Wednesday, December 18, 2013
I adore Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I believe he's the best "celebrity chef" out there right now. He certainly doesn't cook like Heston or Tom Kerridge, but he's truly doing what no other celebrity chef is doing, including Jamie, he's changing the way we eat and think about food. And he's been doing it since the original River Cottage Cookbook. Remember Hugh's Chicken Run? What about Hugh's Fish Fight? What other chef of this caliber is risking his name and exposing the way in which our food is delivered to us? None.
And so, when I heard that I was a winner of the River Cottage online Mushroom Challenge I was very excited! Readers were tested by going out and identifying 7 different species of mushrooms and posting their findings on the River Cottage Online Forum. The prize? A meal for two at River Cottage HQ. I could choose any date I wanted and so, of course, I chose the Christmas Feast on December 14th 2013.
I'd been meaning to visit River Cottage HQ for years and this free dinner was just what I needed to actually make the booking and drive from West Sussex to the beautiful Devon/Dorset coast. It's not a cheap day out. There's the cost of getting there and back, a hotel for the night and anything ordered beyond the included bottle of wine. We took the opportunity to eat in the River Cottage Canteen in Axminster, which was brilliant. A post of that coming soon.
Our evening began at 6:30pm the time we were told to arrive at the River Cottage HQ parking lot. Our confirmation itinerary told us a converted, covered tractor trailer would be taking us from the car park to the farm house. Arriving early, as usual, we had a bit of a wait. Lumbering down the hill to the farm house on a tractor in the dark, with pouring, freezing rain, was actually pretty special. As we got closer the lights of the different properties on the farm got brighter. We were led into a yurt and given Kingston Black Apple Cider Brandy, which I thoroughly enjoyed. After being briefed on the way in which the evening would unfold we were told we could go into the dining room and either get a drink, or visit the kitchen. We were also able to visit the cookery school as there wasn't an event on. But perhaps most exciting for me, was being able to visit the farmhouse itself where Hugh films all of his River Cottage shows. After a few cheesy photos we were back in the dining room ready to be wowed!
Now, before I get into the food let me just say this, my taste, when I eat out is definitely more towards Michelin Stars than dining under the stars. I embrace organic and biodynamic, I eat very little meat, most of it from my local farm, I choose ethically sourced fish and generally adhere to Hugh's ethos. However, when I eat out, I completely understand that I may not be able to get food with that ethos in mind. This is the brilliant thing about River Cottage, but it is also, as I found, the one thing letting it down. For, food that fits into that ethos is not always the tastiest, or cheapest.
Sitting at a communal table with 31 other diners on each of the two tables, being forced to either speak to these other people, or risk seeming awkward all evening, was not horrible, but it wasn't really my ideal evening out. Ok, that's gripe number one and no big deal. Gripe number two, however, is a big deal. The food. Both my wife and I found the Pollock/Sole Soup to be incredibly salty. And we both love salt… a lot. The fish was sourced from Lyme Regis, which is a few miles from River Cottage HQ. Perhaps, the freshest fish I've ever had, spoilt by excessive salt. Cauliflower was served, I believe, 3 times throughout the evening. And that's fine, I really like Cauliflower. I especially liked the Pureed Cauliflower that accompanied our Guinea Fowl, which had been cooking for 36 hours. But to have it in 3 different dishes seemed a little excessive.
At the beginning of dinner the chef, Gelf, told us that they recently sent a 3 year old cow to slaughter and we would be having that tonight. He mentioned that normally they get off-cuts that are tough, such as shin, but that we would be served prime cuts tonight and he seemed very happy about this, especially since they only slaughter about 1 cow a year from the farm. I have to say, although I liked the meat, I didn't find it amazing. It was tender and flavorful, but not cooked in a particularly special way. It tasted like nice Roast Beef that your Gran would make for Sunday Lunch. However, the Chips in Beef Dripping were not like Gran would make. They were gorgeous and the best part of my meal. Gelf told us they rendered down the fat from the cow and that's how they made the Beef Dripping. Truly using all of that animal.
Dessert was very interesting, a Brownie with Ginger and Chili Ice Cream served on top. I think Chili is the best thing since sliced bread, but my wife and a few other diners were having trouble getting it down. There was just too much of it.
Our wine, which was included in the price of the meal was an Organic Tempranillo and was definitely a decent wine to serve with this meal. However, once again, it wasn't brilliant and I felt a more full bodied wine would have been better for all of these rich flavors. You could upgrade your wine choice, but when you're spending, (well, not us, but most people) £90 per head, you don't want to have to "upgrade" your wine to get something nice. Let's face it, £90 per head, even for 4 courses, is a lot of money. No, it's not a lot of money at Heston's Dinner in London and you would only get 2-3 courses for the money, but those courses would be absolutely mind-blowing as they would at Tom Kerridge's Two Michelin starred pub.
But, and I completely understand this, Heston's Dinner is not, to my knowledge, organic, nor is it sustainable, nor were any of the ingredients grown 10 feet from the communal table. This is what you're paying for. You also pay to be dining at Hugh's farm, which is the main draw. You get to be part of his vision and to see his dream and experience his ethos firsthand. And for that, I agree, it is worth £90 just to say you've been there and seen it and show all your friends your cheesy photos next to his Aga. Then go home and plant some Black Kale in your back garden, it's delicious!
My advise, if you're thinking of going is this; go for lunch in the summer! I can see how walking around the farm on a beautiful summer's day, sipping Cider Brandy would be simply idyllic. Also, we didn't know this beforehand, but it is BYOB so feel free to bring whatever you want, no need to drink only what is on offer there.
Stay at The Yeoman's Acre Bed and Breakfast. It is one of the cleanest B&Bs I've ever been to and the couple who run it couldn't be friendlier.
To view my actual food photography visit: Taylor Young Photography