THE QUARTERLY - Autumn 2006 - Room For The Food
A stay at Percy's is a bit like entering Willie Wonka's chocolate factory since almost everything you come across in it's 130 acre Estate is edible. The only difference is that is's all nutritious organic produce. For 10 years, husband and wife team Tony and Tina Bricknell-Webb have created a Garden of Eden in Devon. Organic herbs, leaves and vegetables are picked two hours before they arrive on the plate. Pigs and lambs roam free on their land and woodland areas have been created to attract wildlife and to furnish Percy's dishes. Go for a walk around the Estate (accompanied by one of Tina and Tony's many friendly black labradors), and you'll be sure to pass a troop of ducks and geese. These provide the eggs for breakfast and for Tina's award-winning lemon tart. Tina Bricknell-Webb is one of Devon's best female chefs. She prepares simple, delicious meals every evening for the guests and a wonderful aroma of fresh herbs wafts from the plates as they arrive at the table. The menu might include Wild Mushroom & Chicken Liver Parfait with Sage and Coriander Seed Toast, Oven Roast Loin of Home Reared Organic Pork with Mushroom, Sage & Juniper Glaze, and Cardamom and Lime Crème Brûlée. The atmosphere at dinner is less formal than the Michelin Star experience, but that's fine with Tina and Tony, who have no desire to recreate it. "We don't want to follow a traditional structure, but let the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves," says Tina. And they certainly do, loud and clear. olive magazine - from field to fork may 2006 at percy's hotel and restaurant in devon, every organic mouthful is grown, reared, cured or hatched just metres from your plate Fancy a slice of The Good Life without the heavy digging and dungarees? Then Percy's is the place for you. In the village of Virginstow on the Devon-Cornwall border, the hotel and restaurant sits in a 130-acre working estate, Coombeshead, full of rare breed sheep and pigs, ducks, hens and thoroughbred horses. A row of green wellies lines the entrance ready for you to pull on and head straight out into the clean country air. If you want company, there's even a ready supply of black labradors tail-waggingly eager to give you the tour. Working up an appetitie is advised because, as the sun sinks over Dartmoor, you'll be sitting down to four healthily sized courses of food sourced from the land around you. Named after the original north London restaurant they opened in the 80's, Percy's belongs to Tony and Tina Bricknell-Webb, a couple who combine commercial nous with the grow-your-own commitment of Tom and Barbara. Forget food miles, here the distance from field to fork is a matter of yards. You'll find woods full of floppy eared Large Black pigs rootling for whatever goodies they can find. Unsentimental diners can pet the friendly flock of Jacob sheep in the knowledge that they will be tucking into their organically reared relations at dinner - but at least there'll be no question mark hanging over the quality of life they enjoyed before their number was up. Because that's the thing about Percy's: what you see is pretty much what you eat. Order Tina's wild mushroom and chicken liver parfait, for instance and your home-grown pate will arrive on a bed of deliciously peppery leaves such as Japanese mustard and Greek cress from the kitchen garden. In fact, it was salad that started the whole thing off back in the early 90's. 'All these unusual leaves were beginning to appear on menus ,' recalls Tony, 'but the farmer who supplied the top chefs wouldn't give us any. So we decided to grow our own down here at Coombeshead, which was our second home at the time. After a while we were growing all our vegetables and driving down in a pick-up truck once a week to take them back to London.' In 1996, what had begun as a vegetable patch evolved into a second restaurant. After running the two in tandem for a couple of years, they eventually moved the whole operation southwest. Never having trained as a chef, Tina has taught herself over the years. The Bricknell-Webb's move into animal husbandry has been similarly ad hoc. 'One of the first things every naive suburbanite does when they move to the country is to keep goat's,' winces Tony, 'but oit's something you only do once. They used to get out all the time and eat everything. In the end, we gave one away and had the rest minced up. They made delicious spaghetti bolognese.' Before they moved into the food world, Tony and Tina had spent 25 years running a chain of bookies. When their racehorse, Lady Chef, raised by the Bricknell-Webbs at Coombeshead, came in at Lingfield with odds of 10-1, Tony used a chunk of the winnings to treat Tina to some pedigree pigs. All went well, until the girls slipped their pen and trotted over to visit the boys. He crossed his fingers that the boars weren't mature but, three months later, a couple of guests returning from a stroll remarked how nice it was to see all the new piglets in the field. 