The Spice Trail

Our Salcombe home

Tim, Jennifer, Jan and I all love to cook. We love to eat, to talk about food and laugh around the table together. Early on in our stay here in Salcombe, we developed a wonderful companionship around the making of meals. Someone would usually announce, at some point in the morning, “I’ll make lunch today.” “Great,” someone else would say, “I’ll make dinner.”

And so we managed to rotate the cooking and planning. It all seemed to be based on our own private work schedule. Writing might be going really well, and you might not want to break your rhythm. Magically, someone else is cooking. Or perhaps you find you need a break, need distraction, need time to think while chopping vegetables. Everyone else is happy to give you space and time in the kitchen.

Salcombe fulfills our grocery needs incredibly well. There is only one little grocer, Cranch’s, run by two lovely sisters. It is filled with local produce. Gorgeous fresh vegetables, different varieties of apples, fresh herbs. There are packaged local condiments from the Devon chili farm. There is local hand picked crab. The store also caters to exotic tastes. We are able to get Nam Pla and coconut milk, arborio rice and polenta. But Cranch’s is, at heart, a wonderful neighbourhood store. There is a wall of dried spices behind the counter and one day I asked if they had any bay leaves.  The owner looked up and said, “Yes, but there’s a huge bay tree around the corner. You can just go pick what you need there. I’ve got lots in my back yard too, but the tree around the corner is closer.”

Aside from the grocer’s, there is one butcher in Salcombe. It is a beautiful store, filled with local Devon pork, lamb, chicken and beef. The meat is exquisite, and the butcher is knowledgeable and helpful, supplying great cooking ideas. He also carries some of the finest Devon cheeses I have ever tasted.

Down the road is a beautiful bakery. The breads and buns are lovely and fluffy and fresh. The bakery also makes perfect little squares called Flap Jacks that we sometime indulge in for our afternoon tea. And next store to the bakery is a wine and liquor merchant where we can find wines from all over the world, in various price brackets.

All of these wonders are on the main street, two blocks from our cottage. We look for excuses to go down to the shops.

Salcombe, from the back

Entertaining company is a great excuse for shopping and cooking. And this week, we’ve had some very entertaining company to cook for.

Jan has a couple of friends in Canada who, on hearing she was going to be in Salcombe said “Oh, you must meet Denise Coffey.” Denise is a former actor and director, who spent time working in Canada. She is quite a legend in the UK, having acted in such classic films as “Waltz of the Toreadors” and “Georgie Girl”. In fact she discovered Salcombe when she was in Devon filming “Far From the Madding Crowd”. She has lived here for over 30 years and now spends most of her time painting and rescuing damaged seagulls and cats.

Denise, who now goes by the name of Moll, is a vegetarian and we’ve wanted to have her over for dinner. We had gone to see the new movie “The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel” and that put us in mind of Indian cooking. “Indian Ratatouille” requires a good supply of spices and patience to chop lots of veggies. But it is worth finding the ingredients. It’s a fabulous recipe.

We’ve learned from previous experience to bring spices with us when we travel. Otherwise we are buying new boxes and jars in every place we stay. Also, you can’t always expect to find Panch Phoran in your neighbourhood store, no matter how wonderful it is. You can’t always count on a neighbourhood Bay Laurel. So we came prepared, travelling with some of the more exotic spices.

Thank goodness we had packed our Panch Phoran. Moll was, I think, very impressed.

Tim, Moll, Jan and Jennifer in our Salcombe home

The other visitors that we had this week were Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, the wonderful writer friends who we met last fall in Exmouth. It was really exciting to see them again and to take them on one of our favourite local walks to Snapes Point, through gently wooded areas and fields of gamboling lambs. The point overlooks one of the arms of the Salcombe Estuary and the millionaire’s cottages across the harbour. The church bells can still be heard chiming in the distance.

