Working on the second edition of Lonely Planet's guide to Devon, Cornwall and Southwest England, my co-author Belinda Dixon and I were lucky enough to sample some of the finest foodie experiences that the southwest has to offer.
We sampled traditional scrumpy from cider farms in Somerset. We stuffed ourselves silly in countless country pubs. We tasted cheddar in Cheddar, nibbled buns in Bath, savoured smokies in Salcombe and compared cream teas all the way from Dartmoor to the Isles of Scilly. More than anything, we were struck by the variety and quality of the food that's on offer across the southwest these days - from Michelin-starred restaurants to small-scale producers flying the flag for home-sourced produce.
I've lived in Cornwall for most of my life, and the food scene has changed almost beyond recognition in the past couple of decades. Twenty years ago the idea of a celebrity chef trying to run a restaurant in this far-flung corner of the nation was unthinkable, but these days we're spoilt for choice - Jamie Oliver, Michael Caines, Gary Rhodes, John Burton-Race, Raymond Blanc, Nathan Outlaw and, of course, Rick Stein, are just some of the starry names who have set up shop out west.
But for me, it wasn't the big-name chefs who made researching this guide such a pleasure: it was the little-known gems and locals' tips we turned up along the way. Right across the southwest, there are hundreds of farm shops, village inns, seafood shacks and micro-breweries who are collectively contributing to the region's growing reputation as the nation's foodie capital.
It's the issue of sustainability that seems to be underpinning the southwest's food revolution. With acres of rolling farmland and some of the UK's best fishing grounds right on their doorstep, local chefs have really started to tap into the potential of home-sourced produce. At the Riverford Field Kitchen, near Buckfastleigh, the restaurant only uses meat and veg sourced from its own organic farm. It's proved a huge critical and commercial success, winning Best Ethical Restaurant for two years running at the Observer Food Monthly Awards.
It's just one of many southwest restaurants who have become passionate advocates for the importance of local produce. A couple of our other favourite finds include the Crab House Café near Wyke Regis, where the seafood comes literally straight off the boats, and the New Yard Restaurant at Trelowarren, where the chef sources all his ingredients from the surrounding Cornish estate.
Then, of course, there's River Cottage HQ, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's admirable experiment in sustainable living, which also hosts its own food evenings and cookery school. And if you fancy even fresher grub, how about a foraging weekend courtesy of Fat Hen, which offers wild food expeditions along the craggy cliffs of west Cornwall, followed by a slap-up meal courtesy of the inhouse chefs?
Then there's the wine. It might not be widely known, but the southwest is home to two of the UK's top vineyards - Sharpham in south Devon and Camel Valley in north Cornwall - both of which are giving the world's more established wine-growing nations a run for their money.
But nothing beats a bit of grub and ale in a country pub, and the southwest has some real beauties to choose from. There's something to suit all tastes: foodies might go for gastropubs such as the Queen's Arms near Corton Denham or the Gurnard's Head near St Ives, while real ale enthusiasts might plump for the Beer Engine near Exeter, which brews its own range of seasonal beers, or the Salamander in Bath, the local taphouse for the city's much-loved microbrewery, Bath Ales.
For a truly picturesque pint, though, you can't beat the Turk's Head, a wonderfully remote pub hidden away on the island of St Agnes on the Isles of Scilly. Situated beside the island's quay overlooking the sparkling blue Atlantic, there's really nowhere better in Britain to sip a pint while the sun goes down.
To celebrate the launch of the new edition of Devon Cornwall & Southwest England, Oliver has suggested a few locals' tips for restaurants that you might not have heard about - at least not yet. Book a table while you still can.
- Kota - At this former mill in Porthleven, the multi-cultural chef serves up award-winning Asian-tinged food.
- Hix Oyster and Fish House - Swish, sophisticated seafood just off the waterfront in Lyme Regis.
- Paul Ainsworth at No. 6 - Step aside, Rick Stein - Paul Ainsworth is touted by many as Padstow's top new chef.
- Seahorse - This Dartmouth seafooderie hasn't hit the radar just yet, but it's sure to soon.
- The Circus - Fantastic British restaurant in a stellar location, just off Bath's Royal Crescent.