A Devon idyll of cakes, cooking and conversation

Totleigh Barton

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.

Wine-poached pears with blackberries

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?

5 Responses to “A Devon idyll of cakes, cooking and conversation”

  1. Rachel Lucas

    Ah…such wonderful memories evoked of our own Food Writing week at Totleigh…3 years ago now, although it’s hard to believe. So much learned, so many lasting friendships forged, and you are so right…the dinners! Each night the designated team tried to subtly outdo the previous evening’s meal. Just a fabulous experience all round. Lovely to know it hasn’t changed!

  2. JEM

    I’ve never had much luck growing radishes in London, I think the soil is so thin that they don’t get enough water. They do however grow radish tops which make as you say excellent eating.

    What was in your ginger sauce, please? Or in which of your books should I look; I’ve bought all four of them in the last month, they’re the Chinese cookery technique class I’ve been looking to buy for years. Thank you so much! They fit into my top three cookery books – with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Meat’ (which spends pages introducing the reader to the joys of putting pork fat into everything though I don’t think he actually calls it xian wei), and Madhur Jaffrey’s ‘Ultimate Curry Bible’.

    I have only one complaint about your books; and that’s the absence of the tone marks. This means if I take my mother into a Chinese restaurant and try to impress her by ordering horse in Chinese, they might take her away and chop her up – or bring me hemp to smoke! This is a real worry for me…

    May I suggest your next book should be ‘Chinese for Gourmets’?

  3. Fuchsia

    The ginger sauce is the same as served over blanched ginger in Every Grain of Rice! (except that on this occasion I made it with Italian balsamic vinegar because there wasn’t any rice vinegar)

    Point taken about the tone marks. The thing is – unless people have learnt some Chinese, they probably won’t be able to pronounce the tones accurately anyway, and the tone marks do clutter up the layout of an English-language book. Having said that, given that more and more of my readers have travelled to China and learnt some Chinese, I may well include tone marks in the future…

  4. mminuk

    Sounds like a lot of fun. And cake is good any time of day!

  5. Justin

    Ditto on the tone mark comment! Please do include them in the future.

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