Riverford Organic Farms is the company that’s really good at getting you to eat your 5-a-day. You pay a subscription, become a member of the ‘Riverford Family’ and each week you receive a vegetable box with the everyday basics. You have the option to add to your box from a wide choice of salad items, fruit and meat from the Riverford Butchery.
Guy Watson started to grow organic vegetables in 1986 on his family farm in Devon selling to local shops, and using a converted 2CV to deliver. In 1993 he began selling the vegetable box and delivered to just 20 local families and friends. As the scheme grew in popularity Guy wanted to continue growing locally and employing local people. The solution was to find other farmers who shared the same values as him. The original Riverford Farm in Devon, now works with farms in Hampshire, Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire who all grow, pack and deliver vegetable boxes locally. There’s also a farm in the Vendée region of France, where crops are grown to fill the British ‘hungry gap’ in late spring.
I’ve been invited to the Devon HQ to sample all things Riverford, from the estuary where the samphire is grown, taste items sold in the Riverford Shops and the award-winning food at the Riverford Field Kitchen. The restaurant opened in 2005 with Jane Baxter as Head Chef, after eight years and two cook books under her belt, she’s moved on to pastures new.
All the meals are prepared under the supervision of the Head Chef Rob Andrew, and, like his predecessor he showcases the best of the season’s larder, with vegetables in the spotlight. Just don’t ask him to juggle for a photograph.
A back-breaking morning spent picking marsh samphire will be rewarded with one of the award-winning lunches.
Driving through the winding Devon lanes, we see evidence of how vast Guy’s operation is as we pass poly tunnels containing cucumbers, basil, tomatoes, French beans and chilli peppers. Approaching the Washbarn Farm site, there are fields of globe artichokes, salad leaves and late potatoes. Some of the boxes are packed here – one every 35 seconds – with a lorry leaving the depot every hour, delivering to some of the forty six thousand homes who receive a vegetable box.
Earth-fresh and centre stage on our table, platters are piled high with vegetables which have been pulled or plucked from the ground hours earlier. Sharing is the idea here. Our meal begins with a mixed leaf salad (rocket, red titan beet and mizuna) which has a smattering of samphire, finger long radish and the sweetest dried cherry tomatoes drizzled with a piccalilli dressing. The portions are huge and Guy tells me they were larger but they’ve reduced recently, although it’s hard to tell.
The sourdough bread, never in short supply, has a delicious texture and super crust – perfect for mopping the plate.
Our main course is tender, moist chicken with a barbecue sauce, dotted with fresh, green pesto.
Accompanying vegetables included samphire, and griddled baby leeks;
asparagus with toasted hazelnuts;
baby beetroot, tender young carrots and baby potatoes with wild garlic steamed in a paper bag.
I exhaust all belt loosening options, just as dessert is announced. Half a dozen are laid out on the pass which include rhubarb pavlova;
baked custard tart;
molten syrup-rich toffee pudding;
lemon marscapone cheesecake;
dark chocolate nemesis
and a pear and almond tart.
I choose the Dark Chocolate Nemesis (flourless and baked in a bain marie – a nod to Rose Gray who made it a popular desert at The River Cafe) with custard and pouring cream and waddle back to my seat.
I should say that the cost of the meal is a bargain £22.50 per person and £11.25 for children aged 3-12 years. Booking is absolutely essential and you can do that here.
The train back to London beckons and we reluctantly leave the Farm without a tour. If you’re ever in the area you can see what they grow by hopping on one of their tractor-trailer guided tours. Or if you like to walk, there’s an audio guide and map tour. If you forget your wellington boots, they even supply those.
I’m ordering a vegetable box so I’ll be reporting back on what arrives and how I ‘deal’ with the contents.
For those already receiving a box, samphire will be available as an additional item from July at £2.65 for 100g.
If you’d like to know how the samphire is picked, take a look at my Huffington Post blog.