Bilby Bites - the food blog from Bilby Marketing

The Holt, Honiton

On a sunny Summer’s day, spending time with good friends, eating, and perusing boutique shops in small Devon villages, has surely got to be one of the most perfect ways to pass the time. My Best Food Friend (BFF herein) and I had planned to head for Topsham for the Food & Drink Festival, but unfortunately we were quite late in arriving and ended up sitting in a lovely coffee shop sipping our hot beverages and sharing a slice of gingerbread instead. Time passed and when we reached the quay where most of the action was supposed to be taking place, the whole thing seemed to be winding up for the day. This is one of the dangers of enjoying yourself too much – time disappears. Preparation was in play for the evening festivities, but we had missed our chance for the daytime fun. Still, Topsham has a lot to offer, so we were happy to mop up the remaining shops we had missed on our first run down the high street, pleasantly killing time until we headed to Honiton for the highlight of the day, our evening meal at The Holt.

I’ve had a connection with Honiton for a number of years as very good friends of mine owned a house just outside of the town many years ago and I spent countless happy weekends at their house, popping into Honiton whenever food and drink supplies were needed. Over the last few years I haven’t visited Honiton very often, but when I heard about The Holt from my BFF and registered it’s growing popularity I put it on my ‘must do’ list. Honiton is only a half hour away from Exeter at best, so it’s easy to get to and makes a nice change from eating in the city. The Holt is situated on the High Street, not too far from the main shopping centre. For the last 5 years the McCaig brothers, Joe and Angus, with Angus’s wife Kate, have been building up The Holt and have gained many awards in the process including the Taste of the West Best Gastropub in the South West for 2009. Angus and Kate are in the kitchen, whilst Joe is front of house and they are a very hands on family, running the pub, restaurant, smokehouse, as well as 2 separate food companies Smoking Jacket Foods and Bernard & Kitty’s Drinks Company. They aim to support the immediate community, through the use of local suppliers and produce such as Devon Rose free range and organic meats from Seaton, Creedy Carver Duck from Crediton and Fowlers free range eggs & Ganesha Wholefoods from Honiton, amongst others.

The McCaig family are veteran food and drink producers, with parents David & Ann running the highly successful Otter Brewery in Luppitt near Honiton since 1990. Head chef Angus started out at gastropub the Drewe Arms in Broadhembury when he was 15, going on to study at Leith’s School of Food and Wine. After a number of years gaining experience in France with future wife Kate, at restaurants like Terence Conran’s Butler’s Wharf Chop House and in a catering business dealing with 200-2,000 guests, Angus and Kate decided to move back to Devon. After a stint catering for weddings and other events with brother Joe, the 3 decided to settle down and find a more permanent base and The Holt it was to be. Lucky Devon.

The reception we first received was very friendly and welcoming which is always a great start. Having fallen foul of a local café owner recently, I was keen to let them know that I wanted to take photos of both the interior and the food for my blog. No problems there. We were told very succinctly a little history of the project and then we ordered a glass of wine. In our eagerness to arrive within plenty of time, we had an hour and a half before our booking, but were happy to relax in the bar area until the table was ready. I ordered a large glass of the Beacon Bay Chenin Blanc from South Africa, whilst BFF enjoyed the French Les Terrasses rosé. Both were great summer, easy-drinking choices. To keep the hunger pains at bay – we were sat directly outside the open view kitchen – we nibbled at some Wasabi peanuts as an appetiser. My last trip to Australia was full of Wasabi nut experiences so I was familiar with the drill – eat peanuts and drink quickly afterwards. Thankfully, these were hot, but not uncomfortably so. We spot a blackboard tapas menu not far from us and note for the future that there are a number of mini treats available including chorizo, crispy sesame prawns with mango & chilli pickle, mini lamb burgers with toast & salad and garlic & parsley mussels with French bread, for £1.50 or £2 a dish. Not your average dull nibbles which is always impressive.

