4 Devon chefs who grow their own veg

PUBLISHED: 13:06 29 March 2016 | UPDATED: 14:24 30 March 2016

Heritage Tomatoes are home grown for The Jack in the Green

Heritage Tomatoes are home grown for The Jack in the Green

Norsworthy Photography

Forget food miles, meet the Devon chefs who boast of food metres

Top chefs love to shout about the provenance of their food, especially in the Westcountry. There’s fantastic fish, brilliant beef and perfect poultry. But what about the unsung hero of the dinner plate - the humble veg?

Many kitchens are discovering the joys of growing your own veg. Country house hotels are reviving the traditions of the estates they once were - walled kitchen gardens, orchards and greenhouses which would have meant self-sufficiency.

Mark Godfrey, Deer Park Country House Hotel

At the Deer Park Country House Hotel near Honiton, managing director Mark Godfrey and his team are restoring the walled kitchen garden at this Georgian mansion and are already sending lots of beautiful produce to the restaurant.

“Last summer we had tomatoes, aubergines, chilli, basil - all the Mediterranean flavours. In the winter we used the greenhouses for salad leaves in lovely peppery, mustardy flavours. Our second greenhouse we used for bulbs for the house and now we’re propagating all the tomatoes and chillies ready to go out,” he says.

“On the back wall we’ve now got apricot and peach all fantailed out. They look just amazing. At one time the estate would have been self-sufficient with six gardeners. It even had a pineapple house and they would rent out pineapples to people for their dinner tables as a symbol of their wealth. We will be rebuilding the pineapple house this year and we’ve been rebuilding the walls, stripping off the ivy. “Our gardener, Olly Forster, has put in a beautiful pear cordon and plum trees - one with the delightful name of Worcestershire Drooper!” Deer Park relishes self-sufficiency. Last year they served 550 bottles of their own apple juice. Olly wants to start growing tea on the estate and will move his own beehives on the land this year for honey. Beds are used to grow asparagus, rhubarb, baby veg, fennel, leeks and heritage crops which Mark says are finding favour with diners. “People want healthy, honest food, that they can see being grown in the garden. We’ve had so many positive comments about putting things back as they used to be. We’re growing apples on ‘stepovers’ which are low level hedges. In blossom they look amazing.” Head chef Andrew Storey has told the gardeners “you grow it, we’ll cook it” which means the menu is always seasonal and changing. Mark is looking forward to the day when 16th and 17th century apple varieties in their own orchard appear on the menu in a tarte tatin. “We already have something from the garden on every dish on the menu. There’s no return in terms of food costs, but people love to see it. We even have wedding photos taken in the walled garden.

Ted Ruewell, Buckland Tout-Saints

Ted Ruewell, head chef at the Buckland Tout-Saints near Kingsbridge agrees that you can’t beat the freshness and taste of home-grown fruit and veg. As well as overseeing the kitchen garden at this William and Mary manor house, he has his own vegetable patch and orchard, producing a potent cider. “When I overproduce at home, I bring stuff in for the kitchens,” says Ted, whose cooking has won the hotel 2 AA rosettes and a Gold in last year’s Taste of the West awards. He says he finds the calm of the veg patch is a distraction from the frenetic pace of a commercial kitchen. “One day you notice one courgette, a week later it’s 20 marrows. You have real respect when you see something growing. You don’t want to overcomplicate it on the plate. “We always have a glut of Jerusalem artichokes and lovely rhubarb. The soft fruits have been tremendous and we’ve had a lot of hard fruits. Last summer the highlight was apricots. They’re delicious straight of the tree and I have to confess I ate them all! “I’m trying peaches this year and I’d really like to have another quince. We had one but it got wiped out and I miss it. “For me, growing produce is a hobby. It’s about the work/life balance. I haven’t got a telly at home so I just get out in the garden, in the sun in the afternoons. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

Matt Mason, Jack in the Green

Matt Mason is another chef who knows the value of home-grown produce. He describes himself as “the son of hippies” and grew up in a low income household. His parents had an allotment and grew broad beans, peas, courgettes. Fast forward and he’s starting his career with Shaun Hill at Gidleigh Park where he really learned all about food and the beauty of regional produce. Now he’s head chef at Jack in the Green near Exeter, maintaining the 2 AA rosettes he won shortly after arriving 21 years ago. These days you might find him pouring over seed catalogues excitedly planning with Janet Seward of Pithayes Farm at Whimple what to grow in the coming year. Their relationship has been productive - celeriac, “brilliant” leeks, courgettes, broad beans, pumpkins, salsify and “fantastic” potatoes, particularly Pink Fir and Anya. “Freshly dug they’re in a different league,” says Matt. “I feel embarrassed to get excited about potatoes but they were our first project and we’ve pretty much nailed it.” Has being involved in the growing of veg made him a better chef?

“Absolutely, 100%. And a better person. Most chefs will tell you the same. They live in such a bubble and you get caught up with what’s going on in the kitchen. “It makes you better as a chef because you have a renewed respect for the ingredients, having worked hard to get them there.” And it doesn’t stop there. Matt also buys salad leaves and edible flowers from Janet Billington at Maddox Farm Organics, apples from Four Elms fruit farm and local blueberries.

Anton Piotrowski,The Treby Arms

MasterChef The Professionals winner Anton Piotrowski has turned growing food for the Treby Arms, Sparkwell, into a family affair with his 75-year-old dad, Tony, tending to the productive allotment. “We’ve been growing stuff for five years,” says Anton, who last year won his first Michelin star. “The first year we just planted leeks and it took us two years to make the garden organic. This year I want to make two polytunnels next to the pub. “It does give you a renewed respect for the ingredients. For example, when we’re growing leeks we leave them for an extra three months in the ground. They taste phenomenal. This year I’m looking forward to all the onions – shallots, onions, spring onions, leeks – and the Jerusalem artichokes. The cauliflowers and the cabbage should be good. We grow four different types of beetroot – white, a psychedelic pink, the traditional purple and a golden beetroot. “It’s funny how what’s in season goes together. The beetroot is lovely with apples, venison is wonderful with colcannon and then you get the more acidic flavours of summer.

“We have a 15-year plan are we’re about two or three years in. In time I want to have 100% of produce from our garden. There’s no waste, we’re learning to use everything with preserving and pickling. There’s even turnip jam. Even some of the ‘weeds’ in the garden like sorrel and wild garlic can be used. “It’s the best thing about being a chef. You get to play with what’s in the garden.”

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