In uncertain times, the mood in Devon’s food industry remains positive. Su Carroll chats to some of our longstanding foodies about what the future holds
The National Farmers’ Union President Minette Batters warned last summer that “critical times” lay ahead for the agri-food industry, which is worth more than £600 million to the Devon economy and employs 32,000 people. She said: “The future for farming must be at the heart of a dynamic and resilient UK food chain, giving people the opportunity to enjoy sustainable, better quality and more affordable British food.”
Tough words. But it’s not all gloomy – the food and hospitality industry is enjoying increasing success. As a barometer, there are more Devon names than ever before in the Good Food and Good Beer Guides with the Michelin-starred Gidleigh Park appearing in the Good Food Guide’s national top 50. Last year, Michael Caines (former head chef at Gidleigh) retained his star at new venture Lympstone Manor, which he won for the first time in 2017 after being open for only six months.
“It was amazing getting our first star so quickly, retaining it last year and then getting five AA stars,” said Michael. “And in May, we planted a vineyard of 17,500 vines on the estate in 10 acres. A number of things combined to make it a landmark first year.”
Michael has ambitious plans for 2019, with the creation of a sculpture park in the spring with work by English artists. “Our focus is to try and get that second Michelin star. The first 18 months has been really fantastic and we’ve started to feel more confident. I think we’ve achieved a huge amount – we were in the top 100 hotels list for The Times and named Most Romantic Hotel.”
Exeter-born Michael studied catering in the city and was mentored by top chefs Raymond Blanc and, in France, Bernard Loiseau and Joël Robuchon. His success is hard-earned but it has given him a passion for educating others, setting up the Michael Caines Academy at Exeter College.
“It’s really important in our industry to give the opportunity for people to progress and realise their dreams. It takes time and people in the industry are slightly undervalued in this country. I wanted to address that by creating the Michael Caines Academy, the South West Chef of the Year and also celebrating what we do at the Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink.
“I don’t want people in the industry to be considered low-skilled. I like to invest in my team and provide an experience unrivalled in the county and the country. I want people to come to Lympstone Manor and have something unique in a place as beautiful as this overlooking the Exe Estuary.”
Michael plans another restaurant opening in Exmouth next year.
For chef and restaurateur Mitch Tonks, the highlight of 2018 was celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Seahorse in Dartmouth, and the continued success of his expanding Rockfish chain.
“In Rockfish, the thing I’ve enjoyed the most is the great menu changes we add in during the year – which have featured so many fabulous local fish from the seafood coast – and getting people to try something new. Being able to change how people eat seafood is our mission and we’re loving what we’re trying to do,” says Mitch.
“In January, our newly built Rockfish restaurant overlooking the Quay at Exeter opens and we can’t wait to be there. It’s such a vibrant atmosphere and a great destination in Exeter. But the biggest challenge we face in 2019 is Brexit and the potential impact. It is a great unknown and we’ll be watching carefully to see how things impact on food and supply costs, and on people working in the hospitality business.”
Mitch says if he could change anything it would be to stop so much of our seafood being exported. “I know it is because other countries like Spain and China value it so highly so they will pay a higher price, but I’d love for more of it to be eaten here by us!”
Last year was a groundbreaking one for Riverford Organic Farmers when, on 6 June, they became 74% employee-owned. Founder Guy Singh-Watson says he started thinking about who would look after Riverford best at the turn of the century and work began in earnest on a plan to sell to staff about three years ago.
“It felt very personal not to sell it to someone who just wanted to exploit it for maximum shareholder value,” admits Guy. “I wanted people to be running it who had the same ethos.”
The ethical streak and the passion for the environment that runs throughout the business will continue, says Guy. “We need to be true to our roots. We need to be more confident in doing things our own way – like pushing for the use of more cellulose plastics that are plant-based and fully compostable. And I’m 90% sure that in 2019 we will become a B Corporation. Most businesses are run for the benefit of shareholders but we can change our articles to work for the benefit of communities, customers and the environment.”
In terms of encouraging people to buy local, there is still a lot to be done, admits Guy. “There are still a lot of imports. At Riverford, we do a UK-only box and sales are up about 3–4% more than before, which is very heartening.”
One chef who understands the importance of buying local is Luke Fearon, to be found in the kitchens of The Treby Arms in Sparkwell when it held a Michelin star. Since leaving the pub in February 2018, he’s set up Devon Food Movement to showcase and promote local produce. He says he’s pleased with progress.
“We started in the spring so we’ve had three seasons and it’s got progressively better,” says Luke. “We’ve found some amazing new suppliers and have a more holistic approach. It’s about getting out there, meeting people and seeing the produce.
“Events are our core business, but it is a Movement and I do have a five-year plan. I want people to use Devon Food Movement as an accreditation. So, 2019 will be more of the same.
Luke adds: “In terms of helping the hospitality industry, I really think the government should ease up on taxing local produce. Restaurants and pubs are being taxed at both ends and that makes it very hard to make any money at all.”
Michael Smith, co-founder of the Venus Café chain, says the highlight of 2018 for him was both positive and negative – the weather!
