THERE’S no recipe this week – unless you count adding half a pint of bitter to a readymix – but I’ll get to that later. Nope, I’m going to tell you about our holiday. Most folk only get to bore family and friends with their holiday saga but here I have a slightly wider audience (allegedly)…

Sometime in October, Fran began to predict that another Lockdown loomed on the horizon and suggested we go away for my birthday. It fell on a Sunday and we duly booked into Abbey Inn near Buckfastleigh, and arrived on a glorious autumnal day. Now, on entering a hotel room on a Sunday we usually drop our cases and reach for the remote (football) but on this occasion looked out of the window and were instantly bewitched. It was a bay window, projecting over the river; the bank opposite was a wall of midnight green firs, below us the Dart was in full flow, tumbling over boulders then under a hump backed Dartmoor bridge; we saw the flash of a kingfisher. We sat in two comfy chairs drinking in that view (and a boxed Marston’s oak aged 2019 Horninglow bottle-conditioned Imperial Stout at 7.4% – so there is a covid cure) for nearly two hours and just talked. About nice things, CAMRA events and friends remembered, great pubs we’ve visited, trips to the bars and breweries of Belgium and the US, our granddaughters…the sort of conversation you currently don’t have at home as the screen pumps out an unending tale of woe. Until we’d finished the bottle and Fran got twitchy for the bar where he’d spotted St Austell’s Proper Job on handpump. We’ve got plenty at home, bottle-conditioned, but it’s just not the same…We relaxed in front of a log fire drinking our ale and reading the menu (duck for me), then had a delicious dinner; next morning, the massive fry-up with local bangers and black pudding we never allow ourselves at home.

So. Now we’re almost up-to-date. Fran said last weekend that another Lockdown was absolutely imminent. Clearly the man has a contact close to the Cabinet (like Deep Throat in Watergate) because within hours Boris was on the box telling us to stay in bed for a month and drink plenty of real ale starting from Thursday.

My husband leapt into action. For weeks he’d been pressing for a night at the King William IV in the middle of Totnes and by Tuesday we were there. Better still, we were to meet up with our dear friends Quentin and Denise. Q&D are longtime CAMRA members and the greatest mine hosts you could meet. Older members might recall that many years ago the Good Beer Guide was launched at the Young’s pub they managed, the White Cross, on the Thames at Richmond. Our HQ team, press and VIPS arrived by boat – very late because the tide prevented a landing…I’d given their pub a star for Denise’s cooking in my Good Pub Food guide, and we got to know them better when they came down to Devon and bought Keith Floyd’s former pub the Maltster’s Arms at Tuckenhay and turned it into a haven of fine food and ale (much frequented by yotties). And then they ‘retired’ and sailed away themselves on Rianbe, their 40ft Cornish built wooden motor yacht travelling rivers and canals on the continent, latterly Belgium and the Netherlands, for nearly a decade. For all that time we kept email contact and just over two weeks ago they arrived back at their home on the river in Totnes; on Tuesday, the day after their quarantine ended, we had a happy reunion in the King Bill (as it’s known to the locals), then went to Totnes Brewing Company craft brew pub, opened during their absence. After that I went back to our hotel but Fran, who has more stamina, went on a little pub crawl to the Albert Inn (Bridgetown Brewery tap) and the Lord Nelson. Next morning we had to leave our room keys in the lock; the pub was already locked up for lockdown. We met up with Q&D again at the Steam Packet Inn on St Peter’s Quay where we had a decent pint of Salcombe Brewery’s Seahorse, before finishing up at the top of the town in grade II listed the Bay Horse. And here we parted company, pledging to meet for a pint in December.

And that, you’re thinking, was that. Not quite. We drove back from Totnes along peaceful lanes, the sky ablaze with a red sunset, until we reached the Foxhound Inn at Brixton, our regular watering hole and currently Plymouth CAMRA’s runner-up Country Pub of the Year. Awaiting us was an unexpected treat – a special from Salcombe named Mayflower 400. A lilting golden ale, it marks the Pilgrims’ crossing to New England 400 years ago. Plymouth had planned massive celebrations this year, all scuppered by the pandemic. We’re hoping it can go ahead in 2021 – and rely on the brewery to reprise the beer.

So here’s my Recipe Tip. Oxfam shops (there’s one in Totnes) sell a brilliant product called Beer Bread baking mix in a tiny hessian sack. There are two with different herbs and the one I chose, with chilli and garlic. All you do is tip it into a mixing bowl, add 330ml of the beer of your choice, stir it up, tip into a loaf tin and bake. Fran had helped close down our yacht club bar for Lockdown and brought home the ullage of Dartmoor Brewery’s dark, malty Legend, which added its own spice. And if you can’t wait for Oxfam to re-open you’ll find my soda bread made with beer among my recipes listed in Red (on) Lion. And now you have our holiday news – all two nights of it. So batten down the hatches, stay safe, and get cooking. Cheers – and bon appétit!

Susan Nowak

Susan Nowak, pictures by Fran Nowak

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