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The Field Kitchen, Devon

Neil Sowerby reports back on lunch at the original Field Kitchen ahead of its reincarnation at Stockley Farm in Knutsford in September

Written by . