Eating England: No 12: Devon - Moor, shore, and the fat of the land

Walks through some of England's finest scenery will give you an appetite for the best of West Country fare

SOUTH DEVON is one of the best places in England to enjoy beautiful landscapes and the fat of the land. A coast of sandy coves and sparkling seas lies within a short distance of the wild stretches of Dartmoor, cut by wooded river valleys and crowned by the menacing shapes of granite tors. These terrains produce a very English cornucopia: the freshest of fish, game, plump soft fruits, vegetables and salad greens, rich beef, and cheeses.

TO GET an overview of Dartmoor, drive from Moretonhampstead to Tavistock. A road from Bovey Tracey is the best route up to the popular Haytor, one of the granite outcrops that punctuate the skyline. You can then walk or drive from here to Hound Tor. Conan Doyle was staying around here when he got the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

A wonderful river-valley walk goes along the River Teign from the Mill End Hotel near Chagford, up past Lutyens's Castle Drogo, which you can visit, along the upper slope of the valley to the Angler's Rest pub at pretty Fingle Bridge and then back along the river. The Lydford Gorge to the west of Dartmoor is another classic walk of this type.

A fine stretch of the South-west Coastal Path runs from Overbecks house and garden near Salcombe up to Bolt Head. At this time of year, gorse flowers and heather colour the headland with yellow and purple and the sea is a fresh aqua-green. The walk there and back takes 1 hour 15 minutes or you can continue along the cliff top. For more walks, the "Pathfinder" guides to Dartmoor and South Devon and Dartmoor (published by Jarrold and Ordnance Survey, price pounds 8.95) are both good.

ONE OF my top finds in south Devon was the mobile catering van called "Hound of the Basket Meals" in the car park at Hound Tor. It is run by a gent, Alan Smith, who sells fresh crab sandwiches (crusts removed on request), good fruit cake and a choice of 17 teas. He is there every day from Good Friday to the end of September, and then at weekends.

I have an allergy to over-cosy tea shops but there are some with good food without the frills. Pudding and Pie (tel: 01626 834047) in Bovey Tracey has ham on the bone, roast pork rolls on Thursdays, and Devon's wonderful organic ice-cream, from Rocombe Farm. The Wardroom (tel: 01548 842620) in Salcombe has crab salads and outdoor tables overlooking the harbour. Greys (tel: 01803 866369) in Totnes has a retro-cosy style and towering cakes in the window. The Carved Angel Cafe (tel: 01803 834842) in Dartmouth has rare-breed bangers from Heal Farm and seasonal foods.

For pubs, the Rugglestone Inn, Widecombe in the Moor (tel: 01364 621327) is a local's local with granite floors near Hound Tor and Haytor on Dartmoor. The Warren House Inn near Postbridge (tel: 01822 880208) is a walkers' pub with views across the moor. The Nobody Inn at Doddiscombsleigh (tel: 01647 252394) is famed for its wine, cheese and 200 whiskys.

THE BEST restaurants in South Devon create their menus around the best seasonal produce in the area. Tony and Tina Bricknell-Webb, the owners of Percy's (tel: 01409 211236), a restaurant with rooms in Virginstow, take the principle of freshness to a logical conclusion by producing much of their own meat and vegetables. Even the wild mushrooms are from their land. Tina lets the ingredients speak for themselves with just the right amount of culinary intervention, and the result is a meal that makes you full of good food but not stuffed like a sausage. For pounds 22 for three courses (pounds 18.50 for two) I had Cornish scallops with a dill, mustard and honey dressing (pounds 2 supplement), and at least seven different home- grown salad greens, springy with freshness; home-reared wild boar-cross fillet with a sage and orange glaze and beautiful home-grown vegetables; then a baba soaked with a light rosemary syrup, berries, rosemary ice cream and lemon geranium custard.

The Carved Angel (tel: 01803 832465) in Dartmouth has long been famous for its seasonal cooking using good local ingredients. This is a place that treats even the humblest green bean with respect. My brill, served with stuffed courgette flowers and a fresh tomato sauce, was full of late- summer flavours. The price for dinner (pounds 40 for two courses) sounds expensive but includes very good cheeses, proper olives, and excellent petits fours and is worth every penny. After dinner you can walk along the quay, past the lights on the water, towards the velvety blackness of the river mouth.

Two hotels which take you to another world are Gidleigh Park (tel: 01647 432367) near Chagford, and the art deco Burgh Island Hotel near Bigbury- on-Sea (tel: 01548 810514). Gidleigh Park's set dinner is pounds 57.50 and full of art and fine ingredients. The deepest Devon setting, the approach through twisting lanes and the hotel's spring water, which tastes like the pure air, are all part of the pleasure of this country house fantasy. Burgh Island was a holiday spot for Agatha Christie and Noel Coward in the cocktail- swigging Thirties. The restored hotel, reached by foot or in an eccentric sea-tractor over a nice beach, serves lunch (pounds 21 for two courses), dinner and cocktails to non-residents.

CHAGFORD HAS some excellent food shops, including the Moorland Dairy (tel: 01647 432479) that has golden Guernsey clotted cream, Devon honey, and South-west cheeses. Two exceptional cheese shops in the area are Country Cheeses (tel: 01822 615035) in Tavistock, and Ticklemore Cheese (tel: 01803 865926) in Totnes. Do not fail to try Ticklemore's own cheeses, the celebrated Beenleigh Blue and Devon Blue. Riverford Farm Shop (tel: 01803 762523), Staverton, near Totnes, has excellent local produce and ham baked with apple juice and cider.

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