GROW & COOK
recipes from the kitchen garden
Our series featuring recipes from celebrated kitchen gardens. This month: River Cottage on the Devon-dorset border
This month: River Cottage
poor, thin soil barely concealing its flinty foundation and a grassed-over abandoned walled garden – a former failing dairy farm on the Devon-dorset border wasn’t the most promising site for Hugh Fearnleywhittingstall’s smallholding, but all the more reason to admire the green fingers of the River Cottage team, who not only achieved organic certification from the Soil Association in just a year, but now produce 200 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruit there.
FLAVOURS TO FEAST ON
“September is an incredible month here: there’s so much to pick, from borlotti beans and chard to apples and pears, not to mention chillis, peppers and aubergines in the polytunnel,” says chef Gill Meller, as he lifts several brightly coloured squash out of a crate and arranges them on a trestle table. He was instrumental in helping to plan the quarter-of-an-acre kitchen garden in 2006, which is based on a classic four-year crop-rotation system (where brassicas, legumes, onions and roots, and potatoes switch beds on an annual basis). With a mulberry tree as the focal point and areas also dedicated to herbs, asparagus and perennial fruit, it forms an appealing allotment-like patchwork in front of the farmhouse, while more vegetables and fruit are raised in a market garden of the same size next to the pigs. In fact, Gill and the plot have grown together: as the land has become more fertile and high-yielding
(aided with homemade compost and muck from livestock), he has placed greater value on its harvest – his dishes are now centred on vegetables, with less emphasis on fish and meat. “Nothing can beat big sun-ripened tomatoes, heavy, sweet and full,” he says, admiring a freshly picked selection, from green and yellow to dark red and purplish-black. An advocate of simple, seasonal food, Gill’s treatment is minimal: “Serving them thickly sliced with only a scattering of flaky salt and a drizzle of olive oil is often enough, accompanied by some good bread and red wine.”
Tomatoes are guaranteed to provoke much excitement when they’re delivered to the kitchens at River Cottage HQ. But while the chefs discuss how they’ll present them to the students and diners who come here, head gardener Will Livingstone is intent on dissecting the ones in front of him with a penknife. “Saving seeds is one of my passions,” he explains, leaning over the polytunnel staging, scraping each one out of the surrounding flesh. “I’ve been growing and keeping the ‘Orange Banana’ variety for years,” he says. “It’s a heavy-cropping plum kind, with each vine yielding as much as 8kg of fruit.” These days, Will’s act of preservation is rarely seen even among keen vegetable growers. “A hundred years ago, all gardeners were doing this and sharing seeds with their neighbours,” he adds. It’s among what Gill describes as the “many charming aspects of River Cottage”, which also include the chefs walking around the garden with Will to discover what is ready to pick, and planning menus just three or four days in advance: “It’s a rewarding way to cook, keeping things fresh and helping us develop combinations of ingredients we’ve not tried before.”
A HUB FOR GROWERS
With 18,000 people visiting each year for courses, dining events and tours, Will’s remit is to create a garden “for education, beauty and production”. River Cottage raises 40 per cent of the fruit, vegetables, herbs, meat and eggs required, but the company has never aimed for self-sufficiency: central to its philosophy is working with other businesses. This involves not only supplementing the harvest, but sharing gardening knowledge and coordinating on crops so they don’t all end up with too much of a good thing. Happily, the Devon-dorset border has attracted a wealth of organic producers, including Ashley Wheeler and Kate Norman’s market garden at neighbouring Trill Farm, and Haye Farm run by Emily Perry and Harry Boglione. Will extols the virtues of the location, which help to explain the area’s growing community and why River Cottage settled on Park Farm despite its rocky subsoil: “Warm air blows in from the sea and the kitchen garden is sheltered by hedges and banks.”
Harvest is now in full swing, presenting gluts to both reward and challenge. In recent years, Gill has turned his attention away from the River Cottage kitchen (which is headed up by Gelf Alderson) and towards teaching its students, so the garden’s crops form the inspiration for his classes at this time of year. He takes great pleasure in sharing his love of organically grown produce and teaching how to pickle, ferment and cure the season’s riches for enjoyment all year round. Preserving aside, does Gill have any tips for those keen to make the most of what they’ve gathered from their own garden or allotment? “By trying to stick to just three or four main ingredients, balancing them in terms of flavour and texture – soft versus crunchy, salty versus sharp and clean – you can come up with a special dish. Cooking with fresh produce is quick and uncomplicated – if you give it plenty of thought.” Turn the page for a selection of delicious recipes using seasonal produce.
River Cottage HQ, Trinity Hill Road, Axminster, Devon (rivercottage.net). Recipes adapted from River Cottage Veg Every Day! (Bloomsbury Publishing, £25). Recipes by Hugh Fearnley-whittingstall.