A few weeks back Riverford Farm invited me and some other bloggers down to the West Country for dinner and a look round. If you’re British and interested in food you’ll probably have heard of the farm. They run the largest box scheme in the country – Cain to Abel & Cole – vanning ethical cardboard and contented swedes to people just doing their bit.
Organic is a strange, regressive movement. A lot of food lovers are rightly conflicted about the impact of industrialisation on the way they eat. Yields in American farms quadrupled over the last century: a triumphant, localised victory over starvation. But the world’s population has doubled in my parents’ lifetimes and will double again in mine – and non-organic farms produce a lot more food than organic ones. It’s ostrich-headed and irresponsible to argue that this crowded planet will feed itself on heirloom tomatoes and hessian good intentions. To survive, we’ll need GM, super-intensive farming and enough pesticides to torch every ladybird’s home in Europe.
What’s more, the British abused organics. They took a hale, wholesome, rootsy idea about bringing good food to good people and twisted it into a pathetic debate about class. Too much organic food is now the province of weepingly awful delis, mauve labels on chilly Tesco shelves, and tasteless restaurant mark-ups.
So Riverford feels almost nostalgic. It nods to the worthy amateur past of organics – the noble, ruddy doctrine that a stray aphid won’t kill you. And I must say you forget the sad distortion of modern organic food as you’re bounding around the countryside in Guy Watson’s clapped-out Land Rover. The corrugated fields and dipping Devon hills are lung-puncturingly beautiful.
Watson is the management consultant turned rural guru who owns the place: a wry, smiling, ruggedly self-effacing Englishman. He’s a co-oping farmer with a capitalist’s head: immediately, obviously, exceptionally clever. His farm makes 30 million quid a year.
The Field Kitchen lies in a landscaped basin, past splayed plum trees and over a limestone footpath. It really is not some greenhorned bucolic fling, a pet project for an oo-ar yokel with a grass stalk in his gob: it’s business. But its meaning and intentions are good, and its food is terrific. The restaurant is a flimsy-looking wood and glass affair, like the lobby of a Danish nudist colony. They chalk what you’re eating on the blackboard, and you sit on big benches with strangers.
We started with some lovely smoked salmon licked with dill sauce, last-gasp purple sprouting broccoli with chilli and anchovy, spring greens with parmesan and wild garlic we later picked ourselves, and a dry, disappointing gratin. Then favours from the beetroot fields, roast carrots with rosemary and almonds and “grilled and pressed lamb” – bashed branded breast. Last, some exemplary puddings: one of the best sticky toffee puddings I remember, and a fizzing fudgey rhubarb meringue with a yellowy slop of cream.
It was unfrilled, expressive, tender food. For once, the hackneyed mantra of the gastropub rang true: good, seasonal ingredients treated well. It’s upright, honest eating: bourgeois Britalian and the loam and lime of Devon.