Fat chunks of white crab meat bound together with light mayonnaise, stuffed between two slices of seeded bread and cut into neat triangles garnished with borage flowers — this is the sandwich of my dreams. It’s served on the outdoor deck of a brasserie called Dick and Wills, and when I bite into it, it’s bliss. Done well, the crab sandwich is, to me, one of life’s truly great culinary creations. Add a glass of cold, locally brewed beer (from Shingle Bay), plus a view of the Salcombe estuary glistening in the sunlight and I’d take this over a frou-frou, multi-course fine-dining menu any day.
The nutrient-rich waters of the South Devon coast are famous for brown crab and blue lobster, much of it exported around the world. Eating seafood fresh from the day’s catch can’t be beaten, and in this sense Salcombe is an English seaside heaven — albeit a posh one, as here you’ll find some of the highest real estate prices in the country.
Before it became a holiday destination, Salcombe earned its living from its estuary and the sea — its people didn’t only catch fish and shellfish, but built ships and launched the Salcombe schooner, a rather swift number that allowed perishable goods to be transported at much faster rates. The town’s sheltered harbour was a port of call for vessels taking salt to Newfoundland and bringing salt cod back to Europe. In the 19th century, it was at the centre of the fruit trade, with ships carrying citrus from the Azores and pineapples from the Bahamas.
The import business may be negligible now, but Salcombe is still a food haven. It gives its name to Salcombe Gin, Salcombe Dairy and Salcombe Brewery, and its main streets are lined with cute delis and some pretty decent restaurants.
I head to the pier on Salcombe’s Whitestrand to board a little ferry painted in blue, yellow, red and white and jauntily festooned with bunting. It takes me out into the sparkling waters along to South Sands to meet a Heath Robinson-esque sea tractor that carts passengers through the few last metres of water — depending on the tide — onto the golden beach. I’m staying at the South Sands Hotel and take great delight in this slightly bonkers commute. The restaurant here has views right out across the estuary and chef Allister Bishop applies an ethos that centres on the simplicity of flavours, married with subtle-but-skilled technique. “I came back here from London and I love working with the produce,” he says. “Chefs often boast how they use what is on their doorstep, but here we really do. Aside from crab and lobster, I have Dartmoor-reared beef, Tamar Valley lamb and Devon pork.”
Up the hill behind the hotel, I join the South West Coast Path — past Overbeck’s, the stately home of inventor Otto Overbeck, crammed with quirky artefacts and endowed with an astonishing subtropical garden — out along the cliffs. I’m here in the afterglow of the summer season and am delighted to find fat, blue sloe berries, ripe for the picking in thorny bushes by the path’s edge. I return later on my last day for one more glorious, soaring cliff walk and to gather enough berries to make some sloe gin, plus some brambles to eat on the train home.
I use Salcombe as a base to explore different corners of the South Devon larder. When I meet Tim Bouget, owner of Cafe ODE — a casual family-eating spot just outside the village of Shaldon, on top of Ness Cove with views across the River Teign — he explains just what a magnificent resource the area is. “South Devon is, in theory, the best dairy land because it’s the most organic. That’s coupled with the fact that we are right on the coast, so we have an amazing array of fish and independent fishermen.” Because he also owns the more formal ODE dining restaurant in the village, Tim is able to pursue a nose-to-tail ethos, taking whole animals such as fallow deer and butchering them with different cuts in mind for his different restaurants. “We buy our fish according to the local market. You might even see the fishing guys coming in with their fresh line-caught fish or shellfish. Some of our meat is personally collected straight from the hunter or local farm,” he says. “The key is provenance and the quality of the product — our sourcing is sustainable in terms of both the community and the environment.”
I drive the 17 miles or so from Shaldon to Sharpham Vineyard English Wine and Cheese, near Totnes, to see how they work with the terroir that Bouget has been raving about, making the best of the soil and the South Devon climate to produce award-winning English wines. I have arrived in the middle of the harvest — they grow mostly Madeleine Angevine, a grape variety that produces smaller fruit. I meet Tommy Grimshaw, who started here four years ago aged just 17, with a summer job labelling and bottling the wine, but not allowed — because of his age — to taste it. Now he’s graduated to assistant winemaker. He points to his boss, Duncan Schwab, who has been the winemaker here since 1992, and explains, “He’s busy looking at the sugar levels and acidity of the grapes that have just been harvested so that he can work out just what he needs to do to give his wines body, complexity, structure and balance.”
