We pulled our wellies on and headed down to Park Farm near Axminster, home to River Cottage HQ in Devon, to spend the day getting a taste of how the folks at River Cottage are inspiring people to explore the journey of our food from field to fork.
We joined guests on the River Cottage Experience course, created to connect people to home-grown, home-cooked food and inspire people to get the best out of seasonal and ethical produce by cooking from scratch.
How to bake your daily bread: just use the basic ingredients
The day started with an introduction to bread, setting the scene with a reminder that a true loaf should only contain 5 basic ingredients: yeast, water, salt, flour and sugar. We couldn’t agree more.
Head Chef, Gelf, got the class mixing and kneading dough for a simple white loaf which we left to prove whilst heading out around the farm to see the livestock and crops based on the farm.
From field to fork: fruit, veg and livestock
Set in 65 acres of rolling Devon hills, the pebbly soil and steep gradient of the land surrounding Park Farm lends itself best to livestock and grazing. The flatter parts of the terrain is put to good use: unheated polytunnels and allotment areas dedicated to cultivating fruit and veg, and carefully managed traditional hay meadows designed to provide feed for livestock and act as a biodiversity haven for bugs, bees and butterflies.
Fruit & veg
Hugh’s famous kitchen garden was brimming with autumnal seasonal veg – cavolo nero, curly kale, runner beans, broccoli and more. Destined for the River Cottage kitchen, roots, brassicas, legumes and salad crops grow up set against the backdrop of the famous River Cottage farmhouse. The crop types are rotated around four quadrants of the garden each year to minimise crop-specific pests and diseases and nutrients.
The team at River Cottage rear their own livestock – cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs. All are cared for to the highest possible organic welfare standards and kept within a stone’s throw of the kitchen – the food chain doesn’t get much shorter than this.
Busy grazing on clover-rich organic pasture, Farmer Dan introduced the group to River Cottage’s flock of Poll Dorset sheep. A thrifty breed, the Poll Dorset has a long breeding season and can live on tougher pastures. Here Dan explained the definition behind the different types of lamb meat you can buy:
new season lamb – lamb born in the current breeding season
old season lamb – lamb born in the previous breeding season, but still under a year old
hogget (or two tooth) – over a year old
mutton – a sheep who has lambed and is over 2 years old
Back to the kitchen ….
Staying true to the season, we started prep on an autumnal game casserole pie that we would be tucking into together later on that day. An earthy mix of meat including hare (net caught), wood pigeon, duck, grouse and beef reared on the farm and hung for 6 weeks, the flavours rising in the River Cottage kitchen had everyone sneaking an extra mouthful to ‘check the flavour’ just one more time (!). We left the casserole to reduce while we headed outside to make our own pizza for lunch in River Cottage’s outdoor wood-fired oven and soak up the breath-taking Devon views.
Bake off! Rough puff pastry
In a scene similar to a Bake Off, it was back to the kitchen to make up a block of rough puff pastry, carefully creating layers of butter and flour which we used to top off our casseroles.
Profiteroles & thought-provoking pigs
Simpler than some might think, we cracked straight on to whipping up a batch of profiteroles which were popped into the oven, then it was time to learn about butchery and home-curing bacon techniques using a pig reared by the River Cottage team at Park Farm.
How often do you see pigs in a field?
Did you know that we rear as many pigs in the UK as sheep? How many pigs have you seen in a field in the countryside? Next time you pick up a cheap packet of sausages in a supermarket, spare a thought for the pigs. You see plenty of sheep grazing in the fresh air, but the majority of our pigs spend their lives reared indoors in enormous barns, fed only feed and pumped with antibiotics to meet low prices demanded by consumers. You can choose to support high-welfare farms and happier pigs who have had the chance to snuffle around for tasty morsels in the outdoors.
From field to fork: time to enjoy the fruits of our labour
After a great day on the River Cottage Experience course seeing how food gets from the farm to our plate, the end of the day marked a time to sit down with a glass of wine, discuss what was learnt and enjoy the fruits of our labour … with a dash of River Cottage sparkle added to the food by their team of chefs.
All in all, everyone enjoyed what was a fulfilling, fact-laden day – taking home a feeling of being better connected with where our food comes from and a bag full of bread, profiteroles and casserole!
If you’d like to join the River Cottage team for a day on the farm cooking, eating and drinking (or think it’d make a great Christmas present), you can see the full range of courses here.