This part of Devon is exceptionally appealing to foodies. The abundance of fresh produce and excellent restaurants is largely due to the farming heritage of the region, which encourages free-range animals and organic methods.
The taste of Devon is undoubtedly that of clotted cream. A Devon cream tea is as integral a part of a visit to this region as rain (indeed, the one often leads to the other). Clotted cream is quite unlike any other sort of cream, being as thick as butter and almost as yellow; it contains more fat (around 63%, while double cream is 48%), and traditionally was made by gradually heating fresh milk using steam or hot water, and allowing it to cool very slowly. The thick cream that rises to the top was then skimmed off. The original term was clouted cream, clout being the word for patch, referring to the thick crust that forms when the cream is heated.
Clotted cream is served with fresh scones, which should be warm from the oven not the microwave; purists prefer plain scones but others love the fruit ones. In Devon the cream is spread on the scone first, instead of butter, and jam is added on top; in Cornwall it’s the opposite: jam first, then clotted cream. Either way it’s utterly delicious – and very filling. The Victorian prime minister William Gladstone was right when he called clotted cream ‘the food of the gods’. Talking of jam, an Exmoor speciality is whortleberry jam. Whortleberry is the Exmoor name for bilberry, a heather relative, which grows on the moor.
Meat eaters are in for a treat in this region. Some hotels convert to shooting lodges in the winter so pheasant, partridge, woodcock and venison feature on many country menus.
The native cattle could claim to produce the best steak in England. The nickname for the North Devon breed of cattle, Red Ruby, is appropriate: these animals are a beautiful chestnut red, the colour of a ripe conker. They are prized for their docility, hardiness and ability to convert grass to succulent, marbled meat. Most of the herds you will see grazing in the North and Mid Devon fields are grown slowly, outdoors (though the climate is such that they need to be brought inside during the winter), with the calves staying with their mothers until they are weaned.
Another native breed, the Exmoor horn sheep, has adapted to the conditions on Exmoor over the centuries. And Exmoor has adapted to the sheep, so the landscape you enjoy today owes as much to the grazing of these animals as it does to nature. The sheep are all-white and, as the name suggests, both rams and ewes have horns. They are dual-purpose animals, raised for wool as well as meat – in the days when mutton was regularly eaten they were considered to have the finest meat of any breed. Devon closewool sheep are another breed from Exmoor favoured for meat and hardiness.
Pigs, the original domestic meat animal, do well on Exmoor, and rare-breed Berkshire and Middle White pigs are raised outdoors (mostly) to provide succulent pork.
North and Mid Devon has 14 breweries listed by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). They are: Artbrew, Barum, Buckland, Clearwater, Combe, Country Life, FatBelly, Grampus, GT Ales, Holsworthy Ales, Magical Craft Brewery, Tally Ho!, Taw Valley and Yelland Manor. Quite a collection! See northdevon.camra.org.uk for more details.
There are also some interesting local ciders. Sandford Orchards in Crediton and Sam’s Cider in Winkleigh both produce excellent ranges – it’s fun finding your favourite. Cider making is seasonal, so if you are in Devon in late autumn you may see apples being collected for pressing. The juice is then fermented for 14 days and blended, which can take up to two years; Devon’s cider makers don’t hurry, they just want to make great cider. Similarly, there are a number of small vineyards that produce excellent English wine. You’ll find ales, ciders and wines in most farm shops and stores selling local products as well as in the producers’ own on-site shops.
If it’s the stronger stuff you’re after, there’s a number of excellent local gin distilleries in the region. Exmoor’s Wicked Wolf Gin is making a name for itself; it’s run by a husband-and-wife team in Brendon who are proud of the eleven premium botanicals that go into it. Likewise, the Atlantic Gin distillery on the North Devon coast uses ‘locally foraged botanicals’ including samphire and laver for their distinctive tastes. In a tiny distillery near Winkleigh, Dawn and Mark make Gotland Gin and they will happily show you how they do it, before you do some tasting in their outdoor, covered bar. Gin making is one of Britain’s fastest-growing industries so you will no doubt find other distilleries during your travels.