A couple of weeks ago, I rattled down to Riverford Farm in Devon in a very drinky minibus full of bloggers. Riverford is celebrated not only for their organic vegetables and meat (you may well know somebody who gets weekly vegetable boxes from them), but also for the Field Kitchen, an outstanding restaurant using products raised on the farm, that sits next to a few acres of rhubarb and plum fields.
For once, I’m going to be brief on the restaurant part of the visit. You may well have read any of a number of glowing reviews of the Field Kitchen, and its reputation is well-deserved. We ate like kings from the farm’s own produce – tapas-style starters including a wild garlic tortilla, some simply gorgeous bresaola, a beet salad, and a house-cured gravadlax. The farm’s lamb made an appearance in the main course in two presentations, pressed and roasted, alongside sweet purple-sprouting broccoli in an anchovy butter, and spring greens. Five desserts, of the proper English sort – all sticky toffee pud, rhubarb meringue and that sort of squashy nursery goodness.
So the restaurant is marvellous. If you’re in the area (Riverford is just outside Totnes), book a table and make an evening of it – I defy you not to love its honest, clean presentation of perfectly fresh produce. But what I really want to talk about here for a bit is the operation of the farm itself.
We were lucky enough to be invited to tour Riverford with Guy Watson, the farm’s founder. He’s a fabulous cross between a gimlet-eyed businessman in orange Converse and the sort of straw-haired, welly-wearing, salt-of-the-earth type I remember from the farms that surrounded my grandparents’ little bit of land in Lincolnshire in the 70s; Guy was in this organic stuff well before it was a twinkle in anybody else’s eye, and his passion for this way of growing and eating is palpable. He’s been successful. The business has expanded so far that one farm alone is unable to meet the volume requirements of all those boxes, so a co-operative sort of arrangement is set up with organic farmers all over the country. Riverford itself remains very much the base of operations, though, and the box that arrived on my doorstep from them this morning included produce from here in East Anglia (celery around here is famously good, and there’s a handsome bunch in there which came from Yaxley, near Peterborough, with leeks, a kohl rabi, onions, carrots and some lovely muddy potatoes), alongside little bits and pieces from other farms; I recognised the mixed salad and purple sprouting broccoli from stuff I’d seen growing in the fields in Devon, and the bag of wild garlic leaves is Devon all the way down to its pungent bottom. There are mushrooms, a cucumber and tomatoes too – the large box is enough for four people for a week, but veg enthusiasts (I’m one of them) will find that two people can easily make their way through a box in that time.
Piled into the back of Guy’s rickety Land Rover, which, like Proust’s Madeleines, took me right back to my childhood and days with my Grandad (although unlike Proust, what I was smelling was wet dog and whatever it is they stuff the seats of Land Rovers with), we took a trip up to the edge of Dartmoor to survey some of the fields, stopping briefly at Guy’s house to pick up some preserved artichokes he’d made last year to snack on.
The long winter this year means that some spring vegetables are arriving late this year, but it also means that there have been some bumper crops of certain produce. Purple-sprouting broccoli, which I love for its sweet stems and the tips’ ability to soak up any sauce you might choose to use it with, was going like crazy when we visited, and we picked our own straight from the fields and ate it raw, sugar-sweet and with a dark brassica bite. (Guy is less keen – he says that to his mind, purple-sprouting has an air of farts about it even before you eat it.)
Purple-sprouting broccoli is one of several crops that has to be picked by hand. The word “organic” brings ideas of primitive farming methods to mind, but nothing could be further from the truth at Riverford. Where possible, crops are brought in quickly by machine, which gets them into the cooling rooms fast, keeping them as fresh as possible. Fleece is spread out to keep seedlings safe from frost; polytunnels are used for tender leaves like the bitter, coppery dandelions that make part of the mixed salad. The difference from conventional farming lies in the enrichment of the soil, which is done with old-fashioned crop rotation, tonnes and tonnes of well-rotted manure, and “green manure”; crops like rye grass which are grown specifically in order to be ploughed straight back into the soil again. No pesticides are used, which means that hedgerows around the farm look the way hedgerows are meant to, dense with primroses and violets. The farm has experimented with biodegradable soap sprays against aphids and other pests, but found that predators are also killed by the soap; the best results against pests were achieved, says Guy, by leaving nature to achieve its own balance and encouraging predatory insects. And it’s true – I spotted very few pests on our farm tour.
We pulled leeks out of the soil to take home in the minibus, and picked plenty of rhubarb (one of my favourites). But best of all was the little ash wood at the top of a steep hill, where a huge crop of wild garlic had been seeded. It’s been an enormous success in the box scheme (Riverford recommend it in omelettes and risottos – I have a recipe here on Gastronomy Domine for a pancetta and wild garlic-wrapped chicken dish), and several other woods have also been seeded for a massive crop.
We were lucky with the weather, volcanic haze aside, but for my tastes, the wooded hills, the flowers growing in the fields alongside the farm produce all untouched by herbicides, the smell of garlic wafting in the air, and the views across the tops of the fruit trees over Dartmoor are about as close to Eden in April as England gets. More power to Riverford’s elbow. This is how as much of our food as possible should be produced, and I’m delighted I got a chance to see the farm in action.