How the West was won

It started with one exceptional restaurant, but now a whole array of fabulous foodie outlets are opening up in a sleepy town on the edge of Dartmoor. So is Ashburton set to become the West Country's answer to Ludlow? Mark Taylor investigates
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Indy Lifestyle Online

In Victorian times there were nine butchers, seven bakers and 29 grocers in the small South Devon market town of Ashburton. The 1851 census for this ancient place, situated on the southern slopes of Dartmoor and on the fringes of the National Park, also listed four chemists and "druggists", four ironmongers, six drapers, seven milliners, six tailors and three watchmakers.

In Victorian times there were nine butchers, seven bakers and 29 grocers in the small South Devon market town of Ashburton. The 1851 census for this ancient place, situated on the southern slopes of Dartmoor and on the fringes of the National Park, also listed four chemists and "druggists", four ironmongers, six drapers, seven milliners, six tailors and three watchmakers.

Four years ago, hungry visitors to the former tin-mining town were faced with a simple choice of a quick snack in one of the old tea shops or pub grub from a local boozer. But, thanks to the efforts of a group of enterprising foodies, Ashburton has started to make a name for itself on the culinary map, recently drawing comparisons to other thriving gastronomic market towns such as Ludlow and Abergavenny.

For Devon-born, Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines, who cooks at nearby Gidleigh Park, Ashburton is now reminiscent of the kind of foodie havens you find in France or Italy: "If it was on the Continent, you might take its rich mix of delis, restaurants and traditional butchers for granted, yet such cultural bastions are still very unusual in Britain."

In much the same way that Michelin-starred chef Sean Hill kick-started the Ludlow food revolution, chef Nick Coiley and his wife, Sophie, are the main catalyst for turning Ashburton into a gourmet hot-spot. Coiley used to be head chef under the legendary Joyce Molyneux at Dartmouth restaurant The Carved Angel, so it was almost inevitable Agaric was destined to be a honeypot for gastronauts. The North Street restaurant has been a permanent fixture in The Good Food Guide since it opened in 2000. An informal fine-dining restaurant that prides itself on using strictly seasonal, local produce, Agaric would outshine most London restaurants. It's almost unnerving to find such a high-quality operation in a town on the edge of wild and windy Dartmoor.

When I arrive for lunch at the restaurant, Coiley comes out of his tiny kitchen, apologising in advance that his rubber-gloved hand is covered with crab meat. The crab had been caught a few hours earlier by one of his suppliers, a local fisherman who calls on a mobile from his boat just to check the chef's crab and lobster requirements for the day.

One only has to look at the menu to see Coiley's passion for ingredients. November dishes include roast partridge with smoked * bacon and local quinces, Dartmouth crab salad and roast loin of Devon lamb. The bread he serves is baked in the brick oven in his back garden, where he also grows Alpine strawberries in the summer. At the moment, the bar looks like a farmers' market stall, with baskets of ruby chard and golden beetroot, as well as piles of apples and autumn raspberries supplied by Charles Staniland of The Gardens in Buckland-in-the-Moor, a local institution famous for dropping off the most mouthwatering local produce. Staniland was one of the reasons why Coiley moved to Ashburton in the first place.

For the Coileys, however, moving to Ashburton was as much about achieving a better quality of life as it was utilising the abundant local produce. "It was about getting the balance right," says Sophie. "Dartmoor is five minutes up the road. We can finish work at 3.30pm, pick up the kids from school and whip up to the moors to pick mushrooms for the restaurant, walk the dog and be back for 5pm to open up again - you couldn't do that in many places.

"We moved here because it's a lovely little town, but there is certainly a sense that more and more people are coming to Ashburton because it is now foodie central. We're already looking into buying another property so that we can offer rooms, too."

After lunch, I stroll along North Street to West Street and The Fish Deli, the latest business to open in Ashburton. Run by Nick Legg, whose chef CV includes a stint at Plymouth's Holiday Inn, the small shop is dedicated to all things piscine and gourmet. There is an ice counter boasting some of the freshest, bright-eyed fish I've seen - wild sea bass, mackerel, herring, cod, ling, all sourced daily from Brixham and Plymouth - but The Fish Deli's strength is that it doesn't restrict itself to being simply a fishmonger. As well as obvious deli items such as barrels of olives, high-quality oils and marinades, there's also a chill cabinet packed with fish salads and daily specials, and local products such as jars of seafood from Seafare in Paignton and dipping sauces from the Cornish Chilli Company.

"The problem with being purely a fishmonger is that if you get a bad day, you've got a lot of fish left over," says Legg. "We get our fish * from day boats every day so whatever's left over we make into fishcakes, soups, curries that we can sell in the delicatessen the next morning. Very few fishmongers have that option. We've only been open for seven months and it's going very well indeed."

