Chef Mitch Tonks recommends gives his tips for a foodie trip around south-west England: from great restaurants in Bath and Bristol to the best seafood in Devon and Cornwall
The south-west has always been known as a region of good food: I call it Britain’s seafood coast, as it is home to the best seafood in the world. This is just one reason for making the journey here, but there are many more. Many legendary restaurants here have left their mark – or are still making it – on British gastronomy: the Hole in the Wall in Bath, The Carved Angel in Dartmouth (now closed), Markwicks in Bristol and Rick Stein‘s places are just a few of this generation of restaurants. All built reputations not only on their incredible talents but on the magnificent produce we have. From Dorset to Cornwall you can eat very well, with chefs such as Mark Hix in Lyme, Nathan Outlaw in Rock and Port Isaac, and Stein in Padstow running top-class restaurants.
The cities of the south-west are all very different. I remember the opening of the UK’s first farmers’ market at Green Park in Bath, which still thrives today. Markets like these changed the way I lived: I could shop from really good suppliers of local produce on a Saturday morning. I used to meet up with my great friends Mat Prowse and Laura Cowan back when we were all living in Bath and we’d buy our supplies and then have a brandy and a coffee at the Green Park Brasserie (mains from £7.95), chat with the kids and talk about what we were cooking. They both still work with me all these years later. This farmers’ market is still a real hub of activity and centre of good food in Bath, and a place I always love to go.
Bristol, just a few miles down the road, has a great food scene: there are delis and restaurants galore but the two must-dos for me are the Sweet Mart in Easton, which is the most glorious family-run shop, selling just about every Indian ingredient you can imagine. It has a small cafe where you can enjoy good Indian home cooking.
Bristol is also home to the best Chinese restaurant outside of London, the Mayflower (mains from £8). It is in an unlikely location (in an underpass by the bus station) but don’t be put off, the food is amazing. My chefs go there after service, and I will drive the two hours from Brixham to eat there: the seafood is good, but the aubergine hotpot with pork and shrimps is a must.
It’s worth heading out of town to some of the farm shops. South of the city, in Somerset, you will find a fantastic family-run farm shop, White Row, in Beckington, near Frome, where they farm pigs for use solely at their shop and in their cafe and restaurant.
The farm shop is also home to one of the best fishmongers in the south-west, the Scallop Shell. Garry Rosser, who runs it, was one of my head chefs – one of the best we had – and he has carried on the tradition of fishmongering. He has a wealth of contacts with fishermen and his counter is a joy to look at. If you need cooking advice or preparation, just ask him. He is an awesome chef and you will get exactly what you want. He also has a fish and chip restaurant next door, so if you don’t fancy cooking, choose your fish from the counter and get him to fry it. It will be one of the best fish meals you’ll eat in the region.
Somerset is my home county and makes some of the finest ciders you will ever taste. At the Somerset Distillery in Burrow Hill, Julian Temperley also makes a wicked cider brandy that is a favourite of mine. You will pass any number of farms shops selling their own cider – the rule is go careful! Cider production isn’t confined to Somerset and the excellent Ashridge Cider company near Totnes in Devon makes lots of old varieties that combine sweet and bittersweet flavours to make a drink that is proper cider.
Brixham is home to our biggest fishing fleet and you can buy some of the best fish in the world from fish merchants around the harbour – try Nigel Ward of Brixham Seafish. Make sure you buy some of the mussels caught in Elberry Cove, right in the corner of the bay (brixhamseafarmsltd.co.uk). We often find ourselves walking the half-mile west from the market to Churston Cove and cooking them on the beach with our feet in the tide, yards from where they are grown. It’s magical, especially at sundown, when you can finish the day with a twilight swim.
From Brixham head towards Dartmouth, perhaps taking in a stretch of the coastal path to Kingswear, enjoying a pint in the Ship Inn , my local, then head across the water to the town. A must is breakfast or lunch at Alf Resco, a Dartmouth institution. The coast road then takes you to Salcombe – one of the most beautiful estuaries in Britain, and famous for its crab and lobster – via Blackpool Sands. Stop for coffee at the Venus cafe right on the beach and marvel at the view, with your feet in the golden sand.
There are many stunning beaches nearby, such as Bantham, Bigbury, Lannacombe, Mothecombe, all of them great for rockpooling, swimming, fishing, surfing or just sitting on.
If you are self catering, order organic meat from the brilliant Well Hung Meat company near Buckfastleigh on the edge of Dartmoor, or try out the farm shops you’ll see along the way. If you head for Bigbury, don’t miss the Oyster Shack to taste the delicious oysters (from £2 each) from the bay.
The north and south coastlines of Cornwall are completely different but equally beautiful. My wife grew up in Port Isaac on the north side, so we often head there to enjoy some of the best crab sandwiches I’ve ever had at Fresh from the Sea, a small shop that sells the catch from owner Callum Greenhalgh’s boat. His wife Tracey prepares the shellfish daily, and it’s the best crab and lobster I’ve tasted in Cornwall.
Self caterers in the area should treat themselves to a meal delivery from Emily Scott’s Harbour Kitchen . Her excellent Cornish fish pie with puff pastry costs £12.50 a portion. Nathan Outlaw’s recently opened Fish Kitchensmall plates from £4) is sure to make this wonderful village even more of a destination for seafood. Fish merchant Dennis Knight (1 Fore Street) sells fish from the local boats and lobster caught around the rocks off Port Isaac. And there isn’t a finer pub than the Golden Lion just across the harbour: it’s the kind of place where you want to get locked in.
Dartmoor is a great place to walk and eat, and there are superb pubs on the moor. The Rugglestone Inn at Widecombe is warm and welcoming, with great beers and a place to chat. On the edge of the moor at Ugborough is the newly refurbished Anchor Inn where the speciality is local steak cooked over charcoal (from £16). You can enjoy good ales and a decent bed for the night (doubles from £65 B&B).
A trip to the south-west wouldn’t be complete without catching a mackerel. From Torquay and Brixham round to St Ives you can easily get yourself on a boat trip and catch your lunch. There is nothing better than fresh mackerel: I particularly like it poached and served just with mayonnaise and horseradish.
As I write this the sun is setting behind the fish market and the curve of Torbay. I can hear the water outside my window, and to my mind there is nowhere better on earth.
• Chef Mitch Tonks runs restaurants in Bristol, Dartmouth and Plymouth, and has also devised menus for First Great Western’s Pullman service, and the South Sands hotel and restaurant in Salcombe
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