September 18th 2014
The September sun and warmth goes on, and we’ve treated ourselves to what we call a liquid lunch today, which is a sampling of Devon fare washed down with fine wines or local ales. We sat in a long bay window overlooking the English Channel about eighty yards away, looking today as calm as a country stream. I had a Chicken Madras with boiled rice and a glass (well, alright, two glasses) of Pinot Grigio, as my partner went for a sausage and onion sandwich accompanied by a particularly delightful Devon delicacy, cheesey chips (cream teas, schmeam teas).
Devon’s cuisine still has a bit of a bad press, being thought of by some as cream teas and fish and chips and not a lot else. By now, this is not only very unfair but very untrue. Even in the limited time of our stay down here, eleven years, the food on offer has widened and diversified extraordinarily, showing that Devon is capable of learning and adapting to changing tastes. Yes, the cream teas and the fish and chips are still there for those who want them, but in the ten miles radius around where we live in East Devon, there are innumerable examples of gastropubs and hotels which provide very good food for not enormous amounts of money.
Two characteristics in particular are still very noticeable, and neither of them will suit every taste. Firstly, it is just about universally true that Devon places will actually cook the food before bringing it to the table; wafting dishes from freezer via microwave won’t do any more for the increasingly discerning staycationers who visit, or that matter for the locals themselves. This is good from both a taste and a nutritional point of view, if not so good from a time angle. If you’ve only got thirty or forty minutes to ‘do lunch’, most Devon places are not for you. In the pretty little coastal town of Axmouth, where Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been known to do his fishing, we sat at one establishment (which will remain nameless, this isn’t an advertising handout) watching a gentleman, if that’s the right term, threaten to name the place ‘on Twitter, Facebook and every other bloody place possible’ because he and his wife and kids had been waiting for about twenty five minutes or so, which, yes, is a bit too long, but the place was almost full and, as I said, they do actually cook it. Crap is quick and easy to produce if crap is what you want to eat.
The pace of life here is slower to begin with; Devon has been used to working to an agricultural and/or fishing sort of timetable, where the results are terrific if time and trouble is taken over producing them. It has also resisted giving over too much to the car, meaning racing all over the place is not only undesirable but generally impossible.
Secondly, Devon doesn’t, in the main, do cheffy portions of a little hunk of meat/fish, seven chips and a splodge of veg and sauce, thirty quid upwards, thank you very much, all credit cards accepted. A main dish in Devon lives up to its name. We have rarely managed a three course meal in this neck of the woods, and unless you happen to be particularly ravenous, starter and main or main and dessert is probably as much as you’ll manage.
The best stuff? Well, the seafood, as you’d expect, is terrific, especially the crab and the mackerel, but most of the meat you can rely on as local stuff, bred to stringent standards, as is the veg. Food poisoning/stomach trouble incidents in Devon in eleven years? Nil. And neither my buddy nor I have guts of iron, believe me. Too much information. But true, trust me, all the same.