Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Life in the Country

Autumn had barely begun to wrap itself around the land the last time I decamped from city life in favour of a green spell in Dorset. The pastures shone rich and full of life, the trees still proudly bore their leaves, and the hedgerows showed only the beginnings of their bejewelling in shades of crimson and magenta. Veg patches, allotments and orchards were replete with the spoils of summer growth. Mackerel, pollock and bream, seeking shelter in the milder coastal waters, were in abundance. Spring lamb were now fully grown, and ready for slaughter. There could not have been a better time to experience life at Park Farm, a place better known to most as the River Cottage.

Whilst the television show paints a fairly accurate picture of what goes on at the River Cottage, it's hard not to wonder if the lifestyle and activities that are portrayed are actually constructed purely for entertainment and viewer ratings. The cynics amongst us must surely question Hugh's picture-perfect rural existence, which complete with Barbour jackets, Land Rovers, and an Aga, is just as well accessorised as Jamie Oliver's urban-utopia ever was in the Naked Chef series.

But there's no expertly-crafted aspirational lifestyle reconstruction here. The River Cottage HQ isn't a 2-D set made out of plywood in a studio in West London. Nor was it dreamt up in a brainstorm by a bunch of Execs, peering over a flip chart in a meeting room. It really is a working farm, where traditional varieties of fruits and vegetables, and rare-breed animals are tended to and looked after by people who care about what they're doing, whether there's a TV series being filmed or not.

The River Cottage is many things. It's a mass market entertainment product, on a mainstream TV channel in a prime time slot. It's a promotional vehicle for a lucrative publishing enterprise. It's an ever-expanding product range. It is, without doubt, a fully functioning brand, with a growing portfolio of assets. But it's also a hub for the local community, a social enterprise, and a valiant attempt at experimenting with new ways of getting by. At the heart of it all, there's much more than a balance sheet and a shareholder meeting. There's a group of passionate individuals who not only believe the patter that they're peddling, they live and breath it. And that's what really defines the River Cottage; the collective desire to experience and share a way of life.

It doesn't take long to get an idea of what this life at Park Farm entails. Undoubtedly, seasonality, sustainability and environmental responsibility are key values, but more importantly, there's a sense of openness; that all are welcome to chip in and get involved – staff and punters alike. Attending a dinner or course there, as I was lucky enough to do on one of my days off, is more like hanging out with old friends than it is a formal dining or learning experience. You have a laugh and enjoy yourself, primarily because you see that's exactly what the staff are doing too.

On occasion, a sense of (only just) organised chaos slips into place at Park Farm, whether it be in the timings of day courses being treated with industrial standard elasticity, or the sous chef running platters of half-cooked food from the main kitchen in the barn, to the private dining room in the farmhouse opposite in the middle of a dinner for 85, or the cows happily grazing in the sheep's field, with the sheep looking on with what can only be described as vacant jealousy. Despite the sense that any concrete rules have been put aside in favour of loose guidelines, in it's own way, everything always seems to play out to perfection.

In amongst butchering hoggets from the farm, to preparing razor clams and seaweed that had been foraged from the Dorset coastline, to thinking up new recipes on the spot for the slew of freshly-picked fruit and veg that the gardeners would offload to the kitchen on a daily basis, there was always a sense that experimentation is universally encouraged at the River Cottage. Indeed, it wouldn't exist at all if Hugh hadn't gambled on ditching his city life in favour of a radically different existence in the country.

In my short spell working there, I often felt refreshed by how little the River Cottage seemed to be bound by the usual conventions of business. After all, the River Cottage as a business would not exist if it had not evolved out of a lifestyle decision; a desire to try something different. Intrinsically, the lines have been blurred between home, farm, restaurant, TV show, brand, and lifestyle. In one way or another it's all of those things, it just depends on how you choose to experience it.

On my final day working at Park Farm, a trailer full of beef arrived at the kitchen doorway. It was one of Hugh's Devon Blonde cows, fresh from the abattoir. I don't think I've ever seen so much meat in one place in my life. Most of it was to be used for dinners and events at Park Farm, aside from the sirloins, which Hugh had baggsied for his own personal kitchen, but not before we'd had a taste, however. Head Chef Gill sliced off a couple of the biggest steaks I'd ever layed eyes upon. This was to be my Thanks and Farewell staff dinner.

