Here’s a little something I wrote after a nice little foodie weekend in Salcombe earlier this year……
Nibbling on the delicate meat from a giant spider crab claw, with the sun shining down and a chilled glass of bubbles, I could be anywhere: Spain, Portugal, Italy.
I’m not. I’m in Salcombe, a hidden Devon foodie haven I can’t believe I haven’t discovered before.
Salcombe has a reputation for being a playground for the rich, and has even been dubbed Chelsea-on-Sea. It was recently named the most expensive seaside spot in Britain to buy property, and is filled with second homes, whose owners flock to the coast for a relaxing weekend. I’m not surprised, because the attractions are many: stunning scenery, friendly people and freshly-caught, delicious seafood.
And it’s this seafood we’ve come to try. Rumour has it that 95% of Salcombe’s red spider crab is shipped to Spain and France, where they can’t get enough of it, yet it remains relatively undiscovered in Blighty, where we tend to stick to its brown cousin. Just wander down to the quay at the right time and you’ll find fishing boats unloading their catch, with lobster and crab just part of the haul, piled into huge articulated lorries to be exported to eager customers on the continent.
I may not have a second home, but there are plenty of places for me to stay in this little town, the newest of which is the Salcombe Harbour Hotel, which has recently undergone a £4million refurbishment, complete with spa and restaurant. Celebrating the area’s foodie roots, the hotel offers a Catch It, Cook It, Eat It package, allowing food lovers to try their hand at fishing and then transform their haul into a tasty feast. So, armed with fishing rods, a good weather forecast, and a bucket-load of enthusiasm, we set out.
Three hours later, our brave “crew” amass a measly haul that would leave any fisherman in disbelief; we catch a rather pathetic two whiting and a herring. I’m not sure how Harbour Hotel chef Alex Aitken is going to feed us all, but he assures me: “We always have a contingency plan.”
Back at the hotel’s Jetty Restaurant, we cluster round its rather grand crustacean bar to watch him prepare our fish into delicate morsels of tempura-coated fillets. We learn how to make paella and, of course, how to prepare the mighty spider crab.
Local fisherman Phil Cardew and wife Sarah, who run The Salcombe Fish Wife, selling crab and lobster directly to the public at local farmers’ markets, tell me that many people are oblivious of the delights of this spindly beast. Phil, who has been fishing the waters around Salcombe for more than 11 years, says: “They were worthless at one time; people used to kill them, take them home and put them into their runner bean trench.”
But there’s more than just spider crab on the menu in this pretty town. Salcombe caters for a range of tastes, with a plethora of restaurants and brasseries scattered along its winding streets. We move from meal to meal, sampling delights us landlubbers so rarely get to savour – well, not without wondering how long it’s been since the little blighter was in the sea. One evening takes us to the stunning riverside terrace at Dick and Wills, a brasserie owned by father and son Richard and Will Bouverat. We’re in for a treat, feasting on a starter of spider crab three ways, followed by lobster thermidor.
From Salcombe, we catch the ferry to South Sands beach, then haul ourselves up the steep hill to Overbeck’s Museum and Gardens. Built in 1913, the house was the seaside home of inventor and scientist Otto Overbeck, and went on to serve as a VA Hospital during the First World War. The Edwardian house is now a National Trust property with subtropical gardens, and we enjoy the vistas from its vantage point on the cliff above Salcombe. The meander back sees us stop at North Sands beach, home of The Winking Prawn, another of the area’s popular eateries.
Here the focus is on simple, good food for those who are seeking solace and relaxation. As much as I enjoy fancy-pants food, there’s something equally charming about a pint of shell-on prawns and a portion of The Winking Prawn’s “popcorn shrimp”, all washed down with an ice cold cider.
Our attention then turns to the other temptations on offer for foodie fans in the South West. Just a stone’s throw from Salcombe is the South Devon Chilli Farm (SDCF), where rows of polytunnels produce 150 varieties of chilli, from well-known jalapenos to the new arrival in the insanely hot gang – the Trinidad Scorpion.
They also mix their own wide range of sauces, produce chilli chocolate and even have time to run a quaint cafe serving a range of chilli-based treats.
An equally fascinating experience is the Sharpham Wine Estate. As we navigate a narrow country road and round a bend, we’re greeted by dozens of tables outside, all filled with people sipping wine and enjoying fabulous-looking food. With our guide Elke, we enjoy an informal tasting, learning to appreciate the 13 different wines (including sparkling – turns out us Brits do bubbly as well as the French these days) in a casual setting, without any pressure to talk about noses, bouquets or tannins.
For the second time in just a few days, I’m transported abroad and left wondering why I ever bother leaving Britain for my holidays.
Our trip to Salcombe was complimentary as part of a travel feature I wrote whilst at the Press Association.