This article appears in the spring issue of MyGreenPod.com Magazine, distributed with the Guardian on 07 April 2017. Click here to read the full digital issue online.
This wasn’t your average Sunday roast. For starters (and mains – and desserts) ours was vegan and, perhaps the best part, the only menu in sight was a drinks list. All we really knew about what we were about to eat was that almost all the ingredients had been produced within two miles of the barn we’d gathered in.
Nestled in the Axe Valley on the Dorset-Devon border, River Cottage HQ is a 17th-century farmhouse – Park Farm – with 66 acres of land attached. The barns have been converted to host dining experiences and cookery courses; around 65 diners can easily fit round the two long trestle tables – and you should expect every event to be fully booked.
Our Sunday Lunch in late February was no exception; 63 people were booked in to eat, though there was no way of knowing even ball-park numbers until we all sat down together. A tractor had ferried us from the car park in small batches, and we were encouraged to look round the farm and enjoy a delicious Kingston Black apple apéritif in the yurt (complete with wood-burning stove and hay-bale seating) before entering the barn and finding our spots on the seating plan.
Unless you have specific dietary requirements, everyone eats the same meal – announced to the room by head chef Gelf Alderson just prior to service. On the menu that day was a slow-cooked heifer who, at the ripe old age of 13, had just shu ffled off her mortal coil. The diners didn’t seem at all fazed that the first thing to digest was a short biography of their lunch, but then if you’re not interested in provenance you have no place at River Cottage.
‘We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable or unhappy’, Gelf explained when we sat down for a chat after service, ‘but at the same time we don’t shy away from produce. We’re connected to the animals and feel a responsibility to make the most – and get the best – out of each one. Absolutely nothing is wasted.’
Gelf has a captive audience at every sitting, meaning there’s an opportunity to challenge preconceptions and revisit foods diners might have written off. ‘A lot of people haven’t eaten things like liver since they were at school, and they might have avoided it ever since’, he says. ‘We use the whole animal here, and we want to send people home to their own kitchens knowing how delicious things like offal can be.’
Still, the more controversial menu items are reserved for smaller courses; if brains ever appear they do so as a canapé or a fourth course, never as the main event.
One reason to trust Gelf with vegan and vegetarian requests is that he was raised veggie; he only changed his diet when, at 13, he felt his calling to become a chef.
Our vegan Sunday Lunch was absolutely stunning: from the most tender purple sprouting broccoli to a main course of leek, mushroom and artichoke ragout – complete with a separate plate of vegan roast parsnips and potatoes – and the most delicious chocolate torte with a toasted hazelnut base and blood orange sorbet.
Every component was prepared and presented with unbelievable care and consideration, as though each ingredient had been hand-picked and given a sponge bath before ending up on our plates. In reality, local producers deliver what they have to the River Cottage kitchen and Gelf has to get creative; it’s a welcome twist on the Ready, Steady, Cook style of chefing and ensures the produce in every meal is at its seasonal best.
It’s a challenge but one Gelf thrives on – and the kitchen is unbelievably calm. The doors are open for the vast majority of service and guests are encouraged to pop in to say hello. ‘Most people have never seen a working kitchen before’, Gelf explains, ‘so it’s nice for them to be able to come in and have a look. We talk a lot about ethics and morals here so it’s important to instil confidence in our guests. The best way to do that is by being completely open.’
The three-course lunch, rounded off with coffees and petit fours, is extremely reasonable at £55 per head (£15 for under-12s). The portions are generous but the walk back up to the car park will sort you out – though if you can’t face it (or want to buy more bottles of Kingston Black apple apéritif than you can carry) then fear not: the tractor will be on hand to bounce you back up the track.
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