Americans in Devon serving great food

We were, it seemed, lost. Having driven from London to Devonshire, in England's West Country, in pursuit of the great French food we'd heard rumors of , we found ourselves in a leafy green world of winding roads, high hedgerows, wooded glades.

If you're wondering about the great French food in Devon, a land that normally evokes visions of clotted cream, meat pasties, and ginger cakes, so was I. But I had been told by Peter French-Hodges of the British Tourist Authority that there was indeed an American couple cooking up a storm deep on Devon.

"Look," cried my traveling companion, pointing to a sign. It read: "Don't lose heart; you're still en route to Gidleigh Park." It was an auspicious sign, signifying not only a meal close by but a sense of humor.

It was Sunday evening when we arrived. We changed our clothes; Gidleigh's the kind of place that makes you want to dress up. After admiring the electric collection of books in the vast bedrooms -- everything from Ross MacDonald thrillers to "Life in the English Country House" -- we took a quick stroll around the gardens, were the last summer roses bloomed, and then settled into white wicker chairs on the elegant loggia. Paul Henderson, who owns Gidleigh, greeted us with succulent little hors d'oeuvre quiches.

Paul and his wife, Kay, who does the cooking, have fulfilled the fantasies of many americans to own and operate a successful inn. A few years back, neither had any professional experience. But they set to with fierce determination, including, as they tell it, eating their way around most of France's three-star restaurants, you'll agree it was wise.

The first evening we began with an onion tart and a dish of sauteed eggplant, and red and green peppers with tomato sauce; in other words, a ratatouille, with all the ingredients cooked separately. It was one of the most delicious things I've eaten -- almost as good as the veal steak, pure white and the size of a filet mignon, but more tender, in a delicate sauce with a julienne of lemon peel.

The cheese trolley was laden not only with a selection of fine French cheeses , but English farmhouse Cheddar, ripe, blue-veined Stilton, Dorset blue, and double Gloucester.Desserts included a choice of strawberry tart, lime and strawberry sherbets, and poached peach with pistachio ice cream and sabayon (curdled cream) sauce.

After breakfast, it was a healthy hike on the moors, for Gidleigh is on Dartmoor, the vast national park where scenery runs from high, wild, and scary, complete with elemental Bronze Age stone circles, to deep green glades with rushing brooks and perhaps a romantic poet leaning over a bridge. We then returned to Gidleigh for a late lunch of bread and cheese and smoked salmon.

Dartmouth is a harbor town that ranks in prettiness with Honfleur, in France, and Marblehead, Massachusetts. Its multicolored houses are terra cotta or lemon yellow; scarlet with navy blue pansies in the window boxes or pale blue with geraniums.

Heading back toward London, we stopped at Lyme Regis, a wonderful 18 th-century seaside town where we bought brown bread and smoked mackerel, cucumbers, and a huge crab.

As the sun began to set behind us in the west, we pulled off the road, turned on the radio, undid our parcels of mackerel and crab, and indulged in a noble, time-tested English tradition: a picnic by the motorway.

Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon, rooms, with breakfast, about $50 for a double; dinner about $40 for 2; telephone Chagford 2225.m

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