Snapes Point. Elspeth, Amanda, Mal and Tim

Jan, Jennifer, Tim and I all had a hand in putting together the dinner for Mal and Elspeth. The new tastes for us were Jan and Jennifer’s contributions. Jan made her fabulous Umeboshi salad. Umeboshi is a dried, pickled plum from Japan. Ume vinegar is salty and sour and Jan uses it in a Kale salad that we are all crazy for.

Jennifer made a delicious Pear and Ginger Crumble and served it with Salcombe Dairy ice cream. It was a fabulous night of eating, drinking, and sitting by the fire to talk about books, art and, of all things, the Canadian constitution.

We have been thrilled to discover the tastes and sounds, smells and sights of Devon, as well as to share some of our own favourite recipes with new friends.

Tim and gamboling lambs

A new doorstep in an ancient landscape

We had never met Mal Peet and his wife Elspeth Graham before we landed on their doorstep in Exmouth. Mal and Elspeth are writers. Mal and Tim share the same publisher, and have many mutual friends in the world of young adult literature. We were invited to spend a night if we ever found ourselves out their way.  So we conveniently found ourselves in Exmouth.

Exmouth is on the coast of East Devon and has stunning long sandy beaches. It is a part of the coast where there are wonderful seaside towns devoted to easy beach living. But it is also the entrance to the “Jurassic Coast”, an area of English coastline that stretches from Exmouth in the west to Swanage in the east. The “Jurassic Coast” is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because it represents a geological walk through time. In ninety-five miles of coastline, you cover 185 million years of geological development, spanning the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Too much for one day. It is an area that I definitely want to come back to.

Mal and Elspeth live mere blocks from the beach in Exmouth, in a wonderful Victorian house with their too adorable dog Pedro. As Mal cooked, we launched ourselves into riotous discussions about children’s literature, rogue construction, rock and roll, aging and everything we’ve ever encountered in our lives that brought us to this point. Literature, art, music, theatre, politics – we travelled late into the night solving the problems of the world.

The next morning, a little the worse for wear, Mal and Elspeth drove us through the lovely seaside town of Budleigh Salterton (and who could resist that name!) to the extensive salt marsh commons of the Otter Estuary Nature Reserve. We walked along an ancient public walkway bordered by huge chestnuts, oaks and tamaracks to get to the town of Otterton.

A view into Otterton

Otterton is an old Saxon village on the River Otter that used to be the largest settlement in South East Devon. Formerly a port, the river became dammed up with rock and silt several hundred years ago, and the land became agricultural. It is an archetypally beautiful rural town, with thatched cottages, cob and brick buildings and a restored mill. The Otterton Mill, which is open to the public, has been in use for 1000 years. The mill grinds locally produced organic wheat for the breads that they sell in the restaurant bakery.

Elspeth, Mal, Tim and Pedro outside the Otterton Mill

We had coffee in the outdoor café, visited the great local crafts shop (with some of the most exciting and dramatic pottery that I have seen in a long time) and walked back along the River Otter.

The River Otter

We had known Mal & Elspeth for only a few short hours, but it felt as though we were lifelong friends as we meandered our way back to Exmouth.

The Otter Estuary Nature Reserve, and Pedro

From Exmouth, Mal & Elspeth took us to Exeter where we were to meet up with cousins Penny & Eric. A trading town since 250 BC, Exeter, like Plymouth, suffered greatly during bombing raids in the Second World War. Recently however, the downtown has been revitalized and is now a great blend of contemporary and historical architecture. The downtown shopping district manages to incorporate the remains of the Roman wall, the 15th century St. Catherine’s Almshouse and chapel, and rows of well-preserved houses from every architectural period.

The central feature in Exeter is of course the cathedral.

The Exeter Cathedral

Built in 1170, the cathedral has been added to and restored over the course of the last 900 years and is an imposing and inspiring sight. Inside, we were treated to the sounds of the choir and organ, reverberating on the stone arches.

Inside the Exeter Cathedral

A perfect way to send us off, bidding farewell to Devon, Cornwall and new friends, and heading back up through the country, to London.

Cathedral Gargoyles