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River Cottage, the site of a popular TV series promoting seasonal, sustainable and local dining, has opened its doors so diners can experience farm-to-table food first-hand. Writer Cat Allen describes dinner, bite by bite.
Text and photos by: Cat Allen
Country: England

s the tractor trundles down the dirt track, River Cottage comes into view and the excitement builds amongst the passengers. Many on board are familiar with the whitewashed, 17th century farmhouse on the Devon and Dorset border in southwest England. Since 1998, television programmes featuring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, British chef and pioneer of campaigns, have been raising awareness on the importance of eating locally, seasonally and sustainably. Over the years the cottage’s kitchen and garden have inspired the nation to experiment with less obvious, readily available ingredients. More recently, River Cottage has opened its doors to invite people to see its ethos and practises.

On this Friday night, 64 guests embark on a journey of the season’s finest offerings and flavours. Our agricultural mode of transport comes to a stop, our noses fill with delicious smells from the nearby kitchen and we are welcomed into a yurt, a traditional round tent with a log fire bellowing out heat, which warms us instantly. A local cider brandy aperitif warms us from the inside. The first of many delicious morsels start to flow from the kitchen, incorporating wild garlic grown metres away, pork from the farm’s pigs, breadcrumbs from the bread baked that morning. Everything is fresh, local, and in season; and it tastes fantastic!

After our friendly introduction we are invited to explore the farm. Head chef Gelf Alderson talked to Tea Time Mag between catering a small, intimate wedding and preparing ingredients for this evening’s dinner.

“It’s almost harder to cook simple food, as there’s nowhere to hide. That’s what we subscribe to, fewer things on the plate, but of exceptional quality”, says the Worcester -born chef who has been cooking for the last 20 years. Having grown up eating vegetables from his family’s garden,

Gelf developed interest in and knowledge about where food comes from. After finding himself involved in a large project introducing sustainable and ethical land practises in another part of the country, Gelf joined River Cottage four years ago.

Gelf runs a busy kitchen, with 10 chefs and three kitchen porters. The team cater for weddings, dining experiences, corporate events, and they run the in-house cooking school. Perhaps the most impressive element is that numerous new recipes are created from scratch for each dining experience, determined by what ingredients are available.

“Normally as a chef you cook the same menu for at least a couple of days and have a ‘signature dish’ that you have cooked about 18,000 times that you have no love for whatsoever”, says Gelf. “Rather than having one or two heads creating recipe ideas, we’ve got 10 heads. We encourage all the chefs to get out into the garden and pick. They’re all really enthusiastic people and they’re here because they care about food.” Each of the chefs works closely with the gardening team and they are taught how to select their ingredients. But however well the produce is picked, head gardener Will Livingstone still lovingly refers to the chefs as “the worst pests in the garden”!

“Things grow together at the right time of the year”, continues Gelf. “From spring to the end of autumn, we don’t actually cook that much; we spend a lot of time preparing. We use complex techniques, but the food is deliberately kept simple”. Our tummies start to rumble as Gelf talks a little about our vegetarian starter that was invented just a couple of hours ago. “We make vegetables a feature —it’s something we are very keen on, raising the awareness of the impact of eating meat”, the chef explains as he describes the colourful beetroots picked that morning, nutrient-packed nettles, and succulent asparagus in the evening’s feast. His excitement increases as he talks about the first new potatoes of the year as the perfect accompaniment for the main course.

River Cottage is by no means a vegetarian operation (there is a meat-free option on request), although the emphasis is on smaller quantities of exceptional meat. The farm’s cows and sheep graze on grass year round; the chickens are free range (with possibly the best view a coop has ever had); and a variety of charcuterie meats are cured on-site and free of nitrates. The meat served this evening is Devon Red Ruby beef, raised here on the farm, slaughtered a mere couple of miles away, and hung to age for six weeks.

“Everyone who works here goes off to slaughter the animals so that they have that respect that something has given its life to provide food”, Gelf tells us. “Chefs become a lot less wasteful when they’ve seen that as well.” Another of the hors d’oeuvres planned for tonight is a mini-burger of cow heart, further evidence of the creativity designed to encourage more experimental attitudes towards food.

As we sit chatting we have a rural sound track of lambs, cows, pigs, and the occasional cluck of a chicken, all of which contribute in some way to what the chefs create in the kitchen. Thanks to the gardening team, the perfectly manicured vegetable, fruit, and edible flower gardens display the best of the season’s produce. Combined with beautiful views of rolling countryside, all the elements come together to create a magical place summed up perfectly as Gelf concludes “I defy anyone to lose their passion working here”.

