You are unlikely to find many foodies who can say that they have a meal in a horticultural polytunnel and cooked for them by a chef, using ingredients from the very polytunnel being dined in. And to be honest, I never thought I would be able to say I am one of those lucky few. But last week Eating Exeter was lucky enough to be invited to the inaugural meal of Jonny Does Dinner, an exciting new Pop-up Dining venture coming to a stately home or unusual location near you.
The story of Jonny Does Dinner started when Fan met Jonny who had recently escaped from London (as the about page says!). Bringing his experience from working at Mark Hix, The Groucho Club and Brindisa, Johnny Does Dinner is about bringing gourmet food to foodies in unique and spectacular locations (fancy dinner in The Great Hall at The Great Fulfords in Cheriton Bishop?) Jonny himself has a natural flamboyance, and the skill of his cooking really shone through the evening. The dishes were down to earth, the entire menu felt well put together and well thought out.
The event was held in the grounds at Trill Farm which is located just outside of Axminster, less than ten minutes away from the A35. Forty five minutes from Exeter, but a million miles away from anywhere I had been before. Trill Farm Garden (in which the polytunnel lives) is ran by Ash and Kate. It supplies fresh produce to nearby River Cottage HQ and the Axminster River Cottage Canteen too, also some restaurants in Lyme Bay. Trill Farm runs courses and a festival to name but a few things, I would recommend visiting their website to see what sort of things they do; it is quite a place and definitely worth a visit to their Farm Shop.
Driving up to the Farm, I was greeted by Nicky who gave me directions to where the tunnel was located. Following the lanterns, I was transfixed by the Trill Farm Herb Garden and the aroma of herbs which hits the nostrils like a herby slap to the olfactory nerve endings. The polytunnels were hard to miss and it was here that the scene was set for our amazing dinner.
After creeping around the polytunnels and finding the gathering well under way Fan introduced herself and presented me with a Blackberry Mule which included foraged blackberries and a wonderful gingery kick to it from the ginger beer. This was accompanied by Salsa Verde Crostini’s, a lovely aromatic green sauce, deep in colour with a very intense yet pleasant taste.
With events such as this, you have to be prepared to make some new friends. It is part of the deal with attending Pop-up events, and for anyone who would want to meet other people it is a great way of doing so. Twenty four strangers stood in the middle of a field of vegetables drinking cocktails will ultimately talk to each other, and I started chatting to a charming lady called Tamsin. A city girl at heart, we walked around snapping photos and talking about her time living in London. For me this was what the whole supper club thing was about.
It is a strange thing when you find yourself sat at a table with people who all have a passion for seasonal produce; I learnt a thing or two whilst we enjoyed the food that Jonny was producing from his polytunnel kitchen next door. The dining table was set over a crop of red basil and backed on to by various varieties of tomatoes. As we sat down, I had the luck of sitting next to Ash at the end of the table and opposite two River Cottage Luminaries, Tim Maddams @timgreensauce and Joe Draper @draperjoe who were both charming and happy to talk to a strangely dressed man who sat quietly on the corner listening and observing occasionally taking photos. Tim told me about a Pop-up Restaurant venture which he is involved in called Hall and Hearty, bringing Tim’s flair and skills to Village Halls across East Devon and beyond.
The first course was a lovely smoked salmon, it was (excuse the cliché) melt-on-tongue and dissolved like an expensive pillow as I chewed. Yes I compared it to an expensive pillow, and I stand by that analogy. Sitting on a bed of beetroot and salad with a sweet dressing. This was the one time that I had eaten Salmon with total confidence that I would enjoy what I was about to eat, and would you believe it, I did. Closely following this course was a barbequed Trill reared lamb, marinated with wild garlic, rosemary, mint and marjoram. This was a beautifully cooked example of what really good meat should taste like. Handed around with the lamb was a wild rice salad studded with roast squash, radishes, pomegranate and peas and a Greek salad which were absolutely packed with some delightful tasting ingredients.
Fan, Nicky, Alan and even Jonny served the guests with each course and they appeared out of the dark of the polytunnel with head torches announcing their presence. The courses were moved quickly once everyone had finished, and we were not without food for any long intervals. The organisation and running of the night was seamless, which for me really stood out.
Next the cheese course landed gently in front of us, a fragrant soft cheese called Francis with crackers and a really nice sweet Apple and Thyme jelly. Then we were on to the Blackberry and Almond Tart, served with some clotted cream; for me this course was a highlight of the evening. The sweetness of the almond and the sour of the blackberry worked perfectly and reminded me of the sort of tart that would not go amiss from the distant years of my childhood.
Sitting with a delicious French pressed Costa Rican coffee at the end of the meal, the candle light enshrouded the diners in a warm glow sitting in a place that would unlikely ever house a dining experience like this one ever again. Restaurants and cafes have many energies around them, different people leaving their print on the surroundings and you know as you get up from the table that your place will be quickly filled by someone else in a matter of minutes. As I got up from my seat I knew that this seat wasn’t going to be there again, and that feeling was quite special – something I doubt I will feel again for a long time. In the morning, I knew that this polytunnel would again become a place of work, not a place of dinner and consumption.
The price of the tickets reflect the fact that Jonny Does Dinner is about the experience. It is gourmet food, served in a magical setting by a skilled and charismatic chef in locations that are unlikely to be dined in again. There are no re-runs, there are no ‘second servings’. Once you get up to leave, you’ll find that it is unlikely you’ll repeat the experience. So remember your camera.
To see where Jonny is doing dinner next head over here.
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