THERE is a lot more to Devon fare than the iconic cream tea. Tender meat, freshly caught fish, farmhouse cheeses and award-winning wines are everywhere you look – from roadside shops and farmers' markets to cosy pubs and top restaurants.
And the very best of the region's food and drink will be celebrated this weekend at the annual Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink.
Over the past decade the festival has established itself as a vital part of life in Exeter and the South West, promoting our rich food culture while bringing together local producers, the region's best chefs, and the food loving public. And even in this difficult economic period, the event goes from strength to strength, attracting more and more producers and visitors each year.
The idea for the event came about 12 years ago through a meeting of minds involving two of Exeter's top restaurateurs, award-winning Michael Caines, of ABode and Gidleigh Park and Kit Chapman, the man who turned an old Exeter convent school into one of the city's most glitzy meeting places, Brazz in Palace Gate.
The pair wanted to see Exeter, Devon, and the Westcountry recognised as centres of food excellence. They got together with Derek Phillips, chairman of Exeter Business Forum, the then Dean of Exeter, NFU chairman Anthony Gibson and Richard Ball from Exeter City Council.
They were all keen to promote the region's food and drink and after a visit to the popular Ludlow Food Festival it was decided that this was the route to go down.
"We thought if a small town in Shropshire could put on such a great event, then we could do the same," said Mr Phillips. "The original idea was to have it on the Cathedral Green but that was not viable so we turned to what I always think of as Exeter's secret garden – Northernhay Gardens, which were ideal. For the first couple of years we just had the gardens and then we expanded into the castle."
The festival was a great success from the very first year and that success has grown each year. It now attracts more than a hundred of the South West's best artisan food producers, some of the country's top chefs and thousands of visitors
Two years ago the After Dark sessions were introduced to open the event to a wider audience.
"By opening later and having live music we thought we would get younger people to the festival," said Mr Phillips, "and it has worked.
"We now have around 1,000 people each evening enjoying locally produced food and drink and great local music."
But the festival is not just a fabulous weekend of foodie fun. It has also become an extremely important annual event for all those who take part. Many producers, as well as chefs, have been involved since its earliest days and it has helped them get their goods to a wider audience and get to know their customers.
"There's always a great vibe," said Steve Waters, co-owner and chilli expert at South Devon Chilli Farm. "We get a huge amount of interest in our products and also find that afterwards a lot of people will come out to pay a visit to the Chilli Farm."
Geoff Bowen of Pebblebed Vineyards eagerly looks forward to the event. "Over the years the festival has become very much a celebration, we launch some of our new wines and share with friends old and new the optimism for the year ahead in the vineyard."
Mary Quicke of Quickes Traditional Cheese values the platform the festival gives to promote local foods and producers as well as highlighting the region's excellence. "It's a marvellous celebration of local food for local people," she said.
Chefs too enjoy the opportunity it gives them to meet the public.
Matt Mason of the Jack in the Green said: "The festival has long been one of my 'must do' events. I love the ambience, the people and the place. And I love it because it makes me feel just a little bit famous for a day!"
Peter Gorton, one of Devon's best known chefs, agrees: "The festival has over the years been a showcase of Devon's exceptional food producers. It makes for a terrific day out for all the family– it's great fun!"
Victoria Cranfield of Cranfields Foods sums up simply what the festival means to her and so many others: "Personally I wouldn't miss it for the world!"
The festival takes place at Northernhay Gardens, Exeter and runs from Friday, April 26 to Sunday, April 28. Details: www.exeterfoodanddrinkfestival.co.uk