“The first four or five months of the year were atrocious, then we had three good months, and then more extremes of weather. There were two periods of three days in one month when it snowed and you couldn’t even get down to the beach at Blackpool Sands,” says Michael.
“There’s a phenomenal variation in the weather and it has a huge influence on businesses like ours, so you have to be creative.”
This year will be an exciting one for Venus with the opening of a fourth Devon café in the Old Toll House, Torquay, opposite Torre Abbey Sands beach.
Michael thinks one of the biggest challenges for his Devon businesses is a connectivity issue in rural and coastal areas. “Everybody expects to do everything on their phone – book tables, order food and pay. Yet there’s no phone signal at our Bigbury-on-Sea operation, which affects card payments. It’s still a little bit in the dark ages.”
His ambition for 2019 is to continue the good work on environmental issues. The company has an ambitious sustainable policy but still, there’s more work to be done, says Michael. “Being plastic free is really difficult. We used to charge 50p on a PET plastic bottle but only around 20% of people returned them. And there’s still so much plastic which is not recyclable. We do have recyclable cups and collect them all… but they have to be driven to Bristol for processing. That’s crazy.”
Since Dartmoor Brewery delivered their first pint of Jail Ale in 1994, the Princetown-based business has grown to become Devon’s second-biggest brewery. In 2018, managing director Richard Smith celebrated their first World Beer Award for their Legend Ale. He says it reflects the brewery’s drive for “the consistency and quality of our ales”.
“It’s about everybody coming together, acting as a team and getting to grips with things – the marketplace isn’t easy for small breweries and microbrewers. So, it’s nice to be recognised nationally and internationally.”
Richard says 2019 will be “more of the same”. Developments include Dartmoor Brewery’s first keg beer, an IPA, which will provide a lighter beer for summer drinking. “We, as cask brewers, have to realise that people don’t want to drink a tepid pint any more. We’ve also teamed up with Dartmoor Farmers to produce a commercial Jail Ale pie, which we’re very excited about. It will bring alive the whole provenance of everything we do.”
Gabriel David, head of the family-run Luscombe Drinks, took advantage of the fantastic summer with an expanding range of delicious soft drinks that proved hugely popular. “When it’s warm and sunny, everyone is happy and relaxed, it feels like you’re on holiday,” he says.
Luscombe has continued adding to its range in what is a very competitive market.
“We had frequent requests to produce a Tonic Water to rival Fever Tree,” says Gabriel. “Our clients and consumers like to see new ideas and they readily buy into a new Luscombe product. People are also asking for options on low or no sugar, so we launched three Sparkling Fruit Waters – Passion Fruit, Sour Cherry and Raspberry. We’ve also added to our 200ml Mixer range with a lower sugar ‘Light’ Devon Tonic, Lime Crush and Hot Ginger. And in the summer, we were asked by the National Trust to produce a Rhubarb Crush, which has been really popular. We are constantly evolving.
“These products help our customers attract and keep new consumers who want to evolve their taste experiences. Consumers are demanding genuine ingredients, simple but tasty recipes and clean labelling with no additives or sweeteners, other than cane sugar. Luscombe plays that card in spades.”
Barbara King, MD of The Shops at Dartington and Chair of Devon Food & Drink, found 2018 full of spirit, literally.
“It was all things gin,” she laughs. “We’ve been making our own Elmhirst Gin and we have the Devon Gin School at our distillery at The Shops at Dartington. We’ve also been experimenting with Gin and Tonic Truffles, and Gin and Tonic Marmalade.
“More people are drinking gin and it can be used in so many cocktails. When we started making the gin we used rosemary from the estate as one of the botanicals.”
This year, Barbara is keen to increase the number of local products sold at Dartington from over 60% to 80%. She says: “There are so many small companies doing really lovely things and we want to support them. Retail is really suffering everywhere, but we offer something different. We are more of a destination here with The Great Hall, the gardens, the Barn Cinema and lovely places to eat, so people often make a day of it.”
One man with an overview of the food industry in Devon is John Sheaves, Chief Executive of Taste of the West, whose members include producers, growers, chefs and restaurants.
Taste of the West run annual awards and John says he’s always pleased to showcase great products in what is the highlight of the year for him.
“In 2018, the Best Cider was the St Louis Dry Hopped Cider from Devon’s Sandford Orchards which went on to beat 24 other category products to become the overall Supreme Champion Product of the South West,” says John. “It was born out of a chance meeting between Sandford’s cider maker and the godfather of US craft brewing Dan Kopman from Schlafly Brewery. It’s an enticing floral and citrus aroma leading to a light, refreshing palate with a clean hoppy finish. This is what gets me out of bed each day – when you unearth such a great product, you are full of admiration for the dedication, determination and professionalism that our new-found producers have. It’s truly inspiring.
“Obviously the biggest challenge for the industry is trying to keep abreast of all the different market signals and creating a business plan that covers all eventualities. Will we have an EU market for our goods or won’t we in the short term? How do we market ourselves to other export markets? Meanwhile, the domestic market continues to change and currently wants more ‘free from’ and vegetarian products with less sugar content too – quite a challenge for specialist producers.”