BFF had already had The Holt experience once before, so she commented on the good service and pointed out the lovely waitress she had previously had. We were lucky enough to have the same lovely waitress this evening which was good news. We were given the menu to look over and order from whilst we sipped our drinks. We knew already that the smokehouse business, Smoking Jacket Foods, run by the family in addition to the pub business, provided many goodies on the menu at different times in the year, but the most commonly used smoked ingredient was the butter which is used to flavour many dishes. Both BFF and myself, after some indecision, decided on the Rabbit Wellington (£14.50), served with confit leg rillette, smoked mash (using that wonderful smoked butter), baby vegetables and a tarragon sauce. In a food bloggers world, you should always chose something different to that of your dinner partner, but we were both so taken by the rabbit idea that neither of us could, or would, back down. Almost every one of the 5 main courses on offer looked to be worth trying, including the duck with rhubarb, asparagus & sauté potatoes; pork belly, proscuitto and chorizo pig tail; monkfish tail & mussels and the plum tomato and aubergine charlotte. The prices are reasonable (£13.50-16 on this night) given that this is a very upmarket pub, using local, quality ingredients with added extras such as their own smoked produce. I’m not a starter person, preferring to leave room for dessert, so we went straight in for the main course. If a chef is good then the dessert is, to my mind, a great showcase for their talents. A starter is just a mini-main in my mind. If I had of been in the mood for a starter though I would have definitely had the parmesan and spinach tortellini with pea puree, a herb salad and lavendar cream sauce in case you’re wondering.

We were taken upstairs to our table when the food was just about ready and not too long after this, we had our beautiful rabbit dish in front of us. I must confess, I have never tried rabbit before this night. I had many years ago found a rabbit recipe that I liked the look of, but the local game butcher E Courtney, in Cowick Street, Exeter, sadly now closed, could only offer me a frozen whole rabbit at the time and I needed it that night without the fuss. I haven’t tried again since. The rabbit wellington was tasty with a pastry that was both soft and slightly crispy on the outside – no excess of pastry either, which I find offputting. I went straight in for the smoked mash, mash being one of my favourite things on the planet when treated with respect (lumps, lack of seasoning and glutinous overmashing being the crimes against mash most commonly executed). I wasn’t disappointed. The smoked butter was subtle but permeated the mash beautifully. The confit leg rilette, at the base of the stack, was an interesting way of enhancing the overall rabbit flavour and texture of the dish. The baby carrots and cabbage that accompanied the 2-part mini meat feast were ideal, whilst the tarragon sauce was a perfect match for all the flavours. The meal was the right mix of rusticity and finesse for my palate. I have to say that I found rabbit to be very similar to chicken – this is not exactly relevatory as I’ve heard that a number of times, but it’s true! The taste is slightly stronger than chicken, but only as dark chicken meat is to white chicken meat. BFF had the same positive reaction as myself.

We had been told of the range of real fruit flavoured vodkas that The Holt also offered very soon after we arrived. Bernard & Kitty’s Drinks Company, also run by the family, use UK-distilled vodka and flavour it themselves with caramel, cherry and apple. You can also buy the 3 varieties in very attractive 700ml antique-style spirit bottles. As we decided to go with dessert, I wanted to try the caramel vodka at the same time. At £1.80 a shot, this is a very inexpensive alternative to dessert wine or a regular spirit. Once again BFF and I headed straight for the same dessert. This time is was Lime & Coconut Panacotta, served with fresh mango & coconut crunch with a brandy tuile. Panacotta is a big hit for me and the tropical flavours of lime, mango and coconut worked wonderfully with the creamy panacotta. Panacotta ideally needs an element of sharpness in the mix in order not to taste simply like wobbly, set double cream, which is essentially what it is. The caramel vodka was very smooth. I’m not a vodka fan as a rule, but love vanilla and caramel flavours and as it is a house speciality you can’t say no right? I would have this again with a dessert without doubt. Next time I’ll try the popular cherry vodka.

Earlier that evening in the bar, BFF and I had been discussing what we thought were the most important elements of a good meal out. For me there are 3 key parts – atmosphere, food and service – in that order of importance. Without atmosphere (I include environment in this – décor, lighting, etc.) I am put off my food even if it is good. Poor service is unfortunately very common even in good restaurants – think snooty waiter/waitress – so I’d probably never leave the house if I focussed on this problem. BFF was more inclined towards service, food and atmosphere and let’s face it, everybody is different. The great thing about The Holt is that you don’t need to worry about the order these come in as all 3 are present and part of the character of the business. Every member of staff we had contact with was knowledgable, friendly and helpful; the atmosphere relaxed and the food exceptional. It’s always a boon to discover somewhere that doesn’t allow one of these areas to excel at the expense of another. With a new McCaig crew café set to open in Honiton in the not too distant future, we can expect to see more culinary pizzaz from this talented team and luckily for us, it’s right on our doorstep.