My Life in Food: A rustic dining experience at Hugh’s River Cottage

river cottage food
Seasonal dishes using ingredients grown on the farm are served at River Cottage HQ

FEASTING at River Cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s farm-cum-restaurant-cum-culinary school-cum venue, on the outskirts of Axminster, is a real celebration of great food set against the glorious backdrop of Park Farm. As a dining experience, it would be difficult to find a more rustic setting.

Along with 60 other guests, Jackie and I climbed onto the tractor-drawn trailor for a bumpy ride down into the heart of Hugh’s hugely successful emporium of all things country.

We had all heeded instructions to wrap up warm and were ushered into a yurt (a first for me) for a warming welcoming glass of Kingston Black apple cider. Sat on straw bales with the wood burner letting out a faint aroma of scorched embers, we are given a run down on how the evening is likely to pan out as we are served with two tasty canapés – a chicken croquette with aioli and taramasalata on rye bread. We are told two more canapés are to come before we sit down to a four-course menu.

One thing is immediately evident. There’s no sitting on ceremony at River Cottage. There are no closed doors in this very laid back atmosphere, just wander freely as you wish, stroll into the kitchen where a team of chefs are busy preparing tonight’s supper, take a look at the Park Farm kitchen where Hugh creates his culinary delights.

The courtyard is lit by open fires but on long summer nights the guests are encouraged to wander around the farm and see where the ingredients already steaming on the stoves are harvested.

Seating for the main event is on two long tables in a converted barn where one imagined many new friends and acquaintances have been made. We were sat next to a couple who had travelled from Kent especially for the occasion, big fans of Hugh’s television series who were leaving at 5am the following day to return home.

With plenty of seeded sourdough with sauer kraut for all, two more canapés were served – beef carpaccio with watercress and curried parsnip soup with shallots and mint – before head chef Andy Tyrell explained what delights were in store for us, telling us how each of the dishes were constructed and which locally-sourced ingredients, many from the farm, were used. Andy’s laconic style suited the occasion perfectly.

Bar raised higher with each dish

river cottage hugh
River Cottage has been a household name since TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall first brought his hands-on, ethical food ethos to our screens in 1998

Guests stroll in and out of the dining hall, having explored the Park Farm complex, as the chefs busy themselves on the first dish and the River Cottage staff pitch in to ensure everyone’s enjoying the experience. First up of the four courses is coppa – air dried neck of pork – with celeriac remoulade and a delicate walnut dressing, which we all agreed was the perfect starter.

All the waiting staff had been briefed on the ingredients of each dish so we knew exactly what to expect and there were vegetarian options for the non-meat eaters.

By this time chatter around the tables had increased as we got to know our neighbours and the wine intake had started to loosen up the British stiff lip, with much talk of whether the second course would live up to the first.

And indeed it did – mackerel (my favourite fish) fillet, sourced from Cornwall that day, in an oatmeal crust, most often served for a bit of tartness with gooseberries, we were told by Andy, but on this occasion with poached rhubarb. It really sent the taste buds into orbit.

With the bar raised higher with each course served, there was much anticipation when the main course arrived – leg of Park Farm-reared lamb with succulent artichokes, purple sprouting and a subtle anchovy flavoured gravy. Don’t be put off by the anchovy, warned Andy in his warm-up speech, “subtle” being the important word here. There were no complaints from our corner of the table.

A feast to remember

I have a notorious big appetite but by this time I was pretty well stuffed. The chap from Kent sat opposite, however, who had demolished every course leaving no trace that food had ever graced his plate, and with a confirmed sweet tooth, was clearly excited by the prospect of one more course.

He was not disappointed – the chocolate hazelnut torte with spiced poached pear hardly touched the sides, a glorious finale to a feast to remember.

The evening concluded with the serving of coffee and petit fours and after saying our farewells we trundled back up the hill with fellow guests who were a good deal more vocal than on the journey down. Not a murmur of dissatisfaction or value for money.

The couple from Kent clearly thought the long journey from the garden of England, and pending early start the next morning, was well worth the effort.

Some might raise an eye-brow at the £70 a head cost but for those dedicated followers of celebrity chefing, or for that special occasion, Feasting at River Cottage is an experience not to be missed.

LymeOnline readers can get £20 off (per person) on Friday Night Feasts before April 30 2018.

Go to www.rivercottage.net/fridaynight and use the code LYME20 to book

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About Philip Evans 192 Articles
Veteran journalist and newspaper manager Philip Evans has worked in the publishing industry for more than half a century. He started out as a reporter for Pulman’s Weekly News as a young man and went on to work for an international publishing company in the UK, South Africa and Australia before returning to Lyme Regis where he is still reporting on local events as he has done for more than 53 years.

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