Buckfast Abbey – a place of history, rules, observances, architecture, and self sufficiency. Some people mainly know it for the tonic wine that is produced by the Monks amongst other wares. Yes, this site of monastic beliefs has strict rules for those who choose to give themselves up to it and its owner, but just beside this beautiful shrine is a building breaking the rules ever so slightly, but in a good way.
On the same site as the Abbey is Buckfast Conference Centre, a part of the Abbey’s life that has only recently been allowed to ‘break the rules’ and be more modern in its approach and advertise commercially, in order to sell its many events and uses.
I recently visited with the Exeter PA Network (you can read a short news article about our visit here) and was shown around the very modern facilities, took part in one of the many workshops (in this case, we made Christmas table centrepieces using foliage from their forest no less) and enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch. So suprisingly delicious, in fact, I couldn’t help but be nosey and find out more from our lovely host Carin and their Head Chef John, who also told me about their Pop-Up Kitchen evenings they put on four times a year currently.
So when I heard from them a few weeks later, inviting me to their latest event which was ‘A Festive Banquet’ and, based on the food I had already enjoyed, I couldn’t refuse. I had been informed that not only did they have the beautiful gardens and forest we could see immediately around the area, but they have a 300 acre farm that they grow animals and vegetables, which is what is used in the kitchen for these events – I was fairly in awe of this revelation and, even though I genuinly couldn’t get a dining partner for the event (everyones diaries were full!) I decided to go solo, and get involved with the other diners who would be there.
The large conservatory type dining room was all aglow with lights and well laid banquet length tables, with seating for approximately 50 people. The evening started promptly at 7:30pm and the menu design certainly set the scene of what was to come. It all started with a historical introduction then the good stuff….the food!
Lord of the Pies! A turkey tartlet with festive spices and fruit. This little meaty morsel was one tasty tart – crumbly pastry filled with tantalising turkey. It certainly got our tastebuds going.
To accompany this appetiser was a great bit of history. This is was a mince pie of a different kind – shredded/minced meat pie to be precise. Did you know, historically they were always meat pies with fruit accents, but eventually the fruit became more dominant & the fruity mince pie you eat today! I’m not particularly a history buff or fan, but when paired with something of interest – i.e. food, it becomes relevant and interesting to me.
Next up, a sharing platter of cured, pickled and steeped fruit and vegetables with breads and homemade cheeses.
This was for four people to share but so well laid out, each person knew their portion without the embarrassment of ‘shall I, may I, is this mine?’ An unctuous soft cheese ball which was crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, tomatoes of all colours with their flavours intensified, crispy bread bites, chutneys, quince jellies and deep fried gherkins or similar – it was fantastic; earthy, sweet, savoury, tangy.
Fish course: Warm potted trout with horseradish cream. What came out didn’t look potted to me (or what I envisaged) but nonetheless was an absolute delight.
Trout from their river (can you get more local and fesh than that?!), stacked high and mighty, with a light horseradish beurre blanc type sauce. Fresh and soft, this was a trouty treat.
The main event: A three-bird roast consisting of free-range local chicken and guinea fowl, filled with a duck, orange and pistachio mousseline served with creamed potato and a cranberry and tonic wine jus.
Before our main course came out we were told how the swan used to be the traditional monastic centrepiece, common during the middle ages, before all the swans were owned by the crown and that the song 12 days of Christmas actually represented the birds that were presented to guests at a Christmas feast. We were told our swans were just coming… I think we were all a tiny bit worried, but they werent lying…
Our three bird roast was adorned with a swans head, made using salt baked dough (and someone painstakingly painting all of them!) accompanied by the freshest of vegetables from the farm.
It was so absolutely delicious and filling! The meat was plump and juicy, but the triumph was the creamed potato mash that had bits of shredded duck meat mixed in with it to give it a firm and rich flavour and don’t get me started on the gravy. Let’s just say it took all my restraint, and that of one of my fellow diners, to not drink it – it was deep, rich, sweet, and so moreish, a real sign of skill.
Whilst nearly bursting at the seams after this course, my fellow diners were nodding along, all agreeing this was as good as expected. They informed that this was the 3rd event they had attended this year, and that they have never been disappointed; as soon as an event shows up on the conference facebook page, they book.
We were all certainly keen to see what the pudding course had to offer next!
A selection box – mini homemade ‘twix’, jelly tots, truffles, coconut cream and ‘walnut whip’.
Another course full of all the flavours and textures you can imagine, but all working together perfectly. Soft chocolate, crunchy honeycomb, sweet and sour jelly tots, salted nuts and then a little shot glass of coconut cream which just cleansed the palate. Overall it was a dessert disco in the mouth.
If that wasn’t enough, there was coffee and petit fours to finish! It was quite amusing as most of the room started to ask for napkins to take home these final treats of Christmas fudge, ‘ferrero roche’ type balls and Christmas cake that John had fed for many days. We were all full to the brim of our Christmas stockings yet didn’t want to waste these fab petite fours, if only to have them as a reminder the next day of the meal the night before.
The evening flowed between historic stories and foodie feasting, with everything being a joy to eat and every mouthful inspiring satisfying noises from every guest as well as it being creative enough to instigate plenty of table chatter.
Head Chef John Hughes has worked at an award winning Devon restaurant, been behind the food at Dartington Hall and has been at Buckfast Conference Centre for 8 years now. He is delighted with the turnout for these events and is also helping to push the boundaries on this historical site, by championing this type of event and being allowed to do it. Thank goodness they are with him on this – we’d be missing out otherwise.
I cannot recommend this event enough – at £25 a head for a 4 course meal (6 courses in total really), it’s a steal. A full evening from 7:30pm until approx 10/10:30pm – the food was so incredibly tasty (I didn’t have to season anything), well presented and cleverly put together based on the theme, it could certainly teach some restaurants a thing or two.
Don’t miss out! With currently four events a year, look out for their next event now, gather the troops and get booking – if there’s more interest, more events may get added. It’s definitely worth giving it the Dining Devon Recommended badge.
Their write up of the event, with a few more historical references can be found here on their website.
To find out about their next pop-up kitchen event, which is based around foraging (or look at previous ones), check out their Buckfast Conference Centre Facebook page.
To find out more about their garden related events including wreath making or even bee keeping, check out their Garden Department at Buckfast Abbey Facebook page.
You can also follow them on Twitter.