The third tractor delivers the final dinner guests, and we enter the restored barn where two long tables and a seating plan help everyone find their places. The atmosphere is a buzz of anticipation and friendly introductions across the communal tables. Locally sourced wine and ales start to flow. We are told that “doggy bags” are available on request and warned that the kitchen will be feeding us until the tractor takes us back up the hill.

Communal split-pea hummus with homemade chunky bread arrives on the table. Before long, the mini, beef-heart burgers are passed around. Around the room there are people of all ages, many who have travelled from afar to be here. One group was celebrating a birthday, and a couple were dining, as a Christmas gift from their children.

Two more starters follow the hummus. The first uses the abundant nettles covering the hills of River Cottage’s 90 acres. We learn that the new growth on the tips are the most nutritious and these will be blanched to remove the sting. Barley from the neighbouring farm and pollock caught locally at Axmouth, cured in salt and smoked in oak, will be flaked on top of the green risotto. Nasturtium leaves from the garden offer the perfect garnish and contribute a peppery flavour to the creation. The fish has travelled the farthest of all the ingredients: less than six miles.

The pace is perfect, leaving us time to enjoy our food and letting the flavours linger. The second starter is another exceptional pairing of flavours: freshly made ricotta, pan-fried radishes, baby gem lettuces, and asparagus, picked by the chefs that morning. Yellow kale flowers, which more than one person said they hadn’t known were edible, decorated the plate.

It was time for the Ruby Red beef, combined with the first new potatoes of the season treated to a delicious coating of onions and bacon, creamed cauliflower, and the last of the crop of purple sprouts. Bones from the cow had been bubbling away in a stock for the last two days and finished off with wine, creating an incredible gravy. We were worried that after this, the experience of eating beef would be ruined forever; the grass the cow ate its whole life flavoured the meat incredibly. The room certainly went a little quieter as everyone enjoyed the creation and soon there were clean plates all round.

We took a breather before dessert to take advantage of the open-door policy. Popping into the kitchen in the middle of service isn’t usually encouraged by restaurants. The chefs were happy to answer questions from the guests about how long they had worked at River Cottage and gracefully accepted the abundance of compliments.

When we returned to our seats, 64 perfect desserts were delivered around the room. Although we felt rather full, we suddenly had more space as our eyes rested on the homemade brioche that had been proving overnight and soaked in custard, decorated with rhubarb cooked in honeycomb from the farm’s bees and honeycomb and ginger infused ice-cream. The room quietened once again and at least a couple of people loosened a notch or two on their belts.

Our fellow diners had thoroughly enjoyed themselves, as had we, and plans were already being made to meet again at the same time next year. Although as we waited for the tractor to return us to normality, with the final taste of the delightful petit fours and coffee on our palates, we decided we would rather return during a different season to experience a completely new host of ingredients gracing the plates in more miraculous ways.

More information about River Cottage, their dining experiences, and cooking school can be found at rivercottage.net

Info box

● River Cottage offers weekly dining experiences, Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday lunchtimes.

● Each dining experience has a maximum of 64 guests.

● The kitchens of River Cottage have been open to the public since 2009.

● All produce used in the recipes are sourced locally, with all fruits, vegetables, meats, and pulses coming from either River Cottage or the two neighbouring farms. Fish is sourced from the town of Axmouth. If an ingredient isn’t available locally, they don’t use it in their recipes.

● Dishes vary from day to day depending on what ingredients are in season. New menus are created for each dining experience.




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Eating off the land in England


River Cottage is a 17th century farmhouse on the Devon and Dorset border in southwest England and is the site of a popular TV series. Recently, River Cottage opened its doors to diners to help raise awareness about the importance of eating locally, seasonally, and sustainably.

On this particular Friday night, we were 64 guests embarking on a culinary adventure of the season’s finest offerings and flavours. Tractors take the guests to the dining area where a local cider brandy aperitif is waiting for them. Delicious morsels flow from the kitchen, incorporating herbs and vegetables grown in their garden, pork from the farm’s pigs, and fresh bread baked that morning.

The head chef is Gelf Anderson from Worcester. He encourages his chefs to pick their own produce from the gardens. They also have to slaughter the animals themselves so they can learn to respect the life that provides the food. The farm’s cows and sheep graze on grass year round; the chickens are free range; and a variety of charcuterie meats are cured on-site.

The guests all sit at communal tables with split-pea hummus and homemade chunky bread in the middle. For starters we have mini, beef-heart burgers; a nettle risotto with barley and locally-caught pollock flakes; and a combination of fresh ricotta, pan-fried radishes, baby gem lettuces, and asparagus.

 

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Eating off the land in England

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