… said The Guardian in 2005, when Darts Farm was just a young sapling compared to what you’ll discover in Topsham today. This month, the award winning food hall and lifestyle emporium celebrates 25 years of “growing the passion” for the best food and drink in the South West, discovers Jo Rees
Foodhall, restaurant, fishmongers, butchery, deli, flower shop, homewares store, toyshop, therapy rooms, outdoors outlet, family day out and cookery school. Darts Farm is all these things and more, which is quite incredible when you consider that just 25 years ago it was a small pick-your-own produce shed in front of a working farm. The working farm may still be part of the picture, but boy, has everything else developed. It’s been a labour of love for the three sons of Ronald Dart, the farmer who created the original Picfresh business on his Topsham farm.
A quarter of a century ago Michael, James and Paul Dart saw the opportunity to take the family business to the next level and, in the process, have created something quite incredible. ‘I have seen the future of food shopping … and it’s on a road that runs alongside the Exe Estuary,’ said Nick Wyke in The Times in 2005 as word spread beyond the South West about this astonishing venture (just a few months after that ‘Selfridges’ Guardian quote). ‘This is quite a moment for us, as it was 25 years ago this autumn that we took the business beyond the basic shed it had been and created the deli counter and butchery,’ says Michael.‘They were our first steps in turning Darts Farm into a shopping experience.
‘From the beginning, a priority for us was to support other local producers, which is why, although we now also stock unusual artisan products from around the world, the vast majority of food and drink at Darts is still sourced within the South West.
‘We’ve got some of the very best produce in Europe – a bounty crafted from our abundant seas, rich soils and lush landscape – why would we look anywhere else?’
What some customers won’t realise is that many of the veggies sold in the shop are grown on Darts Farm or that the beautiful, well-aged prime beef on the butchery counter is still hand picked and often reared by the family, too.
‘Of course our business has evolved over the years, just as the food scene has changed around us,’ says Michael.
‘We’re privileged to have been at the heart of a revolution which has seen people think more about where their food comes from. And we’ve been able to contribute to that change through Darts as well as through our involvement in projects such as Exeter Food Festival.’
‘We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved and what you’ll find at Darts now, but there’s still nothing quite as satisfying as the role we’ve been able to play in helping small local producers get a start. Quicke’s is a perfect example – it was a small cheese producer in nearby Newton St Cyres and we were one of the first retailers to stock their cheese; they’re now an international business,’ Michael says.
‘On this particular anniversary we’re enjoying looking back and reminiscing, while also celebrating new developments such as introducing Barny Butterfield of Sandford Orchards as the new custodian of our long legacy of traditional cider making on site. Our master cider makers, Chris Coles and Nick Pring, will take on a mentorship role and teach skills to the next generation. We’ll also be launching our Artisan School of Food and Drink this autumn.
‘There’ll be a season of feasting events to say thank you to our customers, suppliers and community and we hope everyone will join us to raise a glass in celebration.’