When young westcountry chef Hadleigh Barrett won the prestigious Michelin “Rising Star” award recently he was asked the secret of his success.
Was it his highly-trained staff or his acclaimed country house hotel kitchen? No, instead Hadleigh immediately paid tribute to the county where he is based: Devon.
"We couldn't have achieved this without the people who supply us with such superb local home-grown produce,” says Hadleigh, 30, from Combe House near Exeter. “Having Devon's larder right on our doorstep means we are spoilt for choice. It makes it a joy to create dishes full of taste and flavour."
Surely, that can’t be right? Aren’t Devon’s only famous ingredients clotted-cream, scones and creamy custard? Well, perhaps 20 years ago you’d be lucky to get a fresh vegetable with your fried fish or a sweet course that wasn’t from the supermarket… but now, as Hadleigh recognises, Devon is right at the forefront of our good food revolution.
“Good food, whether in the home or the restaurant, must begin with good produce,” explains Devon-born-and-based celebrity chef Michael Caines. “And here we have the best larder in Europe.”
From world class fish and shellfish landed daily at Brixham to organic Devon Ruby Red beef, from Exmoor grass-fed lamb to some of the world’s
Devon has well-watered, sunny grassland that makes for lush grazing for livestock
greatest farmhouse cheeses made from rich Devonshire milk, suddenly the county has discovered its food treasure was there all along…
When the Soil Association announced its latest annual awards, Devon had won a record 12 of them. This made it the number one county for organic food produce in the UK. Devon has the highest number of organic farms (400) and the most organic land (30,000 hectares) in the country.
And Devon farmers aren’t just following the latest fad. They’re using traditional ways of farming that have been passed down through many generations. Like farmer George Welsh on Allerton Farm near Dartington. His family have farmed there for 400 years. He keeps a flock of 500 ewes on the well-watered fields in the Dart Valley and supplies the award-winning Riverford Farmshop, just a mile away, with fresh lamb.
All over Devon, lots of sun and rain on that rich red soil mean lush green pastures and healthy crops. And Devon’s unique feature of two separate coastlines, means seafood galore. The booming tourism industry and an increasingly wealthy and sophisticated population means Devon’s pubs and restaurants have had every incentive to get better and better…
That’s why you’ll see an unprecedented scattering of Michelin stars around the county today. There is even a village pub with one - the Masons’ Arms at Knowstone near Tiverton. Local celebrity chef, Michael Caines, has two stars at his restaurant at Gidleigh Park near Chagford.
Exeter currently has eight restaurants recommended by the Good Food Guide - including Michael Caines restaurant in the Cathedral Close - and so rates one of the top 20 cities in the UK to eat out.
And Plymouth has Tanners, the AA’s current national Restaurant of the Year. Chefs Chris and James Tanner have had their own TV series ‘The Tanner Brothers’ and James appears regularly on ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’. They’re so popular locally they’ve just been awarded honorary degrees from Plymouth University.
“Keep it fresh, simple, seasonal and most importantly, keep it local,” says Chris Tanner. “That’s been our philosophy from day one. Why would we use ingredients from abroad when we have Devon’s larder here on our doorstep?”
Chris says: "We've both worked abroad in two or three Michelin-starred places and have taken food ideas from all over, adapting them for the UK. Of course there's lots of westcountry ingredients - there's an abundance of great local produce here.
"Now people are coming from all over the UK, even the world, to Tanners. Our peers in London come regularly to check out what we're doing and we're booked up four months in advance at the weekends.”
And TV chef and champion of local organic produce Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has recently moved across the border from Dorset into Devon. His new River Cottage HQ is the 60-acre Park Farm near Musbury in the Axe Valley.
Hugh converted an old inn in Trinity Square, Axminster, to an organic produce shop and ‘canteen’. It’s no surprise that his shop is full of the best produce from East Devon, including Stinger Beer, a nettle-flavoured ale, he helped develop himself with local brewers Hall and Woodhouse.
Hugh says: “We have set up this store as a real alternative to the supermarket. Virtually all of our produce is sourced locally.” And Hugh credits the first Devon-based celebrity chef Keith Floyd as his “original inspiration”. (Floyd’s gastropub, The Malsters Arms, Tuckenhay in the South Hams, is still a great place to eat - although Keith has long gone).
“I don’t really miss anything about living in the city,” says Hugh. “I go up to London often enough and I’m always happy to be on the train heading back.”
