Having been a fan of the UK TV series set at River Cottage farm, hosted by food advocate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and without any new shows to watch of late, I came across Hugh’s talk at TED Exeter from a few years ago. One thing Hugh said resonated: “In order to help us connect with food, we should seek food with a story.”
With so many aspects of the world’s food supply in crisis, what’s one person to do? Well with River Cottage farm resturant and on the TV show, Hugh has made a personal appeal for us all to live better, healthier and more sustainably, by each week telling his personal stories about food. And his stories have had real impact. The national awareness towards eating locally and sustainably has never been higher in the UK. And in national and international politics, Hugh has successfully advocated for sensible and sustainable food policies in ways that will reap great benefits for consumers the world over for years to come.
Now, sadly, that the show has ended its run, Hugh has turned River Cottage farm over to the public, enabling us all the opportunity to experience, hands on, all the food stories we enjoyed on TV.
Upon arriving for our day at the farm we were greeted by operations manager Simon. He led us down the garden path, so to speak, as we made our way from the reception through meadows of grazing sheep, beehives, and crisp rows of dew-laden crops. Lambing season was in full swing so bouncing baby lambs hopped and scuttled in all directions as we passed through their domain.
We sat down in the new dining hall and Simon treated us to some hot-drink hospitality as we learned more about River Cottage farms and resturant’s new mission and mapped out the day’s activities.
First, River Cottage farm was a TV set and laboratory of sorts for Hugh to test his farming, foraging, and husbandry ideas. Now it is a working farm and a modern state-of-the-art culinary school, which spreads Hugh’s message through hands-on instruction one person at a time.
The facilities are state of the art and quite literally set into the landscape with vast areas of glass along the edge of the classroom. The message is clear, consider not just the food in front of you, but also where it comes from. And in most cases, the food prepared at River Cottage farm and restaurant could have been observed at some point through those windows.
The professional kitchen was buzzing with food production for the classes, and preparations for the soon-to-be-arriving guests. Dining at River Cottage is a great outing. You can visit for lunch or dinner year round. I have often been to restaurants where the term “farm to table” is batted around. Always with justification, but in this case the relationship is so close, sitting at the table while observing the farm is an altogether unique experience.
The range of classes on offer year round cover an amazing variety of skills and topics: meat cookery, bread making, gardening, food foraging, preserves, making cider and beer, butchery. And for each subject taught in the school there is a corresponding book to remind students of what they learned once they get home. The books are also handy if you cannot make it to the farm: There is still a literary route to the River Cottage experience.
… Hugh has turned River Cottage farm over to the public, enabling us all the opportunity to experience, hands on, all the food stories we enjoyed on TV.
Because I am a bit of a fan of the TV show, getting to explore Hugh’s kitchen was a high point. One thing I learned from Hugh was that, with an old stove and an old table and a warm fireplace, you can make almost anything you want. And seeing Hugh’s old stove, table and original 17th century working fireplace in real life, it all looked even less auspicious than the simple set of tools and appliances where Hugh worked his magic on TV.
Outside the kitchen window is the wonderful Victorian kitchen garden. It was still early spring when we visited, but you could see light green shoots all around starting to push out of the ground.
Simon explained that it took a few years to get the overgrown, abandoned farm back to where it is today. A farm is a machine for food production, but to work naturally it requires time and strategy. Each crop grows best with a certain set of nutrients which may be generated naturally by the crops grown in that ground previously. And once those nutrients are depleted the crops must be rotated. Getting the order right is the key to a productive yearly harvest. And coming up with ways to prepare food from all the crops in the rotation is the key to productive farming. Some plants have become more popular than others and tend to be over-farmed. But each plant is good if you know how to prepare it.
We walked by a noisy gaggle of geese dashing for the pond to avoid us, and carefully avoided the chickens roaming freely around the farm, pecking the ground for any tasty morsels they could dig up. We stopped off at the pig pen for a visit with a couple of River Cottage’s heritage breed pigs. Simon politely knocked on their roof and both pigs poked their heads out to greet us. Both curious about the stranger at their door, they quickly warmed up to me, having a chew on my Hunter boots, which I took as a friendly gesture.
In the greenhouses, the first lush and juicy strawberries were starting to ripen. A few more weeks and they will ready to serve. Finally we made our way up a small hill, along a narrow footpath, and emerged in a large meadow covered with bluebells in bloom. What a brilliant mass of deep blue. On the way out we made a final stop at the lambing shed, where the newborn lambs were as curious to see us as their mothers were apprehensive.
It is a great feeling when everybody and everything works towards a common purpose. And this is how the evolving story of River Cottage is being written every day by the people working on the land, in the kitchen and those plotting a future for this amazing place.
They say it is best to leave a place wanting more. And my departure from River Cottage was with the determination to come back soon.
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