Monday 3 November 2014

A guilty weekend away by the English sea, the Masons Arms and a bit with a dog

It was meant to be a week in France; a long drive down the superb west coast in a hired RV. But someone forgot to confirm the RV hire.


So instead it was a long weekend in Devon. We caught the steely end of summer: the air cold but the trees still green. The picture above, looking across the estuary towards Dawlish was taken close to Belinda's mother's in Exmouth. The weather changes every ten minutes.

Any holiday of ours will feature food. Naturally. I tend to plan family breaks around other people's food. We'd planned to drive from Exmouth to spend time with my writer friend Veronica Henry, who had promised to cook something from wild Exmoor - venison or pony, she's not that accurate with a gun.*  

Crossing from south to north Devon around midday meant lunch somewhere in the middle, which is how we came to eat at the Mason's Arms.

Neither of these people is me... or my wife.
At the front it's a traditional, if very well kept pub... but walk through and you find a small dining room (about 20 covers) with a bizarre Italianate fresco on the ceiling. It also has a Michelin star. This is where chef Mark Dodson works. For over a decade Mark was head chef at the Waterside Inn in Bray which must rank then and now as one of the world's finest restaurants - it's held three stars for twenty five years. I was quite excited.

Mark didn't disappoint. I didn't take photos of the food. Not sure why. Maybe I feel it removes me from the experience. Maybe that's too poncy an excuse. Certainly I loathe the battery of aloft smart phones that is now always a barrier between you and the performer at any live event. Maybe I just wanted to eat and relax with Belinda and not play at reviewer.

I did take a shot of the menu though.

Little foodie quiz: what's crepinette?

I had the starter of smoked chicken and butternut squash risotto which was excellent but the unexpected delight was the few tomatoes that came with it. Cherry sized, they had the intensity of sun-dried but without the often off-putting leatheriness. I asked Sarah, co-owner and Maître d' for the recipe and she came back ten minutes later with it typed up. Brilliant! We were the only diners left by that point; I may have spent far too much on a bottle of Chassagne Montrachet and was taking my bloody time over it. But we never felt pressured to leave. In fact, Mark came and chatted to us afterwards, possibly wondering who was asking his staff SO MANY questions.

Here's the recipe. I've not tried it yet but I'm considering giving them a starring role as a starter, alongside some creamy goats and crisp, interesting bread. A posh cheese and tom sandwich.

Mason's Arms Tomatoes
Halve or quarter some good quality tomatoes. On a baking tray, cover with thinly sliced garlic, fresh thyme and olive oil. Cook at 50°C for 2 - 4 hours until dehydrated. Put in a tub with more oil and a small amount (they didn't specify) of fresh garlic and thyme and marinate for a couple of days.

And then it was onto the brutal landscape of North Devon for much wine and a supper of venison stew with potatoes dauphinoise. Now then... supper. I confess I can't say/write 'supper' without wincing. 'Supper' is Elizabeth David and breezy socialites, something in chiffon and gin & it. 'Supper' is what other people had. For me, as a child, supper was something ate in slippers and dressing gown, usually a bowl of cornflakes. I come from the South Wales Valleys and so was a breakfast/dinner/tea boy. Even calling the midday meal 'lunch' seemed unutterably pretentious. I've overcome that inhibition now. But 'supper' makes me shudder still.

But ours was delicious, if very filling. It needed more wine to wash it down. And I may have had a fun argument over the right kind of pastry for our dessert of apple tarte tatin. Veronica prefers a robust pâte sucrée whereas I support the full flaky. Turns out hers is great too. Of course.

And yeah, who's sounding pretentious now?!

Finally, this is Zelda, Veronica's new dog. Belinda and I went for a very long walk on the very long beach (too damn long) with Zelda and Veronica. I took this when we got back. I'm much more dog than cat. I wasn't intending it to be so cute, but so cute it is.


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