Review by Becky Sheaves
On winter days, there is little more warming, reassuring or delightful than a bowl of good homemade soup. Especially if you’ve been for a decent stroll along the beautiful River Otter to work up an appetite. If the soup in question is lightly spiced, umami-rich and served with proper bread and Westcountry butter, well: you’ve got me.
So, it was on a chilly lunchtime that I found myself relishing the root vegetable soup at Otterton Mill and scraping the bowl with my spoon. “Steady on,” said my companion. “This is only the starter. Leave room for the main course.”
I set down my spoon and drew breath. Indeed, it was a smart idea to pace myself, given what an acclaimed gastro destination Otterton Mill has become in recent years. In the 2019 Taste of the West awards it achieved the coveted Gold standard and finished among the best eight cafes in the whole South West. The judges remarked: “Otterton Mill is a fantastic draw for the local area. It promotes local produce really well and is proud to do so. The food is fantastic with an excellent sandwich menu. The buildings have been tastefully expanded – this is now a ‘go-to’ place on the foodie map.”
With comments like that, it was only going to be a matter of time before The Maverick Guide headed over to see what all the fuss was about. We found the mill looking suitably ancient and charming in the village of Otterton, near Budleigh Salterton. Astonishingly, Otterton Mill is, officially, the eighteenth oldest business in the whole world (according to WorldAtlas.com) as it dates back to 1068. Still part of the historic Clinton Devon Estate, it’s run as a family business by Chris and Carol Wright, with help from the younger two of their five children.
Set around a pretty courtyard, the mill is a collection of characterful stone buildings and the café is simply presented with whitewashed walls and wooden tables. Service was swift and smiley and soon it was time to check out the main course. I had a fabulous selection of salads, all freshly handmade on site. This salad trio is, I was told, a stalwart dish on the menu here but ingredients vary with the season. Today’s included generous heaps of a beetroot and apple salad, smoked garlic and pepper couscous and a delicious celeriac, carrot and sweet potato remoulade.
Remoulade? Rather like a slaw but the mayonnaise is made more interesting with the addition of fresh herbs, capers, cornichons and anchovy. The head chef here, Franck Favereaux, is French and clearly enhances the laid-back café menu with some serious culinary skills. For special occasions (such as the mill’s regular music nights) the café also opens up for three-course evening meals. I have it on good authority that these are a real treat.
Alongside my salads came more of that fabulous bread. Well, if you’re going to grind your own wholemeal flour using a waterwheel, then bake it in your own bakehouse, then serve it in your own café, you can be pretty sure they know what they are doing when it comes to bread. And at Otterton Mill they surely do.
My lunch date had the fish and chips, which was a real box-ticker. Fresh fish, delivered that morning from Brixham, tick. Sustainable? Yes, it was a hearty chunk of hake. Tick. And then the chips. None of your frozen nonsense. These were peeled, chopped and cooked in the mill’s kitchen. All in all, just about the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted. Yes, I did lean over from my salad and pinch some. Wouldn’t you?
All this left us groaning and unable to manage a pud. So we opted instead for excellent coffee and some chunks of the mill’s made-on-the-spot fudge. We went for taster-size portions of mint-choc-chip, Bakewell tart and (yes, really) Christmas pud flavours. Superb.
And that was by no means the end of our visit. Once we’d recovered from lunch, we watched the 1,000-year-old mill in action, grinding corn into flour. The waterwheel is nothing short of mesmeric. And talk about using renewable energy. It doesn’t get much more eco- friendly. The buildings themselves are beautiful, too, all wooden floors and huge beams. It’s fascinating to chat to the millers (drawn from a devoted local team of volunteers) about how the mill works and to watch them in action.Then we looked around the lovely art gallery/shop, showcasing a treasure trove of local arts and crafts.
Finally, there was just time for a little food shopping in the well-stocked farm shop and to give the new milk dispenser on its outside wall a try.
This is a fab piece of kit. You fill up a bottle with fresh milk from local cows and pay with a quick swipe of your bank card. Ancient it may be, but Otterton Mill is thoroughly up-to-date when it comes to knowing what today’s customers are looking for. I highly recommend a visit.