Veg boxes delivered to your door. Some people love them, others think they’re a bit of a waste of money. I’m going on various conversations that I’ve had with people over the last couple of years. Yes – that’s how long I’ve been ‘thinking’ about getting one but I hadn’t managed to get around to it. Until now. Until I took a visit to Riverford Organic Farm in Devon.
I was invited on a press trip along with a group of bloggers and journalists. The email landed in my inbox entitled ’24 hours of wild garlic’ and before I even opened the email, I knew that whatever greatness lay inside the body of the email was going to appeal to me. And it sure did. The email was aptly titled, we were to leave London at 7pm on Friday evening and return at 8pm on Saturday evening. OK, so maybe we were away for 25 hours but I’ll blame that on the delayed train.
The lovely ladies at Story PR provided us with an astounding train ‘packed dinner’. It was so good that an unknown walked past and congratulated us on the marvelous pack up that we had in front of us. A humongous Scrimshaw’s pork pie was accompanied by a wedge of Manchego cheese from John Lewis food hall, vine ripened cherry tomatoes, a bread roll and a small jar of port jelly. All washed down with Sipsmith Gin and tonic, followed by Sipsmith Vodka and tonic. Wowsers. No wonder the 3 hour journey down to Devon flew past.
We arrived at the B&B, which was a very comfortable grade 2 listed 14th century former Wool Mill. We retreated to the living room for a couple more drinks and topped the night off with La Fée absinthe. Each one of us ambled up the stairs and crashed out before rising for an early full English breakfast to cure the mild hangover. The taxi picked us up at 9.45am and we were off to the farm.
We were greeted by Guy Watson, founder and farmer extraordinaire, his sister Rachel and Ed the farm manager. We dropped our bags off in the Field Kitchen and hopped into two deliciously red but old as your grandmother vans. One of my fellow companions, Douglas Blyde even got to drive after joking about it at the breakfast table. His wish certainly came true. We crashed, banged and walloped down the country lanes. First stop was the broad beans.
These deliciously sweet beans will be, we were told, ready for picking in a couple of weeks – lucky customers who get these babies in their box! Never before had I ever considered eating the whole shoot but I popped one in my mouth, chewed and marveled at how tender they were. I overheard someone saying that you can make a lovely stock out of broad beans to make a delicious bechamel. That’s new to me and sounds like something I need to try.
Having finished picking and demolishing broad beans, we hopped back into the muddy van (which I was starting to be ever so fond of) and drove to the asparagus field, which Guy described as ‘dreadful’. I hadn’t really seen a vast asparagus field before and was surprised to see long, curly, out of control asparagus plants. We did, however, manage to find some small stalks to pick and eat raw. I never realised that asparagus could be so sweet. The problem seemed to be the slug damage, creeping thistle and buttercup choking weed and I understand that they have pretty much given up with it this season.
A few sweet asparagus sticks later and it was onto the next stop, the wet garlic field. It was vast and a nice surprise as I’d never seen wet garlic before. Guy pulled one up out of the ground and cut the end off to show us and let us smell. I adore garlic and it smelt so good. We picked some ourselves and the satisfaction of pulling them out of the ground was immense. We put what we gathered in a plastic bag to take back home with us and drove to the next stop. The vans didn’t make it up the hill so we had to walk. Now, it’s not everyday that a man on crutches sporting a large leg brace can beat you walking up a hill but this was exactly what Guy managed to do. A very stylish friend of Guy’s stood waiting for us at the top of the hill right next to a make shift stove that had been set up for our visit.
After picking a few wild garlic leaves of our own in the beautiful woodland, we were treated to a rather special fritatta, cooked by Guy’s friend using dried, wet and wild garlic. We (or I did anyway) oohed and aaahhed at the aromas of the three types of garlic sizzling away and when it was ready we were all treated to a slice of the creamy, cheesy, garlicy fritatta and it has completely left a lasting memory. I have never tasted a fritatta so GOOD! The location helped a bit too. The view over to the other veg fields was fantastic.
After a final stop at the polytunnels, which were built when Riverford started the veg box scheme, we piled into the vans one last time to head back to the Field Kitchen. Ah, the Field Kitchen, the part that I was most looking forward to. After reading that Giles Coren had pronounced his lunch there are the ‘lunch of his life’, anticipation was high.
The concept of the restaurant is simple. Delicious home cooked food, using vegetables grown in the fields, of course with added meat and fish to share around a large communal table. This is a concept that I’m sure some people have found it hard to grasp, but one that I love. Food is for sharing and bringing people together. What better way than enjoying a delicious (and boy was it delicious) lunch whilst getting to know the person next to you.
The chef, Jane Baxter has been working in the Riverford kitchen since it opened and was previously at River Cafe.
Out came the food. My mouth is watering just now thinking about the food that we ate (and no, that’s nothing to do with the fact that I’m starving and just about to eat dinner). My eyes lit up when I read the blackboard at the side of the room to see what we would be eating. Roast and confit duck with turnips, new potatoes cooked in a bag with wet garlic and thyme, roast asparagus, rocket, pistachio and orange salad, spinach gratin, spring onions with red pepper dressing and broad beans, lentils and spring onions. The portions are large too so there is NO worry of missing out due to sharing with diners around you.
The duck was so tender, so flavour packed and the turnip was astoundingly soft whilst being crunchy at the same time. An absolute winner.
The new potatoes were heavenly, moist, buttery, rich and tender. Cooking in a bag isn’t something I’ve tried before but again, something I’d like to do.
The asparagus salad was also a treat. Stems of chargrilled tender asparagus, crunchy radish and edible flowers didn’t just look fantastic on the plate, the flavours all married so well together.
The spinach gratin was to die for. Utterly creamy, rich and let’s face it, very bad for you.
The spring onions with a red pepper dressing didn’t stand out for me as much BUT that is because, unlinke some people, I don’t go mad for red pepper.
The broad bean dish was a star. Any salad with lentils in it is welcome on my plate!
I read the menu before we started eating and it warned me to save room for pudding. So I did, just. I had no idea that what I was about to eat would nearly reduce me to tears – in a good way of course.
The dessert range was incredible, despite us being the last table to go up and choose. Every service, a range of desserts are made and if they run out, they run out. So it’s probably best to get up there quick. On display was a rhubarb crumble, sticky toffee pudding, custard tart, baked chocolate mousse cake, rhubarb and cinnamon sponge and pavlova, plus a couple of others. The decision was hard. Very hard. But in the end the sticky toffee pudding won out. And I can’t tell you how glad I am that it did. Teamed with a vanilla packed custard, the sponge was light and airy, whilsy being rich at the same time. The sticky toffee sauce the perfect sweet and gooey consistency. I was in pudding heaven. Absolute pudding heaven.
We were treated to the new ‘Everyday and Sunday recipes’ cookbook before we left and I had a quick flick through to see if the sticky toffee pudding recipe was in it. I almost choked when I saw that it was. The best news. Also in the book was the garlic fritatta, which I made the day after I got back. Unfortunately my attempt wasn’t quite as good but I’m determined to get it right and practice makes perfect.
This short but utterly sweet trip has definitely inspired me to place that all important first order for my very own seasonal veg box. It’s arriving next Wednesday and I can’t wait.