Michael Caines: My West Country

He learned his craft in some of the world's great kitchens. But it was to his home, the West Country, that the chef Michael Caines returned, to create award-winning dishes from its natural larder. Interview by Ian McCurrach
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The Independent Travel

My earliest memories of growing up in Devon are about holidays at the seaside. We used to go to Salcombe Sands and Dawlish Warren, where there's a great big sand dune that juts out into the Exe estuary. Budleigh Salterton and Exmouth were firm favourites, too, and so was Plymouth, where we would go to visit my grandparents.

I grew up in Cullompton, about 12 miles outside Exeter, in the Culm Valley. It was a farming area at the time - this was before the arrival of the M5. I'm one of six kids: Mum and Dad were teachers and Mum worked part-time; we didn't have a lot of money but we didn't want for anything.

For holidays, we'd often go camping on Dartmoor and Exmoor. It was like one big adventure; we'd share a couple of tents or sometimes Mum and Dad would have a caravan and us kids would camp. During the day we'd take long walks; we'd be forever saying, "How far to go now, Dad?" When I look back at those times it puts a real smile on my face.

Sometimes we'd visit Barnstaple and Ilfracombe in North Devon. And we'd go to Cornwall, to Bovey Sands and Newquay. What I remember most about the region is its outstanding beauty: the contrast between the high and the low lands, the sharp jagged cliffs of the north coast juxtaposed with the rolling and gentle south coast, and then the ruggedness and remoteness of Dartmoor.

My parents had a field where we cultivated our own crops. It wasn't exactly The Good Life, but not far off it. We'd grow cabbages, potatoes, lettuce, fruits and we even had half an orchard, where we grew Bramleys and Russets. Food, and the whole process of mealtimes around the table, was a big part of my childhood and my love of good food was evident from an early age.

I used to enjoy spending time with Dad in the field, helping him to cultivate and pick our fruit and vegetables. The seasons were really important. During early spring and summer we'd grow herbs and lettuces - then towards the end of winter the root vegetables, would come through. I remember picking apples, carefully wrapping them in newspaper and putting them up in the loft.

My childhood was spent around growing food and taking it into the kitchen and turning it into a good meal. Mum was a good cook - although, at the time, I probably said she wasn't. I started by helping her bake cakes and then moved on to preparing the Sunday roast and entire meals. We all had our chores. I hated washing up and vacuuming, but I loved cooking - that was my thing.

When I was eight we moved to Exeter. I went on to train as a chef there. London and the Grosvenor House soon beckoned and from there I moved on to work with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford, and then with two superstar chefs in France, Joël Robuchon and the late Bernard Loiseau.

I returned to the West Country after getting a call from Raymond to say he'd heard that they were looking for a chef at Gidleigh Park, a country house hotel on Dartmoor. He told me I should apply for the job, and I got it. Becoming head chef in Gidleigh's one-Michelin star restaurant was not only a great opportunity, it also meant I was coming home.

I had learnt about the importance of using local natural ingredients and their significance in high-quality French regional cuisine when I worked with the Bernard Loiseau in Burgundy. When I returned to Devon, I realised that I was surrounded by a natural larder. I couldn't believe what a fantastic opportunity it presented - so inspiring, so stimulating.

The geographic nature of Devon doesn't lend itself to mass industrial farming, so there are lots of small-holdings where traditional values are still being upheld and native breeds still being reared. You can get superb beef from Richard Vines at Hillhead Farm in Newton Abbott and mutton and lamb from Stuart Baker at Lingcombe Farm in Chagford. There are also great fishing ports nearby, such as Looe, Plymouth and Brixham, so you can eat fish at night that was landed only that morning.

Agriculture has always been a vital part of the region's economy and now, coupled with tourism, we can offer visitors an unforgettable stay that brings together good food and hospitality. The Hendersons, who set up Gidleigh Park, seized on this, and the new owners, Andrew and Christina Brownsword, and I are committed to enhancing the experience. We've now achieved two Michelin stars at Gidleigh and I'm hoping that by championing what's great about the South-west in terms of the local produce we'll go on to achieve that third star.

Summer and autumn are my favourite seasons in the West Country, because there is such an abundance of produce and the countryside is at its best. The real stars are the ingredients, but I also draw inspiration from individual farmers who are as passionate about their one product, be it chicken or beef. Guy Watson at Riversford Farm in the Dart Valley does a tremendous organic box scheme. He works his land in a very environmentally friendly way and has encouraged others to get into organics. The farmers' markets and food festivals that are part of the seasonal calendar are also great for getting hold of good ingredients.