Walking past barrels of wines quietly maturing, we head into the tasting room, and Tommy tells me: “The climate is getting warmer. People are saying that we have the climate they had in the Champagne region 20 years ago.” This temperature shift has meant some English sparkling wines can compete well in blind tastings with French Champagne. Wine tastings account for half of Sharpham’s total wine sales with people buying on site. I’ve come to sample the cheeses, too — there’s Ticklemore goat’s cheese, Sharpham Rustic (crumbly, salty and, well, rustic), and Cremet, a brie-like goat’s cheese made super rich by adding cream.
At South Devon Chilli Farm, I am flabbergasted by the array and colours of chillis grown in the polytunnels. There’s Hungarian Hot Wax, Padrón, Aji Limon, and also one called ‘Ring of Fire’, that should surely be avoided at all costs. There are dozens of varieties on display for visitors, as well as a shop selling all things chilli, and a cafe. Two chocolatiers work here creating chilli chocolate. As one of the chocolatiers, Kaz Lobendhan, shows me around the farm — a “hobby gone mad”, owned by two couples — she teaches me something. “You know where all the heat is in a chilli? The white lining. People think it is the seeds, but the only reason seeds would have heat is that they have been rubbing up against that white lining,” she says.
Growing them in Devon soon makes sense to me; I realise that chillies probably first came to these shores aboard one of those Salcombe schooners.
On my very last evening in Salcombe, I sit on the balcony of my hotel, popping the cork on my Sharpham sparkling wine, and scraping every last piece of meat from a dressed crab bought from a deli. It’s a naughty, smuggled indulgence which I follow up with some Ticklemore cheese and chilli chocolate. I sit and stare at the South Sands and out to the estuary, almost in a trance. This is the English seaside without the kiss-me-quick hats and the sticks of rock — here the treats are sublime. I don’t want to go home.
A taste of South Devon
The Winking Prawn
With a glorious position just across the road from the beach at North Sands, the Winking Prawn has enjoyed roaring success for more than 20 years. It’s all shabby surf chic, outside tables and barbecues in summer, but even on a chilly early autumn night, my seafood platter was perfect with lobster, prawns, mussels, crab and scallops.
HOW MUCH: Three courses without wine from £30 per person, or share a seafood platter for £24.95, with an additional half-lobster for £18.60.
The Riverford Field Kitchen
Established around an organic garden that now supplies vegetable boxes across the country, The Riverford Field Kitchen puts its own-grown produce at the very heart of its menu — depending on the season there can be radishes, pumpkins, leeks, berries and heritage tomatoes. Meals are shared around communal tables and dishes are served family style.
HOW MUCH: Three-course lunch without wine from £23.50 per person.
A casual, family-style cafe with its own in-house brewery and views out across the River Teign, this is top-quality food at decent prices, eaten from cardboard takeaway cartons instead of plates. The menu varies and nods to world cuisine such as Indonesian gado-gado salad and Malaysian laksa. Burgers are organic from nearby Higher Hacknell farm and there’s MSC-certified cod battered in ODE ale, with rosemary-salted fries and homemade tartar sauce.
HOW MUCH: Small starter box and main box from £12 per person.
Five food finds
Caught in the rich waters of the Salcombe estuary, the local brown crab is some of the
juiciest in the world.
Luscombe organic soft drinks and cider
This traditional cider business took a new direction when Gabriel David, inspired by a trip to Sicily, began to make classic English soft drinks and juices from organic ingredients.
Launched in July 2016, Salcombe Gin is winning awards for its notes of grapefruit, lemon and lime mixed with a blend of 13 botanicals, including cubeb berry, liquorice, English coriander, bay leaf and juniper.
Salcombe Brewery can’t rightly claim to be in Salcombe, but they do brew nearby, with tasty ales from Shingle Bay and Seafood Coast.
Established in 2009 in a tiny shed, Salcombe Dairy now makes ice creams, sorbets and frozen yoghurts that can be bought across the country.
Double rooms at the South Sands Hotel from £215, B&B. It’s possible — but it has to be planned with military precision — to take a train, then a bus, then a ferry, and then the tractor from London to South Sands.
Trains from London to Totnes from £91.50, super off-peak.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)