I’ve been a huge fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall since the first series of River Cottage in 1997. I’ve fully bought into his snout-to-tail grow-your-own ethos and I love his enthusiasm for good food, be it farmed, foraged or from the high street. This month I had the good fortune to make my third pilgrimage to River Cottage HQ, near Axminster on the Devon-Dorset border.
The River Cottage dining experiences are not a budget affair, though they do represent good value for money, especially if you’re a bit of a foodie.
My first visit to River Cottage HQ was in 2008, it was a gloriously boozy meal, where strangers became friends, bonding over their shared love of Hugh and everything he stands for. It was a wonderful summers evening, we toured the garden, snaffled a few pea pods straight from the plant, ate canapés in the yurt and had the best meal I’ve ever eaten. Ever.
As a River Cottage veteran (I must be now, surely?) I knew the drill, the tractor would meet us at the top and bump us down the hill to the farm, I knew we’d need sensible shoes and that glamming up too much might result in muddy sequins by the end of the night. I knew the drinks would be local and well chosen, I knew the food would have been grown, born or raised on the farm, and if not foraged or farmed nearby. I knew it would be excellent, and it was.
However, we messed up and arrived late. The gathering darkness brought with it a storm and we missed the tractor. We had to make our way down the muddy hillside track on foot; but we were warmly greeted, given a hot cuppa and a little canapé to nibble on. Once we’d thawed out we explored River Cottage HQ as much as we could in the dark and the wet. Thankfully I have two warm summer visits worth of memories, but the roaring fire in the cottage was enough to brighten the darkest and coldest winter night.
Before long we were summoned for dinner, I’m a vegetarian so I enjoyed a slightly different menu to my friends, but I wager it was just as good as theirs. The canapés were plentiful, imaginative and delicious. We began with whipped goats cheese with thin slithers of beetroot in cider vinegar with fennel fronds, little cheese on toast bites with piccalilli; blue cheese, mushroom and leek croquettes with date and green tomato dip and several slices of excellent treacle and seed bread.
Another canapé, and for my money one of the highlights of my meal, was the merguez spiced romanesco cauliflower with silky smooth cauliflower purée. An unassuming dish which packed in so much flavour, it was a real joy.
My first course (though after all those canapés, it felt like my fourth course already) was ravioli with celeriac purée, wild mushrooms and sage. This was a deceptively filling plate, perfectly autumnal and as pretty as a picture. There was perhaps a touch too much oil for my liking, but it didn’t detract from the dish.
My veggie main course was a crispy parsnip and potato rosti with a poached egg, carrot purée and a chunk of charred savoy cabbage. Every single aspect of this course was perfectly cooked and delicious, but I did feel it needed something to pull it together into a dish, rather than the sum of its parts. My poached egg was a double-yolker though, so I can’t complain really.
At my last meal at River Cottage HQ I had been utterly wowed by the pudding, so I had high hopes and I’m pleased to say they weren’t dashed. Dessert was a celebration of all things apple – an apple crisp, apple purée, a chunky apple crumble with a topping made from treacle and rye flour; but the showstopper on the plate was the honeycomb (or Hokey-Pokey if you’re Cornish) crème brûlée. That crème brûlée will live a long, long time in my memory. It was perfect and the honeycomb topping lent a deliciously different note to the crunchy topping.
Dinner was followed by coffee and petits fours; the hurried purchasing of a couple of Christmas gifts from the shop and a bumpy tractor ride up the hill to the car park.
It was as close to a perfect foodie evening as you can imagine. The meal was virtually faultless, so good I want to book in again next year with my husband. For River Cottage fans and devotees, lovers of good food, or people who are just Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall curious, a dining experience at River Cottage HQ is a very special way to spend an evening and would make for a rather excellent Christmas present.
For more information about a River Cottage HQ Dining Experience, visit their website.
We were invited guests of River Cottage HQ and Foodies100, all images and opinions are our own.