I don’t know exactly where to begin about my affection for this place. It’s a small holding (family farm) developed by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (what a name!), a London chef who decided to move to the country in 1998. He sought a more leisurely life, although I’m not sure leisurely is what I’d call his venture, that embraces the values of sustainability, slow food, thriftiness, and local, seasonal food.
I’ve been introduced to him and his food wonderland though his television programs that appear seasonally here and love, love, love the ambiance and inspiration that Chef Hugh brings to my living room. Those of you who know me know it takes quite a lot for me to want to tromp about country fields in wellingtons, but every time I watch his show I’m inspired not only to whip up a feast, but to think about where my food comes from differently. Ahoy, wellington boots and McIntosh. What I would give for a good stomp around River Cottage!
River Cottage is located in Dorset, the West Country, near the sea. It’s a pale stone farmhouse surrounded by modest acreage, every corner used to produce food, whether it be berries or livestock. It’s not flashy, not perfect looking, with cured pigs legs dangling from rafters so they are bathed in the cool sea breezes and poly-tunnels scattered like oversized discarded beach balls around the property. Pens corral goats, sheep, cows, pigs. Coops contain all variety of chicken. The old dairy barn has been converted into a dining area. Old boots are used to mature seedlings. It’s all charming.
Much like the place, the staff that help Hugh are a motley crew. My favorite is his foraging expert, John Wright, who escorts Hugh on searches for wild mushrooms, wild berries, wild garlic, truffles, all while sporting a delightful straw hat. Inevitably they come across some rare ingredient, take it back to River Cottage HQ (headquarters), and create an alcoholic brew that will be featured at an event they will soon be hosting. In the meantime, they’ve got to taste it, and proceed to get very rosy in the cheek and giggle like school girls.
Hugh is a nerd. A delightful nerd. His round-rimmed black glasses and curly sandy hair always look askew and somewhat grubby. He hangs bunches of onions from the back of his battered Land Rover when he takes a road trip, sleeps in a borrowed tepee while on the road, delights in making his own contraptions for fishing, and has no qualms about taking a rifle to the rabbits nibbling on the lettuce in his garden (he then takes the rabbit pelts and fashions them into a man sized bikini). When he takes his animals to the abattoir he’s always a little sad, but then eats every bit of them with gusto. When he hosts a village festival he’s the first one to dress ridiculously and has no fear of making a fool of himself. Perhaps this is all his TV personae, but I delight in his childlike passion for what he does and the people he interacts with.
Finally, I urge you to check out the Landshare program that is featured on the River Cottage website: www.rivercottage.net It’s something I think should be happening back home in the US, especially around the bigger cities where land is scarce. Essentially, it’s an online register that matches up people around England who have land suitable for gardening that they aren’t currently using with people eager to have their own allotment (another wonderful English-ism) but are landless. Growing your own fruit and veg is very big here. It’s a product of the poor economy, hearkening back to the days after the War, but also a very eco-friendly way of reducing your carbon footprint. Pride is taken in sharing produce with friends and quite simply, the food tastes better.
I could go on, but consider this a first installment on the subject. I do hope to visit River Cottage soon and have considered participating in one of their many cookery courses (they don’t come cheaply). In the meantime, my favorite easy River Cottage style lunch:
1 courgette (a zucchini to you and me), cut into bite sized pieces
1 garlic clove
chopped fresh mint
1 cup Greek style yogurt
juice of one lemon
2 thick slices country style bread
Heat the oven to 425 degrees, place the bread on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake for 10 minutes or until bread is just toasted. Heat a skillet. Add the olive oil and sautee the garlic until fragrant. Add the zucchini and season with salt, pepper and the fresh mint, and cook until golden. Meanwhile, season the yogurt with lemon juice, salt, pepper and more of the mint. Stir and taste for seasoning. To serve pile the zucchini on the slices of bread and liberally spread with the yogurt sauce. YUM!