A few doors along from The Fish Deli is Moorish, a restaurant with the sort of Moro-meets-River Café food that one might expect to find in London rather than a South Devon town. Owners Judy Gordon-Jones and Hilary Townsend previously ran Lidgate House hotel at Postbridge in the heart of the Dartmoor National Park for 11 years but decided to move to Ashburton because they saw a gap in the market for a "middle-range" eatery. "There was nothing between the pubs and Agaric so we took a leap of faith," says Gordon-Jones. "As soon as we started, it seems we sucked the population of Ashburton in and we have been busy ever since. Nick Coiley opened the door really, but everybody's doing well and there's a general feeling that people head to Ashburton for good food now."

With its original Victorian shelving and chandeliers, the nearby Ashburton Delicatessen may look more traditional than The Fish Deli, but owner Sarah Maynard's commitment to sourcing quality West Country products is very of the moment. Another former chef (she used to cook on luxury private yachts), Maynard's well-stocked shop ranges from Susie and Adam Vever's Dartmoor Honey ("made from pure honey from Dartmoor bees") and a staggering selection of artisan cheeses including Devon Blue, handmade in nearby Ticklemore.

"I'm now getting people who are coming here from as far away as Plymouth and Exeter and they're saying they come to Ashburton because they don't have shops and restaurants like this," she says. "I've upgraded my kitchen to meet demand. For the past two years I've been cooking on a Baby Belling."

One Ashburtonian who has watched the town's transformation with more interest than most is Rodney Cleave. A butcher since he left Newton Abbot grammar school in 1976, Cleave took over one of the two traditional family butchers in East Street, in 2002. He sells locally produced meat, with full traceability to the suppliers, including pork farmer Nigel Tope from Blackawton and Robert Harvey who produces lamb at his Harberton farm. Specialising in what he describes as "honest local meat", Cleave still makes hand-raised pies, cures his own hams and makes all sausages by hand. "A lot of the meat comes from either my own farm or my brother's farm three miles away," he says.

Further up East Street, in one of the many grand merchant's houses, the Ashburton Cookery School offers a range of courses, from Italian and seafood to cooking with chillies, and gastro - which aims to teach students how to cook Modern British "gastropub"-style food.

There is undoubtedly a sense of something significant happening in Ashburton. The foundations seem to have been laid for more and more businesses to take advantage of the town's new image, with only a serious gastropub and a decent hotel being conspicuous by their absence. One of the striking things about the place is that, apart from a Spa shop and a small Somerfield supermarket, it seems to thrive almost entirely on independent shops.

Joyce Molyneux, who ran The Carved Angel in Dartmouth for more than 25 years, agrees that Ashburton has all the hallmarks of a Ludlow-in-waiting. "Once you get one or two good places it attracts other related businesses as well - the same thing happened in Dartmouth a few years ago. Ashburton is a lovely little town and very well placed for people who want to visit the moors. The last time I went to Ashburton, I popped into Agaric and had some of the most beautiful wild salmon I've had in years!"

Of course, some people in Ashburton have mixed feelings about the sudden transformation from sleepy town to gastronomic haven. One local trader, who didn't want to named, told me that she feels the character of the town has changed dramatically over the past year. "We have been quite a thriving town for quite a long time, but what has happened is that Ashburton's got much 'posher'. But then, when you see how run-down many small towns are, it's got to be a good thing. It's no good harking back to the old days when the town was supplying all the day-to-day goods for the people living on the moors, because that isn't how life is these days."

Agaric restaurant, 30 North Street, tel: 01364 654 478, www.agaricrestaurant.co.uk; The Fish Deli, 9 West Street, tel: 01364 654 833; Moorish restaurant, 11 West Street, tel: 01364 654 011; Ashburton Delicatessen, 16 North Street, tel: 01364 652 277; Rodney Cleave Butchers, 28 East Street, tel: 01364 654 600; Ashburton Cookery School, 76 East Street, tel: 01364 652 784, www.ashburtoncookeryschool.co.uk

Five other top foodie towns

Abergavenny This town's food festival attracts foodies from all over and Matt Tebbut's Foxhunter restaurant in nearby Nantyderry is gaining a reputation as one of the best in Wales.

Bray This small Berkshire village is home to two heavyweights ­ Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Michel Roux's Waterside Inn.

Burnham Market A North Norfolk town stuffed with fine restaurants and delis.

Ludlow The foodie capital of Britain since Shaun Hill opened the Merchant House in 1995.

Padstow Nicknamed "Padstein" by locals, this Cornish town is dominated by Rick Stein's empire ­ restaurant, hotel, bistro and chippy ­ but it has encouraged others to set up shop.

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