A trip to the glorious Devon countryside in the height of summer, and an opportunity to look around the famous kitchen garden at River Cottage. When an invitation to do exactly this rattled through our electronic letterbox courtesy of the wonderful Garden Media Guild, we were agog. Who could resist? Certainly not us!
This year the River Cottage team celebrates 20 years since chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall upped sticks and made the move from his London life to a rural idyll in Dorset. In 2005 the business moved to its current location at Park Farm, close to the Devon-Dorset border, just ten minutes from the stunning Jurassic coast. Now the site is home to a cookery school, teaching kitchen garden, a restaurant, new bed and breakfast accommodation… it’s quite the business empire. Would it feel like a faceless corporate operation?
In short, an emphatic no. Everyone we met at River Cottage was friendly, enthusiastic, helpful and absolutely committed to the idea of moving towards better, healthier, more sustainable food as part of a lifestyle. And their passion is absolutely convincing.
The kitchen garden
During a tour of the kitchen garden with head gardener Helen Musgrave, we learned that Hugh describes food production as a continuum. At one end of the scale lies commercial mass production (the battery-farmed chicken, the sprayed monoculture crops); at the other, the hunter-gathering of indigenous communities. The River Cottage aim is to inspire people to move along the continuum towards more natural, more sustainable, more local food.
Through years of cultivation, the soil at River Cottage is rich and friable. With plentiful food waste from the kitchens, high quality home-produced compost is readily available – and the team aims to do still more. Good soil is a must, as the gardens are used for as many successional crops as possible, to get maximum use from the land. Crops are rotated annually in the traditional way, to keep the soil at its most fertile.
There’s a very lovely cottage garden feel to the kitchen garden, with a bee border at one side, nasturtium beds interspersed around the crops, and borage and other pollinator favourites dotted around. This garden is obviously productive, but also a joy to look at.
Outside the kitchen garden, espaliered fruit trees hug an ancient wall, while dedicated raised beds of soft fruit (golden raspberries in one, blackcurrants in another) skirt as close to mass production as anywhere at River Cottage does. The grouping makes it easier to hunt for predators, we’re told.
Further on, a flower garden is also divided, by function; edible flowers in one bed, cut flowers in another. A simple and foolproof system, essential for feeding the many thousands of visitors which enjoy the River Cottage hospitality every year.
In the polytunnels, we saw some of the ways the team preserves the garden’s produce well beyond the season’s end. In the propagation area, not only did a heated bench give cuttings and seedlings the warmth they needed, but the heated ambient air was also used to dry heads of garlic, as well as allium and poppy seedheads, dried for decoration.
Around the farm
After meeting some very happy heritage breed pigs, enjoying a breakfast in bed in which broad bean stalks served as both breakfast and bed, we went on to view the new no-dig area. It’s a work in progress, with plans to expand. The lush growth in the new narrow beds belied the fact that they hadn’t been watered at all this year, and the bed had only been weeded once.
The area has been so successful that there are plans to convert more of the grass areas to narrow no-dig beds. This is easily achieved by laying cardboard over the grass, piling 4-6 inches (10-15cm) of compost on top, and planting. Plant roots will find their way through cardboard, which will decompose under the soil.
We went on to view a further polytunnel, packed with a wide variety of luscious-looking tomatoes. In an effort to reduce River Cottage’s use of plastic, the tomatoes were mulched with an experimental layer of cardboard. In July, this was breaking down quite significantly, but as the tomatoes were well established, this wasn’t too much of an issue. For the next crop, new compost will simply be added on top, allowing the compost to decompose below the surface.
In the final polytunnel, aubergines, chillis and thyme basked in the heat. As in the kitchen garden, polytunnel crops are also rotated annually to allow the soil to recover.
The River Cottage kitchen
We then gratefully retreated from the overwhelming July heat back to the cool of the River Cottage barn, where we were lucky enough to have a cookery demo from cheery chef Richard on an airy deck overlooking the valley.
Richard explained that River Cottage sources a majority of produce either from the farm itself, or the two neighbouring farms, thinking in terms of ‘food feet’ rather than ‘food miles’. The kohlrabi Richard used were the ones we’d seen in the kitchen garden an hour before; the poached eggs we’d enjoyed on our arrival were collected from the chicken run 10 minutes before we arrived. Food really doesn’t get any fresher, and this was reflected in the delicious flavours.
Our tutor then showed us how to make ‘Bread and Butter Pickles’; so delicious, sweet and cooling, without any acidity or burn. They’re so named because they were a staple during the Great Depression; in the absence of bread, people used two layers of pickles to make a sandwich out of whatever was to hand – or even just ate them on their own. We used cucumbers, but they’d be a fabulous way to make the most of the summer courgette glut.
River Cottage Bread and Butter Pickles
3 small cucumbers
500ml cider vinegar
Sugar 200-250g (according to taste)
1 heaped dessertspoon turmeric
1 heaped dessertspoon celery seeds
1 heaped dessertspoon mustard seeds (or Dijon mustard)
Few sprigs thyme
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Generous sprinkle of sea salt
- Chop the cucumbers on the diagonal, add to cider vinegar, water and sugar in a pan.
- Add the turmeric, celery seeds, mustard and thyme. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat.
- While this is heating, finely slice the onion. Crush the garlic cloves under the flat blade of a knife, remove skins.
- Remove the mixture from the heat. Add the onion, garlic and salt.
- Pour into a sterilised jar, and when it’s cool, store it in the fridge. The pickles will be ready to eat in a week to ten days.
With thanks to the Garden Media Guild from arranging this inspiring trip, and of course many thanks too to the wonderful team at River Cottage, who looked after us so well and made our visit so very enjoyable.