Growing your own

After two years of literally fruitless endeavour (the blackcurrants and gooseberries were tragic), I laid down my spade and crept back to the fruit and veg shelves at Sainsbury’s. No more backache or vitamin deficiencies for me!
I retain, however, a sneaking admiration for those who do manage to ‘grow their own’, so it’s encouraging to see lovely old country house hotels cultivating produce for their dining tables.
For example, I hear that Combe House Devon now grows, organically, three-quarters of the vegetables, fruit and herbs served in its two AA-rosette restaurant.
After taking over this charming Elizabethan manor house near Honiton, Ken and Ruth Hunt dug up a third of their six acres of land and cleared the jungle-like walled garden. Today the grounds are highly productive, and the original 18th-century kitchen garden has been restored along with the Victorian potting shed and gardeners’ office.
“We decided not to build a spa like everyone else but to develop a sustainable garden,” says Ruth. “We have two very good full-time gardeners and not only do we produce much of our own food, the gardens have become a popular attraction for guests.”
The list of home-grown goodies is impressive. Combe produces several varieties of beans, globe and Jerusalem artichokes, cabbages, lots of root vegetables, shallots, onions and garlic, berries and currants, orchard fruit (including 14 varieties of apple and three of pear), salad stuff and dozens of different herbs.
The kitchen does a lot of preserving: the 250-year-old mulberry tree provides fruit for jam and the quince trees’ fruit is made into membrillo paste for serving – along with home-grown cob nuts – with West Country cheeses. They pickle their own gherkins, make gooseberry cordial, and press juice from grapes grown on the 100-year-old vine. They even cure their own pancetta and prosciutto-style hams.
Eggs come from Combe’s own hens, while most fish is sourced from the boats at Lyme Bay, Dorset, and meat from award-winning butchers in nearby Honiton and Cullompton. Cheeses are all hand-made in the West Country, milk and cream comes from a small local dairy and the hotel makes its own yoghurt.
All very eco-friendly. And if it hadn’t been for that early traumatic experience with couch grass, I’d probably be doing a similar thing these days on my allotment.
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