GROW & COOK

recipes from the kitchen gar­den

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - words by ruth chan­dler pho­to­graphs by brent darby food and drink ed­i­tor ali­son walker

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.”

TRA­DI­TIONAL VAL­UES

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.”

AU­TUMN’S ABUN­DANCE

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.

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