan ale. We all thought this one was terrific with its fruity flavour. The cider, chilled, was marvellously refreshing. I had to stash away the last bottle at the back of the fridge to make sure I had it to hand for making a huge pot of mussels. Locally grown, these buttery mussels are the best fast food and when in the West Country, cider is certainly my preference over the white wine I might use elsewhere.
Further treats arrived – a West Country Cheese box from Sharpham Wine and Cheese and a collection of intriguing bottles and cake from The Bay Tree Company. I was excited by the prospect of putting these relishes and cheese together on a cheeseboard. Back in the day, I used to put out a few cheeses on a plate with perhaps a bunch of grapes, some crackers and a bowl of relish on the side. Nowadays I get a bit Baroque, piling on as much edible decoration as I can. I started with the cheese, of course, and these were top drawer. Sharpham Ticklemore is a goat’s milk cheese with vibrant white colour and flinty texture. It is quite unlike any other goat’s cheese I’ve eaten and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It tasted gorgeous alone, paired beautifully with relishes and would be as good with savoury accompaniments as sweet, such as figs. The Sharpham Brie went down equally well in my family of Brie lovers. What struck me was the depth of colour of the cheese, a gorgeous yellow hue. Two clothbound mature cheddars – one smoked – from Quicke’s provided the hard cheese side of the selection. The deeply delicious Devon Blue from Ticklemore Cheese Dairy provided an umami hit I could not get enough of and is a definite for my Christmas cheeseboard. On each day’s hike, we found happy cows grazing on the lush hillsides. The cheese made me happy too.
With such a fine cheese selection only the best relishes would do. I was spoilt for choice by the eight bottles sent by The Bay tree Company. I have been eating their relishes for years but had not realised the company was Devon-based. I opened a few of the chutneys, the cheese chutney and the spiced apple and onion chutney complementing the selection particularly well as did the sweet chilli jam. A subtly sweet and delicate relish that went beautifully with the Sharpham Ticklemore was The Bay Tree’s rosemary and gin jelly. I ate it by the spoonful. To add interest to the cheeseboard, I cut wedges of a crumbly fruit cake that was included in The Bay Tree box. I do not especially care for fruit cake, but this one by Stag bakers was truly a cut above. It is made to eat with cheddar, blue or brie cheese and indeed, its rich, mellow fruitiness was the perfect accompaniment. I also set out a run of crackers from The Fine Cheese Company, handfuls of tarellini and grissini (a bit of Italian influence), almonds, local olives, strawberries and cherry tomatoes. After a long day’s walking, we arrived home famished. It took me about 15 minutes to put this cheeseboard together. The permutations are endless – the following day I used other relishes from The Bay Tree and slices of toasted baguette to add to the selection. The important thing is to have top quality cheese and relish; these from the West Country are just that.
The Bay Tree Food Company has gone to the top of my pops for sheer creativity. I was not previously familiar with their sweet selection but am now a major fan of their passion fruit curd as well as the marinated mini-figs. Both are divine simply with some local Devon yoghurt, but equally good with meringues or, in the case of the figs, with cheese. One afternoon we packed a picnic and drove down to a beach to begin a hike. For two hours we trod up and down some very steep hills – the views are magnificent but one has to put in some serious footwork at points. When we arrived back at the beach we had our picnic as a prize for our efforts. Rounds of Devon crab sandwiches were washed down with local fruit juice. For dessert, we ate freshly baked fruit scones topped with The Bay Tree’s passion fruit curd. Eaten on the beach, after a bracing swim, the curd the colour of a midsummer sun, and the taste ambrosial. If this is normal for a staycation, sign me up for next summer now.
Over the two weeks of our staycation, we ate only two restaurant meals. One was a mediocre fish and chips plus crab sandwich in the garden of a well-known pub, and the other was an outstanding takeaway meal from Restaurant Twenty_Seven by Jamie (check our review). The rest of the meals I cooked. It was a pleasure because of the quality of the local produce. I ordered meat from a local butcher, Gribbles Butchers, who delivered a selection of tasty sausages and the thickest lamb chops I’ve ever seen which I pan-fried in rosemary, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. I ordered a selection of produce from Aune Valley Foods which sells locally sourced fruit and veg, honey, chocolate, juices, eggs and dairy products. I was so excited to start cooking with a kitchen packed full of Devon foods. I added to the feast with a cooler bag full of fish and shellfish purchased on a visit to the Wild Foods stall that sets up on certain Saturday mornings at the market in Kingsbridge. Fabulous quality, so good in fact that I am looking into its delivery service to London.
Each evening when we returned tired and happy from another day’s walking, I looked forward to relaxing in the kitchen with an array of treats to cook. I roasted whole sea bass massaged with olive oil and Cornish sea salt, stuffed with fennel and splashed with Pernod. I tossed clams with white wine, local herbs and spaghetti; steamed mussels with shallots, garlic and Salcombe Brewery cider; grilled skewered monkfish fillets on sprigs of rosemary from the garden sauteed large prawns in garlic butter with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of chilli flakes; spent a happy hour winkling the meat out of a couple of freshly cooked South Devon crabs and making a round of sandwiches plus a crab risotto. All easy and utterly delicious.
