Manna from Devon

PUBLISHED: 10:33 27 May 2011 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013

A happy class at the end of their teaching session

A happy class at the end of their teaching session

'Real food means slow food' is the philosophy behind Manna From Devon, an inspired catering and cookery school enterprise in Kingswear

Holly Jones was out delivering cakes while her husband David was sorting out a seasonal vegetable course for the cookery school when I arrived at Fir Mount House. Like so many houses in Kingswear, it is built into a hill that plunges towards the River Dart. Downstairs in the kitchen, David ground coffee in one of a row of chunky hand-grinders he has collected from car boot sales.

With coffee came a plate of Holly's chocolate brownies. In a single bite I understood why they called themselves Manna from Devon. This brownie was downright delicious.

Bed and breakfast, a cookery school, cake suppliers to delis and restaurants, outside catering and baking bread for Dartmouth farmers' market - between them, these signed-up members of the slow-food movement have their work cut out.

Holly and David have fitted their business around how they want to live their lives. Both are keen birdwatchers and sailors and they make time to get out on the water. David's very readable blog demonstrates the close connection he has forged between life and work, and documents everyday events big and small: the saving of a goldcrest, the collapse of a wall and ponderings upon a beetroot.

Life at Fir Mount House centres on the kitchens (they have two) - a professional kitchen in the basement for cake making and outside catering, and the house kitchen, a practical homely room with not an island or butcher's block in sight. It is practical, clean, homely, well-worn and the hub of the house. B&B guests can help themselves to breakfast there. It is an improvised office, and when the cookery school is in action, the huge dining table at the far end of the room is hoisted onto blocks to make a work surface.

From army life to Pru Leith's cookery school

David, a sourdough enthusiast, and Holly, an organic potato expert, both moved into the food business after a background in the forces. It was after leaving the army that Holly trained as a chef at Prue Leith's cookery school, then went on to work with the Henry Doubleday Trust as a demonstrator. She was then a food writer for the BBC before she and David gravitated to Kingswear to run the catering at the Royal Dart Yacht Club.

While they worked there, the couple built up a network of local growers, suppliers and fishermen, and they bought Fir Mount House where they initially ran the B&B and their outside catering business. It was after David had been on a professional bread-making course that the idea of the cookery school took shape.

"It struck me that we were in a nice spot overlooking the river with a big kitchen," said David. "I had been in training and development for 15 years and Holly's an experienced demonstrator and brilliant chef, so it made sense."

The Jones persuaded friends to come along for a test day at their fledgling school. "We needed to do that to find out what pitfalls there might be before we unleashed ourselves upon the public," David said. The trial day went down a storm and they haven't looked back since.

The school is just beginning its second year and has taken on a momentum that neither Holly nor David had anticipated. Apart from the programme of workshops, the cookery school runs custom-built classes to suit individual needs. It could be friends or families on holiday going out on a fishing trip in the morning, then preparing and cooking their catch, or a hen party spending the day preparing a Tuscan feast for the evening. Slow cooking is another possibility, with a morning preparing a cassoulet or lamb tagine, then a guided coastal walk to work up an appetite while it is cooking.

The school's spring programme

Real bread, fabulous fish and seasonal vegetable workshops are three of the items in the cookery school's spring programme.

"We explode a number of myths about bread in our workshop," said David. "People think they need an airing cupboard or an Aga, but that simply isn't the case." The group spends the day getting to grips with the whole process of bread-making, and at four o'clock they leave laden with bloomers, sweet buns, focaccia, multiseed and classic wholemeal loaves. Some get the bread-making bug and progress to the complexities of sourdough.

The fish course begins with a box of fish and ends with a fish feast. "We work with whatever has come in that day," said David. "It's all about not being afraid of fish, and getting the confidence to handle any kind of fish or seafood. We encourage people to bring their own fish knife so they can practise using it."

New to the spring programme is the seasonal vegetable cooking workshop, when the cookery school will work hand in hand with the Riverford box scheme. "We'll be looking at the less obvious vegetables that come in the boxes," David said. "What to do with cavelero, Jerusalem artichokes and kohlrabi, for instance. Then we'll enjoy a late lunch of local, seasonal and delicious dishes we've prepared."

With David doing pasta, bread and pastry, and Holly the cakes, puddings and Mediterranean cookery, they make a great team. They seem to have found a balance in their lives. They say it's all about being in touch with their food, having a direct connection to where it has come from. It may entail getting up at three o'clock in the morning to enjoy the unpredictabilities of sourdough, or sitting down to a boeuf bourgignon that has cooked slowly all day, or just grinding coffee beans in an ancient grinder, but to them it's hugely satisfying.


For more information and to see the class programme contact (01803 752943


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