Regional Passions: Dairy, dairy, quite contrary

Devon's traditional clotted creams and cheeses are being adapted to tem pt a new generation of eaters, says Shaun Hill
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West Country people eat well. Your average Devonian may well be a stone heavier than his or her London counterpart. Rain and industrial neglect militate against Armani suits and low-fat yoghurt and toward Barbour jackets and clotted cream. Proper food is the order of the day.

No surprise, then, that many of the country's finest producers and purveyors of sound grub flourish in the West Country. The traditions are essentially those of Trencherman's England: cured hams and bacon from Wiltshire or Somerset, crab salads from Brixham and Newlyn, Cornish pasties and plenty of cider and beer, from just about anywhere, to wash it down.

There is no regional cuisine in the sense portrayed by tourist information leaflets. Starry gazy pie, an unappealing confection of fish heads poking out of pastry crust, is harder to find than the beast of Exmoor.

But a mound of good food can be had, with enough local demand to support a large seam of craft-scale cheesemakers, bakers, sausage-makers and the like. Plymouth chain stores may offer the same lasagna as you would find in Newcastle or Bradford, but they also stock fresh fish, superb jams and the ubiquitous scones with clotted cream.

In a world where low cholesterol and low fat are accepted as the recipe for everlasting health, dairy farmers are using their imagination.

Peter Redstone's solution is to convert the milk from his Jersey herd at Rocombe Farm into some of the best ice-cream anywhere. No preservatives, no stabilisers and no artificial additives - just free-range eggs, organic milk and cream, mixed with unrefined cane sugar. (It is amazing how rarely retailers stock such ice-cream.) Flavours range from ``lemon meringue'' to ``tandoori chicken''. The latter, though, may seem more of an experience than a pleasure.

Apart from fishing and tourism, cheesemaking is the region's other success story. Ticklemore dairy in Totnes, for instance, sells goat's-and ewe's-milk cheeses that compete with the best France and Italy have to offer. Beenleigh, a roquefort-type blue, Ticklemore goat, a hard, pressed cheese, and Ticorino, a pecorino-like ewe's-milk cheese, are the sorts that have transformed the cheese counters of every restaurant, pub and deli in the region.

But Ticklemore is not alone in the quality cheese market. Stockbeare Farm, near Okehampton, makes firm, fresh-tasting Curworthy, and Sharpham creamery at Ashprington produces a brie-like cheese that sells under its own name, ``Sharpham''.

With cheeses such as these and a slice of good bread, you have the makings of a true regional passion for food. All the rest - the setting in which to eat it, the coastline and moors, the pastures and rivers - is a bonus.

Cinnamon French toast with rum and raisin ice-cream

If you have an ice-cream maker, the recipe for rum and raisin is simple: just like vanilla ice-cream with the late addition of raisins soaked in rum. If you do not want to make your own ice-cream, then a really first-rate ready-made one will be fine.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 8 slices of brioche or chollah bread

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 pint (150ml) cream

1/4 pint (150ml) milk

1tsp ground cinnamon

1tsp castor sugar

a little oil for frying

1tbs icing sugar

Preparation: Mix milk, cream, sugar and cinnamon. Turn slices of brioche in mixture, then leave to soak up any remainder for 10-15 minutes. Heat a little vegetable oil in a pan and fry bread on each side until golden brown. Dust with icing sugar and a pinch more cinnamon, and serve warm with scoops of ice-cream. Vanilla ice cream

Serves 4

Ingredients: 10fl oz (280ml) milk

3 1/2 oz (100g) sugar

3 egg yolks

8fl oz (220ml) double cream

Preparation: Whisk yolks and sugar together. Scald milk and cream, then whisk on to egg yolks. Cook mixture until it thickens slightly, then cool it, churn and freeze.

Celeriac and autumn leaf salad with Beenleigh blue cheese dressing

Serves 4

Ingredients: For the dressing: 1oz (30g) Beenleigh blue cheese

4tbs olive oil

1tsp wine vinegar

2tbs white wine

black pepper

For the salad: 1/4 of a medium-sized celeriac

selection of green salad leaves

2 slices white bread, cut into cubes

Preparation: Peel the celeriac and cut into matchstick strips. Boil for one minute to soften slightly, then wash under cold water and drain. Combine all the dressing ingredients - preferably in a liquidiser. Dry the cubes of bread in a warm oven or under a slow grill, then toss in 1tbs of olive oil to make croutons. Toss the salad and celeriac in dressing and scatter across the croutons.

Rocombe Farm Ice Cream, 123 Union Street, Castle Circus, Torquay, Devon (0803 293996). Ticklemore Cheese, 1 Ticklemore Street, Totnes, Devon (0803 865926). Stockbeare Farm, Jacobstowe, Okehampton, Devon (0837 810587). Sharpham Creamery, Sharpham House, Ashprington, Devon (0803 732203).

Shaun Hill's new restaurant, The Merchant House at Lower Corve Street, Ludlow, Shropshire, opens next month. His Gidleigh Park Cookery Book is published by Random Century at pounds 15.99.