Daylesford is probably the most famous farm shop in Britain. A retail heaven of organic gorgeousness on the edge of the Cotswolds, it has grown over the past 10 years into something between a mall and a Japanese temple, selling not just food and produce, but clothing, gardening equipment, homeware, yoga classes and spa treatments. Alex James, who lives nearby, once described it in The Independent as "absolutely ridiculous, fantastic and sexy", and gratefully recorded how Daylesford's gentrifying effect had sent the value of his house rocketing.
Daylesford is much less of a curiosity now than when it first opened and was dismissed as a rich woman's plaything – its founder is eco-chatelaine Lady Bamford, whose husband is the "B" in digger manufacturers JCB. Early visitors would return with incredulous reports of the rural farm shop's exquisite produce and even more exquisite customers, who famously included Liz Hurley and Kate Moss. But it's harder to dismiss Daylesford as an organic folie de grandeur now that it has survived, diversified and expanded – there are two Daylesford cafes in London, as well as various spin-off ranges.
A working farm, Daylesford is easy to distinguish from its Cotswold neighbours. The hedges are more kempt, the golden stone buildings more immaculate, even the grass looks greener. A fleet of black SUVs stands in the car park, surrounded by chatting groups of honey-maned women, holding babies and takeaway cappuccinos. Desirable benches are scattered around, bearing discreet price tags.
The farm shop, with its colour-coded fruit and veg, walk-in cheese room and wet fish counter, is Selfridges food hall in miniature; if this was my local food store, I'd be slobberingly grateful, and a lot less solvent. The original farm shop café was extended last year, and is not just bigger, but apparently much slicker, according to my lunch companion, a designer friend who is a Daylesford regular.
It occupies a restored barn adjoining the shop, pale and tastefully rustic, in a Californian, Martha Stewart-ish way. The walls are nubbly whitewashed brick, growing herbs sprout from zinc pails on every limed oak table, and a giant dried lavender heart hangs from the roof beams. At one end, two chefs dart around silently in an immaculate open kitchen. "She really spends the bucks," whistled Sarah appreciatively.
Everything on the monthly changing menu is organic (except for the olives and olive oil) and most of the meat served is reared on the farm. But the July menu seemed rather generic – Welsh rarebit, smoked salmon with melba toast, roast beef with horseradish, beefburger, roasted chicken leg, potato wedges. Given the exquisite produce for sale next door, I was expecting something more... interesting.
Uninspired by the meat dishes, I went for fish – not the obvious choice, on a farm in a landlocked county, but as it turned out, a good one. My main course of pollock, roasted in the wood-fired oven, was the star of our meal, the fish falling into firm, cod-like flakes under its crisp, well-seasoned skin, and served with crushed new potatoes and buttery braised peas.
Other dishes were hit and miss. Chilled tomato and fennel soup from the daily specials was fine, even if the fennel was undetectable, and a dessert partnering roast peaches with olive oil and thyme cake was subtle and summery. But a selection of seasonal salads, including a particularly nasty one made with char-grilled courgettes, wet garlic and pine nuts, was over-chilled, and, at £12.95, over-priced. "If you got this in the café at John Lewis, you'd be quite pleased, but it's hardly Ottolenghi," said Sarah, pushing aside a grey, flabby piece of bacon that had lost its moorings in a Caesar salad.
What seems clear, though, is Daylesford isn't trying to be Ottolenghi. The café isn't catering just for displaced Notting Hill ladies who lunch; it's trying to be accessible to regular people, on regular budgets. It seems to be working – the place was almost full on a wet Tuesday lunchtime, and there were plenty of what Liz Hurley might call "civilians" among the yummy mummies in skinny cargo pants. And though the place has been criticised by locals for its high prices, they didn't strike me as ridiculous (those salads apart); it would be perfectly possible to have a light meal and a drink, and escape for less than a tenner.
Service, too, has apparently improved a lot since the expansion; we were charmed by our waitress, a natural resource of organic cheerfulness, who answered our every picky request with a sunny "yes!" We couldn't ask the million-dollar question, of course, the one that must occur to every visitor to Daylesford: "Does this place actually make a profit, and if so, how?"
You have to admire the energy that has gone into it, though. As a showcase for an eco-fabulous lifestyle, Daylesford is miles ahead of the competition. It's just a shame that as a showcase for organic food, the café isn't quite as dazzling.
Daylesford Farmshop and Café, Daylesford nr Kingham, Gloucestershire (01608 731700)
Around £25 a head for three courses, before wine and service
Tipping policy: "The service charge is 10 per cent, and it all goes to the staff in the cafe"
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