'I raced out there and counted nearly 50,' says Tony. For Tina, a crash course in bacon curing and sausage making followed. With the help of one of the last practising curers in the region she picked up a range of skills she continues to put to good use. 'We use a small abattoir that's only 14 miles away and when the animals are slaughtered they have a particular time slot,' she explains. 'That means they are slaughtered straightaway. It's very important they're not stressed from a long journey or wait in the abattoir because that taints the meat.' 'We spend more time growing and sourcing stuff than we do mucking it around,' says Tony. 'If I eat rich food at night I wake up the next morning feeling one degree under. So our mission statement, if you like, is that we'll give you a lovely dining experience and you'll feel mornal the next day. We don't do heavy classical French cooking, just food, clean modern British.' Dishes on the menu can inlcude rabbit taken from the estate, scallops from the 6 a.m. quayside auction at nearby Looe, organic beef from Exmoor as well as Percy's own deep-red, marbled lamb served with herbs and vegetables picked just a couple of hours ago. Self-sufficient in lamb and pork, Percy's chooses slow-growing breeds, which means the livestock enjoy happy free-ranging lives and, when they do end up on the table, the meat tasted as good as it possibly can. 'We don't slaughter new season lamb,' says Tony, 'it has a lovely texture but no flavour.' Instead, they wait until they're at least 10 months old. 'Our sheep have been fed on grass and our pigs are in woodland. That's why the flavour's good and the meat's dark, because they're eating naturally.' You'll find the eggs here a bit of a revelation too. 'One of the reasons we bought the Black Rock chickens is because I started making lemon tarts.' explains Tina. 'I'd bought some eggs from hens that had obviously been fed fish meal - there was a fishy taste coming through.' With her own birds, she knows exactly what they're eating. The result? Big eggs with rich, dark yellow yolks - and a gold medal at the Organic food awards for her tart. Judge Raymond Blanc declared it the best tart au citron he'd ever eaten. Are you ready to order? This week: Percy's Country Hotel & Restaurant (Filed: 13/05/2006) 'Boris is unstoppable, a force of nature'
Jan Moir makes friends at the Coombeshead Estate, Virginstow, Devon
Boris is unstoppable, a force of nature' - Jan Moir makes friends at the Coombeshead Estate, Virginstow, Devon Boris is very naughty. In fact, he's worse than naughty. He's a randy old pig who keeps escaping from his electrified pen in search of any exciting sow action. He's unstoppable, a true force of nature! So far this year, Boris has been a father eight times over and Tina, the farmer's wife, says she's going to have to put a bigger charge on his electric fence, but she loves him really. Bawdy Boris: a vital cog in the 'beautifully managed' estate Sometimes she lies down in the sty with him and scratches his great big belly. Boris loves that, he really does, but what he likes even more is chasing after the chambermaids. He knows that somewhere on their person will be thick slices of Tina's home-made gingerbread with lemon icing, which are put in the bedrooms as a gift for guests. Boris thinks that if he head-butts the girls, or maybe even charges and knocks them over, some of that gingerbread will be his. Having sampled it myself, I can see where he's coming from. It's so delicious! Forget the decanter of lukewarm sherry or the cheap chocolate on the pillow, Tina's fragrant, spicy gingerbread cake shows how a welcome gesture should be done. Meanwhile, Boris is making a bid for freedom again, trundling down the lane at Percy's Country Hotel & Restaurant as the maids scream and scatter. No wonder, for he is the biggest pig I've ever seen, about the size of a van. ''He's lovely, really,'' says Tina, tempting him back to the sty with a bowl of feed before going off to water the lettuces and start preparing dinner. ''It's all in a day's work,'' she says, as her boots spark off the cobbled path that leads to the hotel kitchen. Leaving the city and escaping to a rural retreat to grow your own socks, make chutney out of beans and marrow and cuddle pigs is a fantasy for most people, but not for Tony and Tina Bricknell-Webb, who are living the eco-dream. ''Some people say we're like The Good Life, others say we're Fanny and Johnny Craddock,'' says Tony, a bookmaker turned gentleman farmer who has learned some important agrarian lessons. ''You only keeps goats once,'' he says, "then never again. They're a nightmare.'' Just outside the restaurant's front door is a glorious herb garden Sixteen years ago Tony and Tina sold their betting shops and wine bar in north London and headed west, where they now run an organic estate set deep in a lush fold of Devon. Here, amid 130 prime acres, they keep sheep, Large Black pigs, hens, ducks and geese, grow their own vegetables and breed racehorses on the side. Somehow, they also find the time to run their own country house hotel and restaurant, where guests are encouraged to don wellies and hike around the fields to meet all the animals, then come back to the dining room and eat them. Now that's what I call a countryside alliance. Pre-dinner drinks are taken outside if the weather is good, or in a bar area with oak floors and doors hewn out of Douglas fir. Here, Tony brings plates of freshly-made canapés, which are simple and nicely done in a very English way; slices of hard-boiled egg - laid by their own hens - have yolks the colour of a blazing sunset and are laid with a few peppery leaves on some thin crispbreads. Other savoury bites are adorned with wafers of home-grown, delicious ham and curls of pungent salami. Everything here is organic, even down to the jumpers Tony plans to have knitted from their own sheep wool, and the entire farm is Soil Association registered. This means that the food journey at Percy's, from field to table, is thrillingly short. The dining room is simple to the point of bareness, with a handful of tables and a rustic, unpretentious air. The menu features four starter and main course selections, plus an optional cheese course and another quartet of desserts. Chef Tina also keeps it simple, with starters such as Cornish scallops and squid served with a mustard and honey dressing or grilled goat's cheese alongside her own marrow, bean and onion chutney with pungent Indian spicing. Both our starters, a mushroom and chicken liver parfait and an avocado, bacon, thyme and butter-bean salad, come with a shower of glorious and unusual herbs and leaves, such as the peppery Greek cress, grown just outside the restaurant's front door.
CHECKING IN - Richard Eilers, The Observer Sunday April 9 2006
Imagine a final, unscreened episode of The Good Life ... Barbara catches Tom showing Margo his smallholding and chases them out of Surbiton. But where can the mismatched lovers hole up? What will satisfy Tom's earthy yearnings and Margo's sophisticated tastes? I suggest Percy's Country Hotel & Restaurant. Set in a 130-acre estate, it has impeccable organic credentials (certified with the Soil Association) but there is a touch of urban chic about the accommodation. It also has cute appeal. Black labradors wait in the car park to escort you on a tour of their domain, introducing you to lambs and piglets (morphing in my mind into sausages on legs in my pre-dinner hunger) and pretending to be interested in retrieving the sticks you throw. All of these characters are merely the supporting cast to Tina Bricknell-Webb's food, modern English dishes made using produce from the estate and garnering a string of awards (including one from Observer Food Monthly). The starters (pork and chicken terrine with sweet marjoram, wild mushroom and chicken liver parfait, bacon, avocado, butter bean and thyme salad) are presented on dramatic sculptures crafted from the freshest and most perfect green leaves. Those lambs and piglets make their grand entrance in the main course (braised lamb shank, pork escalope with sage crumb and a juniper jus). The lemon tart with rosemary ice cream is a tongue-tingling finale. The rooms, in a former granary, are simply furnished but welcoming, with fresh flowers and Gilchrist & Soames toiletries. No plastic-wrapped biscuits here, but yummy carrot cake and lavender shortbread. The hotel is on the edge of Dartmoor, an ideal base for long walks. The surfing resort of Bude is a 30-minute drive, as is the dramatic National Trust beach at Sandymouth Bay. We walked from one to the other along the clifftop path, fuelled by a breakfast of herby sausages, home-cured bacon and eggs with wonderful golden yolks. The price: from £125pp per night, including breakfast and dinner. We liked: the food, the food, the food. We didn't like: Tina's description of her boar's sex life. Way too much detail. The verdict: Tom and Margo live happily ever after.