One afternoon I popped into a small superette in a village. I needed a loaf of bread and a few apples and emerged with a box filled with fruit and veg grown on surrounding farms – strawberries, lettuce, ruby chard, new potatoes. Food with so much flavour and no air miles. I could not resist a couple of tubs of award-winning ice cream from Salcombe Dairy and a few bags of the very moreish Burts Crisps that had us crunching happily along with a glass of cider from Salcombe Brewery.
Tasting my way daily through a range of locally produced food and drink enabled me to appreciate the array of producers doing wonderful things with the outstanding produce growing all around in Devon. From fish to fowl, to sheep and cows, animals dotted every hillside, fishing boats coasted into beautiful harbours and hens laid eggs a mere 5 metres from my front gate. Farmland creates a patchwork of greens, browns and reds. The coastal area is magnificent and our daily hikes over hills and estuaries were pure pleasure – with some painful feet at the end of the day for good measure. It is one of the healthiest holidays we have had. Miles of walking every day, swimming, eating local produce, and relaxing.
A staycation in Devon has turned out to be the highlight of my year. While out on breathtakingly scenic hikes, I saw the animals that provide the milk for the lush dairy products, walked through the fields where produce grows, watched the fishing boats landing with a wide array of fish for the morning markets and restaurant kitchens. In Devon, one is very close to nature and to the source of its wonderful food. For a home cook who loves nothing better than engaging with local ingredients on holiday, a staycation in Devon is a brilliant place to experience the UK pantry as its finest.
- Dart’s Farm is located at Topsham near Exeter. You can find out all the details about what it offers by way of shopping, eating in or take away as well as family entertainment on the website www.dartsfarm.co.uk
- The Salcombe Brewery Co. is found at Ledstone, near Kingsbridge. The shop is open on weekdays from 1 -4. Looking for the perfect Christmas gift? Book a Brew Day for £80 which includes a pasty and pint for lunch and sampling after the day of brewing. Vouchers are valid for 12 months from purchase. Tours, as well as the Brew Day, can be booked on firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01548 854888.
- Sharpham does not only make top quality cheese. It is also a wine producer with the vineyard situated on the estate near Totnes. Tastings in the winery and tours of the farm can be arranged at www.sharpham.com or T 01803 732203 The Sharpham Estate, Totnes, TQ9 7UT
- The Baytree Food Company have a wonderful online shop where you can browse and buy their creative range of relishes, jams, curds, sauces and recipe ideas. These award-winning items will make the foodie in your life very happy on Christmas morning. Gift packs or individual products make great presents or stocking fillers. Or why not put together a hamper? Take a look at www.the baytree.co.uk to see an extensive Christmas catalogue or pop in your postcode on the website and you can see which shops in your area sell The Baytree products. T: 01963828020. E: email@example.com
- Restaurant Twenty Seven is not to be missed if you are in the area. You can eat a la carte or book for the 6-course dinner. If you prefer a takeaway, you can order online or by telephone. Whether you eat in or takeout, you are in for a culinary treat. The restaurant is situated at 9 Mill St, Kingsbridge TQ7 1ED. T: 01548 288847 Reservations: www.jamierogerschef.com or www.opentable.co.uk
- Gribbles Butchers provide high-quality meat, poultry, game and worldwide, exotic meats. There are three shops across South Devon in Ivybridge, Plympton and near Buckfastleigh. You can visit the shops or order online for delivery or click and collect. The extensive selection can be viewed on the website, www.gribblesbutchers.co.uk or you can call 01752 893030.
- Aune Valley Meats has a wide range of products to cover your every need. It has a great range of local items too from meat and fish to fruit, veg and even locally produced chocolate. Beef, pork and lamb from local farms have full traceability from farm to shop. There is also a well-stocked delicatessen, farm shop and store cupboard section. You can visit the shops in Loddiswell and Modbury (a small selection) or order online for delivery. E:firstname.lastname@example.org T: 01548 550413
- Wild Foods (www.wildfooddevon.com) is the home of local fishmonger Mark Lobb. All the fish is caught within 30 miles of Brixham or Plymouth. You can find Mark at market stalls around the county – the schedule is on the website. When I visited the market, Mark gave me excellent advice on quantities, recipe ideas and storage advice. You can also order Fish By Post on the website where the fish of the week contained in the Wild Food Devon Fish Box is posted along with recipe ideas. Fish courses and crab workshops can be booked at info@wildfooddevon or T: 01803 832101. Another great idea for Christmas, birthdays or a special treat.
- We were helped on this trip by Food and Drink Devon an organisation that manages a network of artisan producers in Devon. If you are travelling to Devon it’s worth checking out their site for more inspiration.
Looking for somewhere to stay for your own staycation? Do check out our summary of tried and tested boutique hotels in Devon