Once the beef had been dealt with, and we'd skewered a suckling pig, ready for spit roast the following day, we downed tools and tucked into our steaks, which Sous Chef Neil had expertly cooked - just the way I had asked for it – halfway between rare and medium rare. As we discussed the weeks that had just passed, I couldn't help but be impressed by what has been created here at an old farm in a valley, on the Dorset-Devon border. The River Cottage shows just how good life can be when someone follows their dream... It's enough to spur me on to follow mine.

Some more of the pictures I took during my stage at the River Cottage can be found here.

Rossi's Ices

Mum and I aren't the only fans of Rossi's Ices on Weymouth seafront. The first thing that owner Fulvio Fugliolini told me, before he was willing to discuss the ice cream, was that Rossi's has thousands of fans on Facebook. I found 56, but still, who's counting?

With another sunny day at the seaside, Rossi's service window remains open for another day... The look in Fulvio's eye, however, suggests he'll soon be packing up his ice-cream maker for winter.

Three of a possible five flavours today. Don't ask how they're made, as I made the mistake of doing. Don't ask for vanilla - it's Natural, ok? And definitely, whatever you do, don't ask for Mr Whippy!

Still, completely deserved of the title of "Weymouth's favourite". Long may their summer 2010 opening continue.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Judgement Sunday

Cooking the perfect roast was never going to be easy... Especially not for 90! After lugging two huge ovens upstairs, spending (literally) days peeling spuds, chopping veg, and boiling stock pots, it was great to see so many happy faces on Sunday.

Chris, Mark and I are probably our own toughest critics, and whilst we might not have reached absolute perfection, I reckon we didn't do too badly at all. Thanks to everyone who came along - hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Ham hock terrine, Chris' mum's chutney, pickled golden beets, London's finest sour dough.

Rare-roast ribeye with the works: Yorkshire pudding, duck fat and polenta roast potatoes, braised red cabbage, and proper gravy, plus smashed root veg and sauted curly kale, rainbow chard and broccoli on the side.

Dark chocolate pot with my foraged crab apple, rosehip and hawthorn jelly, chantilly cream, and almond 'triscotti'.

Chris' sticky toffee pudding, with toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream... As described by one very satisfied customer as "orgasmic".

We're looking forward to the next one already!

(Thanks to Meesh for the photos)

Tuesday, 5 October 2010


Let's face it, a good roast can be pretty hard to find in London these days... So along with two old mates, we're putting on our own... For a full explanation, I'll hand you over to my co-chef (or perhaps that should be Head Chef) for the day, Chris Elliman:

"Hi, I'm Chris and I’m a chef from Yorkshire, where we take our roasts very seriously... I was talking with a couple of friends the other day (Mark Holland, a former colleague - five years of cooking Michellin starred food, Nick Balfe - of this very blog), and we were discussing the perfect roast and how they’re hard to find. Succulent, juicy, flavoursome meat, crisp yet light Yorkshire Puddings, golden, crunchy, fluffy roasties, rich, viscous gravy to coat the interesting, fresh, seasonal vegetables...

I used to work in a bustling little thatched roof pub, deep in the Yorkshire Dales. One of my regulars was a farmer who supplied all my Sunday veg in exchange for a roast for him, his wife and his grandkids. They’d always have the same table by the window and at the end of every Sunday service I’d get a big hug from Barbara, and Bob would shake my hand and say, “Chris-lad, she’s a bloody good cook and that was like Sunday lunch at home - but she let me drink more - see you next week!”. I loved cooking for Bob and Barbara.

So we found a nice little pub in the heart of Hoxton and told them our idea; We’ll buy the finest ingredients we can find in London (Smithfield for meat, local markets for my fresh vegetables), cook a perfect meal (risky, I know...), leave out the fancy chef’s presentation tricks to keep costs down (micro herbs anyone?) and hopefully make a few quid for a couple well earned beers. The succinct menu keeps the cost to you down too.

They said “great”, I enlisted a few friends, and here we are. We’ll provide the Bloody Mary's (for a fee of course!) and the papers, you come and join us, enjoy the day, and more importantly, enjoy the best value and quality roast dinner in North London you’ll ever have."

Due to flatteringly high demand, bookings for The Perfect Roast are now closed. Details of our next event will be released soon.

See you Sunday!