“Hugh will be coming down to welcome you shortly” said the friendly River Cottage staffer as we stood in a yurt on the River Cottage farm
sipping an apple flavoured brandy. MTV boyfriend and I were at the River Cottage farm in Devon, headquarters for everyone’s favourite Old Etonian farmer, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. We were there with a group of friends to celebrate our dear friends Pete and Thea’s recent marriage. A frisson of excitement ran around the group… Hugh was coming. When we had booked our dinner it had been made very clear to us that Hugh would not be in attendance but now apparently he was coming.
The River Cottage grounds
The momentary Hugh mania turned out to be a false alarm as it turns out there is another Hugh that works at the River Cottage, a young boy who was perfectly charming but something of a disappointment to those of us in the yurt. If I worked at River Cottage and my name was Hugh I think I might adopt another moniker temporarily. So no Hugh, but still plenty to see at the idyllic farm in the hour we had for pre dinner drinks and canapes. There were pot bellied pigs, broody hens and an envy inducing herb garden.
Pre dinner champagne
After wandering around the farm sipping glasses of champagne from a magnum we had brought in celebration of Pete and Thea’s wedding we headed into a large barn like building for the meal. The room contained two long tables each holding about 30 people and the back of the room opened into the large kitchen area which we were invited to visit at the end of service of the main course. Each table was set with a bottle of wine per person which is included in the price of the meal but you are also able to bring your own alcohol at no extra cost. This was certainly worthwhile doing as the wine (called “Surrey Gold White” and a similar generic red) was rather cheap and nasty. Best saved for the end of the meal once you had drunk something nicer to begin.
The room is filled with two long tables
The menu is set and the chef talks the room through the food for the night once everyone is seated. The food on offer is simple and rustic and it changes for each dinner depending what is in season and what has been produced from the farm. This is not just local food, it is hyper local.
The terrine and ham plated and ready to be served in the kitchen
To begin, was some of the produce from the Pig in a Day
courses that are run at River Cottage. There was a pig cheek terrine which had been cured in brine and then pressed for 14 hours to creat the terrine and this was accompanied by the River Cottage’s version of Parma ham made from gammon that had been salted and then hung for three weeks. The terrine was meaty and
robust but the ham was over seasoned.
Pigs cheek terrine and River Cottage Parma style ham
The only dish that struck me as fairly dull was the scallops with wilted stinging nettles. The scallops were juicy and the wild stinging nettles did not sting at all and tasted more like wilted spinach but the whole thing lacked a bit of oomph. Still, I was pleased to see that the scallops were served roe and all as it always seems such a waste to me when restaurants get rid of the roe purely from an aesthetics point of view. Where the River Cottage style of unadorned cooking came into its own was the main course which was ominously chicken, often dry and disappointing when you order it in restaurants. However this chicken had been barbecqued while we were drinking champagne and the chicken legs had been slow cooked earlier to leave them super tender. Accompanied with a potato and celeraiac gratin along with vibrant purple sprouting broccoli this was River Cottage cooking at its best. Simple and hearty.
Lemon tart being cut in the kitchen
On the sweeter side of things there was some extremely sharp lemon tart which had cracked in places (good to see that happens to chefs as well) but was very moreish. This was served simply with a spoonful of clotted cream, no coulis or fancy presentation at River Cottage. Finally we were served tea and coffee along with the most divine chocolate truffles made with Somerset cider. Then it was time for the tractor ride up the hill to head home and our River Cottage experience was over. We really had a brilliant evening although I think the attraction of River Cottage is the whole experience of visiting the farm and the lovely atmosphere of the dinner rather than the calibre of the food itself. It’s certainly worth a trip to Devon for but beware of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall impostors.
Details: River Cottage HQ, Devon (Ph 01297 630 302)
Damage: Budget Breaking £80 per person including one bottle of wine
Gourmet Traveller Tips
To get to River Cottage by public transport take a train from London Waterloo to Axminster, it takes just under three hours and then River Cottage is a 10 minute taxi ride from Axminster. All the taxi drivers know where it is. River Cottage does not provide accomodation. We stayed at the Swan Hill bed and breakfast
in the nearby village of Colyford which was brilliant and included a breakfast that is worth the journey to Devon itself. From £70 a night. There are lots of walks to do in the area and on Sunday we walked to the beautifully named village of Beer along the coast and then sat in the beer garden of The Anchor Inn
looking out to the sea and eating fish and chips. Perfect.
If you liked reading this you might be interested in other adventures in the English countryside at the Miller of Mansfield in Goring-on-Thames or the Bull and Butcher in the village of Turville near Henley.