May 30 2012

Manna From Devon

As the year rolls around once more we head for summer. The rain has stopped at last, the sun is shining and finally the temperature has risen to a seasonal norm; that fearsome east wind has dropped. Lambs thrive on the top fields, the embothrium glows scarlet once more against the blue sky and a slightly confused garden suddenly bursts into bloom.

Summer it may be, but October’s Dartmouth Food Festival is already concentrating the minds of many of us, even in May, none more so than David and Holly Jones at Manna from Devon in Kingswear. David is once more chairing a committee that will steer this years’ Festival into its 10th Anniversary.

How the Festival has grown from its tiny beginnings in the Market Square ten years ago to the nationally heralded event it is today; an astonishingly rapid journey of success. Now every part of the town is taken up with tents and events. Volunteers queue up to help, more and more businesses are pitching in.

Celebrity Chefs flock to Dartmouth to take part. We find them in cookery theatres, giving talks, signing their latest books, producing fabulous food and generally enthusing us all. Local producers fill the market, restaurants put on special events, the town buzzes with activity and we, the public, arrive en masse, numbers swelling each year, thrilled to take part. Last year the sun even shone.

David and Holly arrived in Kingswear ten years ago.  After two years catering at the Royal Dart Yacht Club they moved into Mount Fir House. While setting up the most comfortable of B&B’s they did the rounds of farmers markets and private parties. Looking to add more to their repertoire David went on a three day cookery course up country; he came back telling Holly he’d had a eureka moment and they would start a Cookery School. Holly, a graduate of Pru Leith’s famous cookery school, took a little more convincing!

The cookery school was born in May 2006

Holly and David had met some twenty years earlier at London University but lost touch. David left school with a place at catering college; he joined the Navy instead. Fifteen years’ experience in management consultancy running courses in team and leadership training followed, developing his exceptional teaching skills needed at the cookery school. He has an ease which belies the depth of his knowledge and expertise.

After university Holly went into the army and had numerous outward bound adventures. Leith’s followed, then a career as a cook, food writer and presenter. In 2002 Holly Jones Ltd was formed, the parent company to Manna from Devon.

The cookery school has a wide remit now with courses in bread making, fish cookery, Mediterranean and Asian food, family days, wood fired oven days, private groups and, yes, even team days!

I have been lucky enough to enjoy a number of excellent day courses since its beginning. A couple of years ago I took two of my small grandchildren for a “Kids Bread and Pasta Day”.

After the exhaustingly wonderful discovery that any amount of flour covering, kneading, stickiness, baking and rolling can be transformed into deliciousness, we left Mount Fir House travelling home up river on the ferry. To the surprise of fellow passengers we managed to balance our boxes and bags of fresh bread and soft golden pasta as the boat rolled on the tide; the children are still talking about it!

This week I spent a day at Manna from Devon bread making with Jo from Annabel’s Kitchen in Dartmouth. Although I’ve been making bread on and off for years I find I am dogged with erratic results. Now I know why. David took us back to the very beginning, then, step by step, he helped me put the missing pieces of my bread making jigsaw into place.

We made a basic white bread mix but varied the water content and watched how this affected the dough as it rose and cooked: 60%water for basic crumb,70% for baguette, 80% ciabatta etc etc. Don’t add more flour as you knead the dough, it upsets the balance. Salt strengthens gluten, slows down yeast and so on and so on. The penny began to drop!

We made wholemeal bread using different percentages of white and brown flour. We flavoured the loaves with cheese and wild garlic from the garden, with honey and sunflower seed, with walnuts and thyme.

As we kneaded and folded and weighed up and waited, shaped and baked, Holly was beavering away quietly producing a delicious lentil soup for our lunch accompanied by our very first hot rolls.

A “Nan” dough with yogurt followed. With David’s help we transformed it into no less than five different types of bread: Piadina wraps cooked in a hot frying pan, Carta di Musica like crispy poppadum’s, perfect Pitta breads, round soft glistening little Pide and, of course, Nan itself. And finally we made traditional Irish Soda bread; solid and sustaining, yeast free and very quick.

The array of bread at the end of the day was quite breath taking! Once again I left with a box of fabulous bread, by car this time, my head buzzing with instruction and ideas.

The magic, I think, of Manna from Devon is David and Holly’s extraordinary ability to combine huge expertise, knowledge and professionalism with a wonderful relaxed warmth, humour, enthusiasm and informality, so beguiling that nerves fade quickly as the cooking begins. No wonder the school is going from strength to strength; theirs is a rare talent.

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Aug 08 2010


Last week brought a huge treat. My dear friend Felicity invited me to bake bread in her wonderful bread oven. Having cooked for years enthusiastically both professionally and for friends and family, my knowledge of bread making would fit tidily on the back of a large postage stamp. The reasons are twofold, or maybe three; first, I was given a bread machine years ago, second, we have a fantastic French Patisserie in our local town, as good as any you will find anywhere in France and lastly I’ve just been too idle to try! Just one day, and all is changed. My fresh yeast is already sitting in the fridge and a new enthusiasm has been ignited.

Felicity’s oven is a very large affair standing in a corner of her beautiful garden in mid Devon. It was built by her son, Fred, a couple of years ago. Fred has been the driving force behind Slow Food Devon for a number of years now and his enthusiasm and knowledge of bread making has culminated into this wonderful project.

..foccacia in the oven…
The day before my visit I dive into Tom Jaine’s “Making Bread at Home” and David Jones’ excellent bread making notes which I gleaned from a wonderful day’s cookery at Manna From Devon.
A Biga, that’s what I must make. I mix 8 grams of fresh yeast with 150 mil of warm water and 150 grams strong bread flour and I leave it overnight.
Next morning I use Tom Jaine’s Italian Country Bread recipe of 200gms of my Biga, 300ml tepid water, 15grm fresh yeast, 2 tsp. salt, 2 tablespoons olive oil and 250 grams each of white and wholemeal flour. I mix the dough, knead it for ten minutes and let it prove covered in a bowl in the car as I drive across Devon.
When I arrive Felicity is surrounded by huge quantities of proven dough in her glorious kitchen. My little bowl looks somewhat inadequate but I’m on a steep learning curve today so watch and listen. Together we knock down, shape and set bread to prove a second time in cotton lined baskets. Fred and Felicity’s husband, Simon lit the oven early in the morning so the temperature is already rising promisingly. Fred bakes Focaccia.
We have lunch in the garden. Tomato soup; “last year’s tomatoes and the contents of the bread bin” Felicity says. Eaten with the warm rosemary tinged focaccia, delicious I say.
Fred checks the oven; our dough is risen and ready. Fred rakes out the ashes, in go the loaves. The “door” is sealed. We sit around the oven in the sun listening to the sheep over the hedge and wait as the air is filled with the sweet smell of baking bread.

….the finished loaves…
Out they come one at a time on the great metal peel. We stand around congratulating each other and admiring the day’s work. I leave with my loaf and Felicity fills the still hot oven with a great dish of beans and deliciousness for their supper. I’ve had a wonderful day.

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