She became a chef by accident and relocated to Devon because of a family crisis. Today, Tina-Bricknell Webb runs one of the best restaurants in the South-west and is a firm believer in growing - and rearing - your own produce. Robert Bullard reports.
When her sister suffered a brain injury after falling off a horse, Tina Bricknell-Webb and her husband, Tony, rented a flat for her to be near her bedside, moving temporarily from London down to Exeter. The shock of what had happened made them radically rethink their lives. They ditched their betting shops and went into catering, first running an acclaimed wine bar in Harrow and then, having fallen in love with Devon, what is now the renowned Percy's Country Hotel and Restaurant.
It all sounds so easy. But the renovation of Percy's took six years, and there were two years while they were running both establishments. What's more, Bricknell-Webb - who has won nearly 40 regional, national and international accolades for her cooking - only became a chef by accident, when, one day, her cook suddenly walked out.
Apart from an awful lot of hard work - Tina takes charge of all but the paperwork and the front of house - how has she done it? The common ingredient to her success, be it learning to cook or cure meat, or how to rear pigs and sheep (see boxes), is in her inquiring mind. "I have always been naturally inquisitive," she says. "I was a pain in the backside for my parents, constantly asking them questions, and I am the same today. I read lots of books, I experiment, and I am not afraid to pick up the phone and ask questions."
Even the professionals have not escaped her inquisition. Take her home-made sausages, for example. A chance meeting with Westaways, a manufacturer in the South-west, led Bricknell-Webb to secure their help. "They willingly let me pick their brains, and help me in any way they could," she says. But the feedback she received was praise rather than instruction. "They said my pork had such fantastic flavours that I did not need any complicated seasoning - let the flavours speak for themselves." And after further compliments on her sausages' uniform linking and reluctance to shrink, she went back to basics.
"All I put in the sausages now is the very best organic salt and pepper I can find." And there's her second lesson - the importance of quality ingredients, many of which she now produces on their 160-acre certified organic estate, between Launceston and Okehampton.
"Home-grown vegetables, herbs and salad leaves are picked two hours before service", is the Percy's assurance, and she is one of the few UK suppliers to receive top animal welfare ratings for both pork and lamb - she has 90 ewes and 35 pigs. "We put as much effort into growing and sourcing the food as we do cooking it," Bricknell-Webb says.
Like all good cooks she has always been open to other people's knowledge and ideas. In Harrow, she explains, she had a mix of nationalities working for her, and drew on their experiences in learning how ingredients might be used. "I research, I make notes, I take on some of other people's ideas and I pull it all together with my own touch," she says. And thanks to two Sri Lankan brothers, a few curry leaves gives her seafood chowder "an altogether different dimension".
"Make notes" reveals a final Bricknell-Webb trait - her methodical, almost scientific approach. "If you have a particularly good result or a good recipe you need to fine-tune it, recording exactly what you did." By this she means not just the exact ingredients (she was recording the grade, variety, size and weight of plums in a new recipe before we spoke) but also the position in the oven - bottom or top, front or back, left of right - where it was cooked.
But despite Bricknell-Webb's achievements - this year Harden's Restaurant Guide billed Percy's as one of the most notable places to eat in the UK - she is dismissive of any hurdles she might have encountered. Of being a woman and located in the South-west, for example, she says it was "no problem at all". However, finding herself a deputy has not been so easy. "We are very protective of our reputation and if you advertise as being in the kitchen all the time you need to be there."
Nevertheless, with indefatigable energy she has found time to write Percy's Cookbook, recently published by Merlin Unwin Books, which is well worth reading. Many of her recipes are traditional, such as game and English desserts, but her repertoire is broad and comprehensive, stretching from salads and soups to muesli and dog biscuits. She promotes the cooking of ingredients in their purest form, with their natural flavours. And she has developed a unique method of what she calls "pulse cooking", to ensure even cooking of meat and vegetables.
Bricknell-Webb has come a long way from being a stand-in chef. But, as her mother used to say to her, "If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well".
Percy's Country Hotel and Restaurant, Virginstow, Devon. Tel: 01409 211236
Keeping animals is basically common sense, says Bricknell-Webb. "If you adopt a child and give it love and affection, and feed it properly, it will be healthy and happy - if you adopt the same premise with animals, you can't go far wrong." Sounds simple enough
Some people may prefer to start with keeping chickens, as something familiar and requiring less space. But take care, says Bricknell-Webb, you still have to provide them with adequate housing and water, and you need to watch for diseases such as red mite. But don't be daunted, is her overall advice. If you are an enthusiast, are inquisitive and willing to ask questions, you can glean the necessary knowledge fairly quickly and easily - from the internet, farmers and others.
"I would encourage anyone to consider rearing animals - it is very rewarding," she says. "When you have a piece of meat from a butcher you don't question the carcass's conformation, but when you raise your own animals you do. You are not only looking to improve a dish but the way your animals are put together."
TRADITIONAL BACON CURE
(for 70kg meat)
- 450g rock salt
- 450g sea salt
- 370g light Muscovado sugar
- 30g ground coriander
- 30g ground mace
- 30g ground nutmeg
85g saltpetre (from chemists)
Combine all ingredients well, store in airtight container until needed.
To calculate how much cure you need, first make sure the meat is neatly squared off. You will need 3% of the meat's weight.
Place the belly of pork skin side down in a galvanised or stainless steel container, then sprinkle with the mixture - away from any other fresh meat you do not intend to cure. Rub the cure thoroughly into the meat. Curing will take about one day for every 450g of meat, or a little longer if the belly is thick.
After a couple of days the bacon should be sitting in its own natural brine. Rinse it under cold running water, pat dry with clean towel, wrap well and store in refrigerator until needed. It should keep for 10-14 days.
Make the cure fresh and don't apply too much - the best pork needs little spicing. If you plan to cure regularly, get a vacuum-packing machine.
Cured belly can be sliced thinly for bacon, or thickly for lardons. Alternatively, slice it, remove the rind, and beat it between two sheets of plastic to create very thin bacon to wrap around ingredients such as chicken and monkfish.