“So what was the spindly green vegetable?”, I asked. “Looked a bit like samphire?”
“Agretti“, said the chefs. “Italian. But we grow it in the garden here, then cook it and serve with three types of beetroot – candy, purple & golden.”
“Nice. Loved it. And what about the cabbage?….I’ve spent 59 years avoiding it, but that tasted so good with the beef and all the other veg.”
“Yeah, that’s just a bit of lovely summer cabbage, chopped finely and cooked with chives and lemon.”
Whoever thought vegetables could be so interesting and tasty, almost hoisted to the front of the stage after years cowering in the wings?
I was in the kitchen of River Cottage HQ, in a gloriously verdant valley just outside Axminster, on the border of east Devon and west Dorset. I have never really watched the TV series but one of our holiday group is a fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and, staying nearby for a week, Sunday lunch at RC HQ sounded an appealing prospect to us all.
But this is so much more than just another meal.
From the moment you arrive – transported from the car park to the farm by rustic tractor and trailer – everything done here is a joyous celebration of nature and food, rather than a reverential prayer at the altar of yet another temple of gastronomy.
Welcomed in a splendid yurt with a glass of apple cider brandy, we sit on straw bales to hear what’s in store.
“In a moment, we’ll bring round a couple of appetizers to enjoy with your drink. Then feel free to wander anywhere you want. The cottage is on the other side of the dining barn. The kitchen garden is beyond the cottage. The pigs and chickens are up on the ridge, by the polytunnels, where the tractor dropped you off. Drop into the cookery school, where they’re being taught how to make blue cheese today. And go and say hello to the chefs in the kitchen.”
Labneh with cumin, pickles and sauerkraut, and pork liver pâté with tomatillo chutney, got the taste buds moving. And after exploring the estate, sitting communally in the cathedral-ceilinged dining barn on two long tables, British split-pea hummus with seeded dukkah, and smoked pollock rarebit with leeks and apple chutney revved up everyone’s culinary engines.
Between courses, ask the friendly chefs about ingredients and techniques. No sweary, over-stressed prima donnas in this kitchen.
Or browse through the RC books and other merchandise on display by the bar, although there is no hard sell at any time. Or find out what’s brought your fellow diners to River Cottage.
Back at the table, fennel roasted carrots, green beans with shallots and tomatoes meant the innovative veggie support acts were threatening to steal the main course show.
But not quite.
The undoubted star was the 6 year-old local heifer, barbecued overnight in the rustic smoking machine, carved and served with that perfect combination of blackened crust and still reddish meat. Add a rich, silky beef-bone gravy, anise hyssop Bernaise sauce, roasted skins-off charlotte potatoes, the symphony of vegetables and a glass of red and you have a meal that lingers long in the culinary memory.
Orchard mist jelly, barely concealing cheeky wobbling raspberries, apple crumble, cinnamon and vanilla ice cream completed the show.
We wandered around the estate and trudged back up the valley to cars, reluctant to leave River Cottage behind.
This wasn’t a cheap lunch, but the overall experience was worth every penny. Come here to see first-hand the easy, natural transition of food from farm and garden to table, to understand better how to combine ingredients and how to cook with passion. But don’t come here if you want just another Sunday lunch.
Thanks to all at River Cottage, and especially to Andy Tyrrell – senior sous chef – for his humour and for his patience in annotating all the ingredients for me!
We’ve got a vegetarian friend coming for lunch tomorrow. I hope she likes agretti…..