In this end of the South West, we are quite lucky really. We have a number of popular culinary landmarks that any good foodie must visit at least once in their lifetime. Gidleigh Park, Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant, River Cottage HQ, The Riverford Field Kitchen in Buckfastleigh are for me, those placecs in the popular food arena which foodies need pay homage to, sacrifice a virginal aubergine, sing the hymn of the organic carrots to. So, Chris, How many have you visited? I hear you cry! Well…I’m getting there (slowly) but I have ticked one off my list when I visited River Cottage HQ for their lovely summer festival this weekend.
It is easy to fall in love with this part of the world, the Jurassic Coast has slowly turned itself in to one of the most desirable parts of the UK to live due to its nice climate and frequent appearances on property shows which profess the benefits of the area. Lying near the sea with lots of beautiful rolling hills, peppered with forests and a patchwork of green fields that literally roll on as far as the eye can see (cliched but true). I would consider myself an apologist for Mid-Devon and the rugged tranquility of Dartmoor, but East Devon is definitely a sapphire on our doorstep.
If you haven’t heard of River Cottage then I can assume you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 20 years. In a nutshell River Cottage kicked off in 1997 when journalist/chef/ Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall bought a former keepers lodge on the Slape Manor estate in Netherbury called River Cottage. It featured as part of the renowned TV and book series that showed on Channel 4 in the early noughties. Further series and books followed, and operations were moved from the original location to Park Farm in 2004, where the River Cottage ethos lives on.
Set in 44 acres of farmland, the farm sits on the same hill as Trill Farm (the amazing setting for my Johnny Does Dinner evening in a polytunnel where I met Tim Maddams!) and within spitting distance (pun intended) of Castlewood Vineyard, a boutique vineyard that creates sparkly stuff and has a Wine Festival too which we went to a couple of years ago.
Park Farm plays host to day events, cookery courses and is the base of operations for the River Cottage universe. You can even book it for a wedding should you wish! Learn how to forage, how catch fish, butcher and bake on one of their courses and now there is the opportunity to learn a chef apprenticeship at their Chefs School.
And…did I mention? River Cottage also runs a series of successful canteens in Plymouth, Bristol, Axminster and Winchester which brings the River Cottage food ethos to the masses. One might appear in Exeter, but for now I’ll have to settle for a train ride over to Axminster.
Our visit to the Summer Fair was an appendage to a longer trip. We had been to see Polly, co-founder of Eating Exeter and possible future creator or Devouring Dorset (hint hint Pol if you’re reading this) who now resides in glorious Wimborne. I’ll bash out a post about our culinary adventures in Wimborne after I’ve finished writing this post. On the way back we decided to pass through and say hello and see what sorts of things were happening at this family friendly event.
Parking is a little way away from Park Farm which is halfway down the hill at the end of a track. The tractor shuttle service means you’re transported from your car in style and landing safely at the bottom. But you are allowed to walk the footpath if you feel up to the climb.
The first thing we needed when we arrived was food. The street food stalls didn’t get much of a look-in with us as we spotted that the River Cottage Kitchen were doing plates of grub for £6.50. This went down very well (not being a beetroot fan I am now a convert as the Slow-cooked Beetroot with Oregano was superb! It was accompanied by River Cottage Baked Beans, Potato and Spinach Curry, English Yellow Split Pea Hummus and Pearl Barley Tabbouleh.
After we topped up our energy level, all washed down with a half of River Cottage EPA, it was time to do some exploring. As we had arrived later then we had planned, its more than likely we missed some bits entirely as we got caught up with watching Falcons and wandering around the River Cottage Kitchen Garden.
Had we been more patient we could have had a garden tour, but for that moment we were happy wandering around this magnificent piece of horticulture. The highlights for us were the flowering ball artichokes and the sweet pea arch.
Walking around neatly planted patches of vegetables does funny things to someone at a certain stage of their life. It makes you want to go home and grow things, the inspiration largely washed off by the time we got home and looked at how much of our garden would have to be completely dug-over. Could I rent an allotment? Only time will tell. Certainly Tori being the Head Gardener has decided that we simply have to grow Bell Artichokes.
After a meander around the garden we hit the local producer’s tents. Shaldon Bakery was represented and so was Conker Dry Gin. Distilled in a copper still, they are Dorset’s only dry gin company and making a name for themselves with their blind optimism and fresh approach to distilling gin. We’ll definitely be getting a bottle soon…very soon 😀
Further exploring took us up to the demo tent in the Meadow. We just happened to catch the last part of Good Game’s Steve Williams, I really wanted to go up an say ‘hello’ but we were short on time as it was nearly time for the Falconry display!
Had we been able to come up for the whole day, I might have been tempted to sign up for one of the masterclasses that were running throughout the proceedings. And it is a credit to the organisers that visitors are literally spoilt for choice in the sort of things that they can get involved with.
River Cottage is such an iconic piece of the food scene in Devon and the Summer Fair was a fantastic way to experience an up-close view of what River Cottage does. Local producers, activities, large green areas for kids run around in, food to eat, masterclasses to master, things to buy, drink to drink and live music to listen to makes for a fantastic festival atmosphere.