Like Hugh, Hadleigh Barrett is a great fan of local ingredients. His restaurant at Combe House is establishing a reputation for using the finest local produce. The up-and-coming chef trained alongside Devon-based celebrity chef John Burton-Race. Now he buys fish daily straight from the boats at Brixham, uses hand-reared chicken from Morestone Barton Farm just down the lanes from his hotel and includes plenty of produce grown in the hotel’s own walled garden and from the Combe Estate alongside. The beef from this Estate is acclaimed as some of the tastiest in Britain - and is an example of everything that’s good about Devon farm production.
Estate farmer Richard Marker’s Gittisham herd of Ruby Red Devon cattle dates back to 1904. It’s the largest Ruby herd in the country, grazing on lush green rolling hills in the clean air leading down to the River Otter, expertly nurtured from calves onwards. The herd has a spotless pedigree and has rosettes galore from agricultural shows. If you can’t afford to eat at Combe House you can still taste how good this beef is. You can buy their Ruby Red direct from the farm in joints, steaks, mince, burgers and sausages. (Contact the farm shop at www.reddevonbeef.co.uk/01404 45576).
Just down the road, Farmer Graeme Wallace at Hill Farm, Hemyock, in East Devon, is a champion of what he calls “raising animals of excellent quality by tried and tested old fashioned methods of husbandry.” Graeme has a great reputation locally for his homegrown beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck and venison that is slaughtered on the farm, avoiding stressful long journeys for the livestock.
And he says his patch of the rolling Devon landscape is ideally suited to producing quality grass for animals to feed on. “Our animals are raised without the use of growth promoters or other modern additives. They are raised with true care and respect in their natural surroundings. They have both the time and the space to develop at their own pace, as nature intended.”
The farm also has a specialist bacon room to dry cures the bacon and its own bakery. The latest development is a restaurant on the farm itself, serving produce from the fields around. It’s so popular with locals that you have to book to guarantee a table.
And you don’t have to visit the farmyard to buy great local produce. Visitors can buy great Devon food from local delis, butchers, grocers and markets. The lively programme of Farmers’ Markets across Devon means that a direct link to top suppliers is never far away.
The small market town of Cullompton held the southwest’s first farmer’s market 10 years ago and since then the number of stalls has boomed and goods on sale now includes buffalo ice cream, farm cider and homemade honey.
The atmosphere is helped by music from local school bands. Hot food is available and Cullompton scout group sells teas and coffees.
All stall holders have travelled less than 40 miles and are selling produce they grew, reared or created themselves. It’s the only Farmers Market in the UK to be set up by volunteers, not by a local authority.
Tracy Frankpitt, who makes Peverstone Cheese on her dairy farm near Cullompton, had the idea for the market. "We wanted to sell our award-winning cheese at the farmers’ market in Bath but they said we were too far away,” she says. “Cullompton was looking for something that would bring more people into the town and I suggested we started our own farmers’ market."
Tracy’s long-standing family dairy farm is based in the luxuriant river meadows of the Exe Valley. Peverstone are becoming famous for their award-winning hand-made cheeses, like Devon Garland, Tiskey Meadow and Hunting Pink.
The organisers of Cullompton farmers’ market have been helping others start up across the county. Tracy says: “We are now working together to make sure that all farmers’ markets across Devon are a success both for the farmers and local people.”
At the opposite end of the scale even the fish and chip are great in Devon. Try Hanburys in Torbay (Princes Street, Babbacombe, TQ1 3LW; 01803 329928/www.hanburys.net). They’ve been southwest fish and chip shop of the year four times and national champions too. Their secret? Groundnut oil. Plus the finest Maris Piper potatoes sourced locally in summer and a £75,000 state-of-the-art Dutch computerised gas range. For something really different try their battered brill or smoked haddock… then take it down to the seafront and eat it from the paper wrapping, sitting on a bench admiring the view. Now, that really is a taste of Devonshire. .
Michael Caine's Exeter restaurant is called abode and it stands in the wonderful old Cathedral Close. It's hard to park but the walk is worth it
Where to eat in Devon Here you are: I've chosen some of the very best, most interesting and reliable places to eat in Devon
Being voted the best restaurant in the South West launched this country house hotel into the premier league of eateries. The same year it was voted the county’s best restaurant by readers of Devon Life - the ultimate judgment from the locals. Outsiders began to notice young chef Hadleigh Barrett’s menu that specializes in local meat and fish, includes vegetables and herbs from the hotel garden and well-kept wine from ancient underground cellars. He has just been rewarded with a Michelin “Rising Star” award - surely a portent of great things to come. You eat in wonderful surroundings, either inside or out - but it’s not cheap: three-course dinner is £39.50, two-course lunch £20.
