Next time you go shopping... take a fork
Eleanor Gaskarth takes a look at the array of street food cropping up across the Westcountry.
When I get the opportunity to go abroad, my initial excitement does not stem from the culture, the landscape or the historical monuments of the destination. It comes, unquestionably, from what I am going to be able to eat. And not in the best restaurants or most popular cafes, but on the streets, down the alleyways, tucked behind the buildings.
Watching your food being cooked, interacting with its creator and then enjoying it – on the go or perched on a bench or patch of grass – is a great joy in life for me. So it has been with much pleasure that I have witnessed the burgeoning array of street food cropping up all over the Westcountry.
When I mentioned the subject of people's favourite street eats on Twitter, one vendor kept cropping up.
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"I can think of no smell more enticing" said one contributor, while another suggested their colleagues sometimes fabricate meetings in the vicinity of the stall to get a lunchtime fix.
The subject of their adoration, Fal Falafel, is the creation of James and Hagit Heffron, who met while backpacking and moved to Cornwall in 2005.
After James lost his job, the pair scraped together enough money to buy a trailer and decided to try their hand bringing the national dish of Hagit's native Israel to the people of Falmouth.
The fresh falafel, smothered in hummus and served in a pitta crammed with salads and pickles, proved a big hit in the town centre, so much so that the Combined Universities of Cornwall invited them to begin trading on the Penryn Campus.
James said: "In the six years that we've been going, I've really witnessed a boom in the quality and popularity of street food. I believe it comes down to simplicity, freshness and price.
"When I see a huge menu somewhere I get worried; I know how much work and energy we put into just one product and it makes me question how it's possible to make so many things.
"They must be cutting corners. Our customers see us cooking for them, they know what has gone in and that they're getting good value for money."
He said a lot of people still don't know what their product is, adding: "We get these burly builders who turn into complete falafel addicts. It's brilliant."
Discovering the occasional isolated street food gem is a delight, but if you want to hit gold on your first attempt, the Exeter Street Food Market is a good bet.
Wrapped around the 11th century St Pancras Church in the middle of the Guildhall Shopping Centre, the market has become a significant draw in the already foodie-centric city. It was started in March 2012 by the organiser of the Exeter Innovations Market, Karen Smith, after witnessing the popularity of her husband Mick's mobile woodfire pizza stall "Isabella Mozzarella" (named after their granddaughter). Initially held three days a month, the street food market went weekly this spring and now draws crowds three times a week on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Communal tables and chairs are dotted around and even on this chilly day there is a convivial air to activities. I watched a family check-out the stalls before each buying a different meal and returning to a central table to eat together.
Chef Tim Golder is a firm fixture at the market, having given up his restaurant, Oliva, in Topsham, in favour of the La Cantina Street Kitchen, where he serves a selection of sliders – small hamburgers to the uninitiated – as well as Spanish and English tapas. As we chat through the serving hatch, he presents me with a pulled pork slider, marinated in a tangy, tasty rub and cooked for 14 hours in his woodfire oven. It is a juicy, perfectly sized tidbit and local too – all of his pork comes from free-range Kenniford Farm, who also have a popular stall at the market.
Tim says he does not regret leaving the restaurant business, adding: "It's been a huge change of lifestyle. Instead of being stuck in the kitchen all night I'm out here, talking to customers, getting to see them eating my food. There's an amazing atmosphere – everyone here is passionate about food, we bounce ideas off of each other and go around winding each other up and trying all the food."
Around the corner, Ian Heppell, owner of Tasteful Tapas, is negotiating the logistical challenges of stopping the burners beneath his giant paella pans from extinguishing in the breeze. This proves undemanding for the former marine, who was taught to cook by an elderly Spanish lady while he was in the country training their armed forces. He has been in business since January and is loving the new way of life. "I'm in the fresh air, cooking authentic dishes for nice people who I get to have a chat with", he said, adding: "Nobody is yelling or shooting at me either, which is obviously a blessing."
Another newcomer, Topsham-based charcuterie company Good Game, say they are often asked where they import their products from. Partner Peter Woodham-Kay said: "They're surprised when we tell them the bunnies that make the rabbit salami are from Aylesbeare, the pork is Kenniford Farm and the venison from Crediton and South Dartmoor. One thing we've found popular is to have a big stew on the go made from our products to show how much potential there is."
Possibly the most flamboyant of the Exeter vendors is Gus of Taco Macho Mexican food, but such was the constant stream of customers vying for his attention that I could not get a word in. Which is in itself a very good sign that his tacos, fajitas, burritos and quesadillas are something special. Gus, from Baja, previously ran a restaurant in Columbia before meeting his wife Samantha from Paignton and setting up in the very different Devon climes.
One of the newest additions is The Fude Dude, aka ex bus driver Andy Rea from Newton Abbot. This is only his second weekend trading and he had to drastically increase his stock after the van's foot long gourmet hotdogs quickly sold out last time. Explaining the move from buses to baps, he said: "I hit 40 and knew I needed to make a change. It's been a steep learning curve but the appreciation has been overwhelming. One lady told me how nice it was to find the market and have a local alternative to your typical fast food. We're obviously doing something right."
With late-night opening on Thursdays from November 21, a new cocktail caravan and continuous Christmas street food from December 2-23, there's never been a better time to take to the streets. With a fork…
Feel your street eats deserve tweets? Get in touch with @Egaskarth