The Sharpham Estate in Totnes produces fine English wines and cheeses. There are also great artisan producers, such as market gardener John Roswell in Barrington, Somerset, who delivers great fruit and vegetables. Charles Stanleyland has got a terrific place at Widdecombe-in-the-Moor where he grows herbs in a small walled garden.

We now produce more than 2,500 types of cheese in the West Country. Elise and Gary Jungheim from Country Cheeses, who are based in Tavistock and have shops in Topsham and Exeter, have been instrumental in bringing small producers to my attention. Tom and Mary Quickes of Quickes Cheeses, just outside Exeter, make phenomenal Quickes and Montgomery cheddars. Then there are wonderful people such as Peter and Henrietta Greig at Pipers Farm in the Culm Valley. You can buy meat from them direct or online.

My ideal menu is to start off with seafood because we have such a seasonal abundance of fish such as red mullet, sea bass, turbot, shrimps and scallops. Then I'd move on to meat - maybe something like venison from Hatherleigh. I'd then have a selection of South-west cheeses - all of which can sit next to our brothers on the Continent. My favourites include Sharpens brie or a rind-washed Stinking Bishop. For dessert, it has to be something from the orchard.

I started the first Michael Caines restaurant at the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter. I quickly realised that the restaurant was attracting a clientele who wouldn't be interested in staying in the tired rooms of the hotel. My business partner, Andrew Brownsword, and I decided top buy the property and update it as a boutique hotel. We wanted to offer guests first-class food and drink at the heart of a great and homely hotel stay - that's the ABode concept. We've now got ABode hotels in Glasgow and Canterbury with more on the way in Manchester and Chester.

There are many great places to eat in the West Country. I love the Dartmoor Inn at Lydford - it's sort of like my local. It's one of those pubs that has been turned into a wonderful restaurant with rooms. Karen and Phil Burgess source everything locally. I also like Percy's in Virginstowe and Tanners in Plymouth. The Agaric Restaurant in Ashburton is tremendous. It's run by Nick Coiley who used to be the chef at the Carved Angel in Plymouth. There are too many to mention. All these guys are usually represented at the Exeter Festival of South West England Food and Drink at the end of March.

I live in a converted chapel on the edge of Dartmoor, with my partner, Ruth, and our two small children. To get away from it all we go camping on Dartmoor, as I did in my childhood. Walking on the moor is quite a spiritual experience - there are lots of stone circles and it's very remote - it's a good place to put your life in perspective. I love Fingle Glen - I call it Pixieland. There's this little river that flows into the Dart, where we always have my son's birthday. We also love fishing and barbecue our catch on the beach.

My work can be very stressful; it's been hectic with the recent reopening of Gidleigh Park. But in the West Country it's easy to switch off. I go and sit on the boulders by the river Teign and just relax.

For more information about Michael Caines, go to michaelcaines.com. For ABode go to abodehotels. co.uk, and for Gidleigh Park go to gidleigh.com

The best topping

COGNAC CUSTARD

Ingredients: 1 litre milk; 10 egg yolks; 2 vanilla pods split and scraped; 150g sugar; 50g milk powder; 200ml whipping cream; 25ml cognac

Method: Place the milk, milk powder and vanilla into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Cream together the egg yolks and sugar, add some of the milk and whisk until smooth. Add the remaining milk and pour back into the saucepan and cook to 85C, stirring continuously. Pass through a fine sieve and add the cognac, and leave in a water-bath to keep warm.

The festive drink

MULLED WINE

Ingredients: 2 oranges; 1 lemon; 4 cloves; a pinch of cinnamon powder and 2 cinnamon sticks; a pinch of Chinese five spice; 50g caster sugar; 1 cup of water; 50ml Grand Marnier; 750ml full-bodied red wine

Method: Slice the lemon and one of the oranges, stud the other orange with the cloves. Dissolve the sugar into the cup of water. Pour the wine into a saucepan with the studded orange, stir in the sugared water and spices, then take to a moderate heat and leave for 10 minutes; do not boil the wine. Before serving remove the studded orange, add Grand Marnier and citrus slices, pour into a glass punch bowl, garnish with the cinnamon sticks.

The best bread sauce

SAGE AND ONION

BREAD SAUCE (serves four)

Ingredients: 600g onions; 1 litre of water; 5g salt; a pinch of chicken stock powder; 1 bay leaf; 6g chopped sage; 50ml milk; 200g dried white breadcrumbs; 60g unsalted butter

Method: Peel the onions and cut into four, removing the root and any blemishes. Place into a stainless-steel saucepan and cover with the water, add the bread, salt, sage, bay leaf and stock. Bring to the boil and reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook for 30 minutes, then pass through a colander, place into a blender and blend until a fine purée. Put it in a saucepan and add a drop of milk and butter and cook until smooth.

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