It’s a working farm - with a restaurant that serves produce from the farm and its neighbours. The Wallace family’s idea has proved very popular with locals, so it’s best to book. Every meal in the restaurant is freshly made on site, including the bread, cakes and puddings. And they are fully licensed. Breakfasts are popular - thanks to the home cured bacon and free-range pork sausages; and the highlight of afternoon tea is freshly-made scones from the in-house bakery. They are open seven days a week, 9am to 5pm (Sundays 10am to 5pm).
Michael Caines Abode@Exeter Cathedral Close EX1 1HD 01392 223638 www.abodeexeter.co.uk/www.michaelcaines.com
Minor celebrity-chef Caines has two Michelin stars at his country house hotel Gidleigh Park on the edge of Dartmoor but he doesn’t often cook here. Nevetheless quality is still high. This understated, classy restaurant includes a gourmet ‘tasting menu’ at £58 per head. The rest of us can enjoy the top-notch nosh at £25 for three courses.
More after the break...
Clovelly: best food experience? hot fresh pasty on the harbour wall
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘canteen’ is open for breakfast every day except Sunday, for lunch every day, and dinner Thursday-Saturday. All the ingredients are local and seasonal, and all décor is trendy and basic. Snacks from £3.50, three-course dinner around £25.
This modern restaurant housed in Plymouth’s oldest building is the spot where the Pilgrim Fathers ate their last meal before setting sail. It’s unlikely they were as well fed as today’s diners at Tanners. The contemporary British food is as good as you’ll find anywhere in Devon and it was the 2007 AA Restaurant of the Year. Chefs Chris and James Tanner have had their own TV series ‘The Tanner Brothers’ and James appears regularly on Ready, Steady, Cook. They’re so popular locally they’ve just been awarded honorary degrees from Plymouth University.
Two-course dinner £26.00, three courses £32.00, five-courses £37.
Where to shop for food in Devon The best places to buy great local food produce
Exeter Farmers’ Market at the top of South Street every Thursday, 9-2, is the easiest way to browse the best the region can produce. Possible ingredients can include duck and goose eggs, fresh river trout and various cheeses. And try not to laugh if some extreme Devon dialect speaker calls eggs ‘crackleberries’.
There are also morning Farmers’ Markets at Cullompton (2nd Saturday of each month) in Station Road car park; Exmouth (2nd Wednesday of the month) in Strand Gardens; Honiton (3rd Thursday of the month) forecourt of St Paul’s Church; Newton Abbot (every Tuesday) Courtenay Street; Plymouth (every 2nd and 4th Saturday) in Armada Way.
Bon Gout Deli, Magdalene Road, Exeter (www.bongoutdeli.co.uk/01392 435521) has an eclectic range of produce sourced locally and globally. They currently stock 26 different local cheeses, Dart Valley jams and sauces, Devon farm meats, smoked meats and fish from the Dartmouth smokery and of course clotted cream.
Organic food shop opened in town centre by TV chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. It stocks a wide selection of everyday food items like milk, cheese, eggs, meat, and poultry, as well as a range of books and smallholder supplies. Says Hugh: “Virtually all of our produce is sourced locally from the extremely impressive producers we have here in the South West.”
Royal Oak Farm (Cotleigh, near Honiton, EX14 9LF; www.royaloakfarm.co.uk 01404 831 223) is the ultimate example of farm diversification with B&B, pick-your-own, cream teas and a farm shop. The shop provides beef, pork, lamb, venison and chicken from their own farm or local Stockland Hill neighbours - all naturally reared and free-range. You’ll also find home-made pies and pasties, cakes, preserves and fresh veg, flowers and plants. B&B is available in a well-sited caravan with its own garden from £80 to £300 per week.
The Riverford Farm Shop won The Observer newspaper’s award as the UK’s best food shop in 2007 (presented to the shop’s owner by Gordon Ramsey). They’ve now got three outlets (one in the middle of Totnes, one at Staverton and one at Yealmpton). They have their own organic dairy herd and bakery but Riverford’s success is mainly down to the range of food stocked - including cooked meats, pies, cheeses, local organic fruit and vegetables, plus their own bacon and sausages. Specialities range from goose from a Totnes farm, salmon pate made by their own chef and lamb from local farmer George Welsh in Dartington, whose family has farmed there for 400 years.
Riverford Farm, Staverton TQ9 6AF (01803 762523), High Street, Totnes (01803 863959) and Yealmpton, Plymouth (01752 880925) www.riverfordfarmshop.co.uk .
Lynmouth: eat at the Rising Sun pub overlooking the harbour or buy fish and chips and sit over looking the rocky beach