From an unassuming market town in the county of Devon, Chef Eran Hovav is bringing the flavours of the Middle East to the residents of the West Country. His unique catering company Eran’s Kitchen serves fresh, locally grown dishes with Yemeni and Israeli flare; while his colourful eatery The Baobab Café appears to be attracting a loyal cohort of customers…
“The Baobab is the tree of life”, says Eran Hovav, as we sit in a cozy corner of the café he co-owns with his wife of 13 years, Laura. We are sipping tea and admiring the large hand painted mural of said baobab tree that adorns the opposite wall. Eran is explaining to me why this tree became the namesake of his business.
“The tree provides you with everything and it is my role as chef to provide you with everything that you need. Here at The Baobab Café, we’ll cater for every dietary requirement and we’re always up for the challenge of creating new dishes. It’s important that people are respected and made to feel welcome.”
Having grown up and trained in Israel – with a mixed Yemeni and Egyptian heritage – Eran is well versed in multifaceted flavours of Middle Eastern cooking. It’s clear that he is a passionate chef with an impressive history in catering and as we chat he speaks with the kind of respect and knowledge of food that makes me aware I’m in capable culinary hands. Eran’s career has taken him across the world. From humble beginnings as a pot washer, he has found himself catering to the rich and famous in Israeli desserts right through to growing his own sustainable vegetables in the peaceful Devonshire countryside.
“In my early career I catered for the likes of Richard Taylor, George Armani and Gucci” he recalls, “I remember creating canapes such as mini jacket potatoes coated in 24 carat gold leaf.” By contrast, The Baobab Café and Eran’s private catering company both take inspiration from his Middle Eastern roots. Eran’s primary ethos is to cook everything fresh and to grow as much of his own ingredients as possible. At the café he changes the menu every single day, composing his dishes in the evening and cooking them from scratch the following morning.
This effortless approach to food is no doubt in part a result of the influence of his Egyptian Grandmother and his weekly childhood trips to the local Israeli food market. These formative years taught Eran to respect the provenance of his food and informed him about the essential flavours of the Middle East. “What I enjoyed most was to see all the different spices and the various different herbs laid out on the market floor. You would just go and explore, taste and experience the produce” he remembers. “As a child I would study each of the herbs, making a note of what oils would come off them and the taste they produce. That was how I first became influenced by food. To this day, spices are the main feature in everything I cook.”
Indeed, as I take a peek inside the Baobab Café kitchen I am met by an extensive spice rack, filled to the brim with a plethora of herbs and seasonings. There’s everything from Nigella seeds to cumin, desecrated coconut and various different lentils. Apparently, it’s only 60% of the spices Eran wishes he could have in the kitchen, but naturally there are certain concessions one must make when living and working in a small Devon town.
“The spices of Middle Eastern cuisine speak for themselves”, Eran explains, “While I was in London, I worked with the Hemsley sisters on the launch of their first book. I noticed that things like ginger and turmeric tea were growing in popularity. In Yemen, we have been using these ingredients in cooking for thousands of years. Zingiber and turmeric have been used in various spice mixes and to provide flavor to many dishes.”
Indeed, it was when Eran first moved to the UK that he discovered the potential for some kind of crossover between the food of his childhood and those of his newly adopted home. During a job based in the kitchens of Lambeth Palace, he noted how the palace gardens were rife with quinces in the summertime – an ingredient that is a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. It was at this time that Eran also got his hands on some copies of 17th century English cookery books and spent hours poring over them. From their pages, he developed his own culinary ideas and sought to utilised British produce within his traditional cooking style.
“In all honestly, there are very few similarities between the way in which we cook our food. But that’s part of the beauty of it all. I respect English produce and that’s why I choose to grow my own produce and utilise as much as I can from a five-mile radius”
Indeed, as the West Country weather improves, we can expect to see plenty more colourful, home-grown vegetables on the Baobab Café menu. From the fibre and vitamin rich molokhia leaf to colourful callaloo, everything that is served in The Baobab Café puts health and flavour at the forefront. Many of Eran’s customers have subsequently become his friends and it’s clear that serving wholesome, well-balanced meals for the whole family is an integral part of his ethos. As testament to this, the café was buzzing with young families and regular patrons during my visit. It was clear to see from the smiles on people’s faces that the café lays at the heart of this small South West community and the menu is built around sustainability and quality.
As we come to the end of our chat Eran reflects on his role within the small West Country community he has made home. “When people ask me ‘why did you stay in England – why do you love England so much?’ I always say it’s the agriculture and the history. Not a lot of people know the culinary history of this country. At the heart of it my food is a fusion of these cuisines. I use Middle Eastern methods and English produce.”
Without a doubt, it’s this sincere respect for his ingredients that has led to Eran Hovav’s success. The town of Crediton has clearly embraced the flavours of the Middle East as part of their own community and having tried Eran’s food for myself, it’s easy to see why.