I’m just back home after a week of intensive teaching and eating in Devon, where writer, designer, cook, photographer and restaurateur Alastair Hendy and I were running a food-writing course for the Arvon Foundation. We and thirteen students were let loose in Totleigh Barton, an ancient thatched house filled with books, with no television or radio and virtually no telephone or internet access. On all Arvon courses, lunches are provided by visiting staff, but dinners are cooked by whichever group of writers is in residence, and everyone fixes their own breakfast as and when they choose. Normally, the Arvon people provide recipe cards and suggested menus for the dinners, but with a food-writing group that included accomplished amateur and professional cooks… well, as you can imagine, we were largely left to our own devices, which meant that we feasted like kings for four days.
On the first day we pillaged the kitchen garden for radishes, lettuces, courgettes (and their flowers), rocket, runner beans, beetroots and herbs, picked apples from old, lichen-covered trees in the orchard, and gathered blackberries from the hedgerows up the hills. Dinner was frittered courgette flowers followed by beetroot salad with crumbled Devon Blue cheese and toasted pine nuts; wild sea bass from Hatherleigh market, stuffed with fennel and roasted; sliced potatoes baked with cream, onion, sage and a local cheese called Vintage Oke; radish salad; blanched radish tops in a Sichuanese ginger sauce (guess who made that dish); and blackberry and apple crumble with clotted cream. On other evenings we had teriyaki chicken with a rice salad jewelled with herbs, nuts and dried fruit, ribbony cucumber salad, rhubarb fool with ginger biscuits; a tapas menu of meatballs in tomato sauce, patatas bravas, chicken with chorizo, kidney bean stew; home-made quiches; wine-poached pears with blackberry sauce; and so on.
It wasn’t as if we were having light lunches: every day, a visiting chef covered an old wooden table in salads, crab tarts, roasted aubergines, home-made soups, cold meats and cheeses, vegetables from the garden… Someone else kept delivering enormous trays of home-made cake (the sticky date cake, like sticky toffee pud without the sauce, was was the most scrumptious cake I’ve tasted in a long time). There were bacon and eggs and cereals for breakfast, scones with jam and clotted cream from time to time… And in case anyone was hungry between the four daily meals, we were allowed to help ourselves to food from the fridge, more cake, or biscuits from the biscuit tin whenever we pleased.
Of course, we were working intensely between meals, with discussions, readings, a field trip, critical analysis of texts, lectures and tutorials. While I’m not sure even I can argue that this is the kind of gruelling physical work that demands bacon sandwiches, potatoes dauphinoise and cake at two-hour intervals, it’s been delightful. But how am I going to cope without cooked breakfasts and cream teas every day now that I’m back home?