River Cottage rendezvous: The River Cottage Canteen, Devon
Saturday 23 August 2008
It's a whole 10 years since Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall moved into Park Farm in Dorset, to live a turn-of-the-century Good Life, growing his own vegetables, rearing his own meat and rendering his own curds and whey, or whatever it is one does with dairy products. From this modest beginning, a great empire rapidly grew. Park Farm was re-christened River Cottage, and the profusely surnamed Hugh became lodged in the public's imagination as a straggle-haired charmer who was always filmed with a hen or a lamb under his arm – though he was quite capable of dismembering either and eating them for lunch. He came across as a commonsensical realist, not a back-to-nature dreamer. Both he and his Cottage became bywords for self-sustaining, organic foodie purity.
Hugh's adventures in seasonal noshing have been documented on TV – most recently following his fight to make Tesco play nicely and stock free-range chickens rather than the £1.99 battery variety – and in a succession of books, newspaper columns and DVDs. The original cottage is now the scene of one-day courses for aspirant hunter-gatherers. You can choose An Introduction to Beekeeping or improve your Fish Skills and Cookery. It's rather piquant to think of West Country tourists signing up to the Pig in a Day course, to learn the arts of butchering, air-curing, wind-drying and advanced crackling.
Amid all this endeavour, the only thing missing is a River Cottage restaurant. Of course, cookbook authors don't have to open a restaurant to prove their bona fides – Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson have never welcomed the public into an eating-house with their name over the door – but River Cottage is so branded an entity, you feel its many fans and TV viewers would rush to it: you've seen the programme, you've read the recipe, now try the Sydling Brook slow-roast saddle of organic lamb.
I was in Devon, the other day, when someone told me that the farm now had a canteen. It was lunchtime. I rushed to it.
My taxi, directed to River Cottage, sped to the original farm, a sprawling ranch in a lovely valley, where my initial impressions were of extreme, monkish quietness; there were outhouses, kitchens and tents, and little printed signs in soil-beds telling you what was growing where, but no indication of any actual eating under way. It was, I thought, a bit too bloody reverential. Then I learnt I'd come to the wrong place: this was River Cottage HQ, where they hold the classes in hen dismemberment. A charming woman gave me a lift to the Local Produce Store in the middle of Axminster. It's a big, friendly looking shop, humming with organic integrity: flitches of bacon, clusters of garlic, shiny tomatoes, home-baked bread. It's a local shop for not-at-all-local people. You get the impression that they wouldn't dream of selling Stinking Bishop cheese here unless it was really stinking and came from a properly episcopal source.
The Canteen, at the back of the shop, is a big, high-walled barn of a place, as unpretentious as a string vest. A score of wooden tables and chairs are ranged severely, like a classroom in Dotheboys Hall. A blackboard instructs you to "grab a table" somewhere, order and pay for your food at the counter (you half expect to see the words "and make it snappy"). The menu is chalked on a blackboard. The whole operation strives so hard not to give itself airs, it's practically blue in the face.
I grabbed a table under a tree in the herb garden, where plants sprout from teapots, huge thistles and globe artichokes rear their heads like triffids, and the chairs are made of woodland branches.
The lunchtime menu was small and simple, starting with mushroom soup and ending with cheese, and everything about it shouted integrity: the bread was brown and deliciously crusty. The wine was rather tart and short-pitched, but it was English and therefore beyond criticism. The food was unadventurous to a degree. My hearty portion of moules marinières with chorizo would have kept a Belgian truck driver happy for an hour, but I wasn't sure that the orange lumps of chorizo added much to the shellfish; the vinous soup at the bottom was thinly flavoured. River Cottage sausages with cider and mustard sauce and mash were robust and spicy, with an authentic touch of gristle, but alarmingly pink in the middle. The cheese plate of cheddar and brie, with attendant gherkins and pickled onions, lacked drama. But I ended lunch on a high note, with a massive wedge of apple and cinnamon cake – plus clotted cream – which was sheer heaven.
I admire Mr F-W. I find his approach to the nation's eating habits entirely creditable. I just wish he and his team could be as ambitious in the arts of cooking as they undoubtedly are in the science of gastronomic enlightenment.
The River Cottage Canteen, Trinity Square, Axminster, Devon EX13 5AN (01297 631862)
Around £50 for two, with wine
"We do not include a service charge nor do we make reference to the absence of one. Any tipping is discretionary and is split equally amongthe waiting staff and kitchen porters."
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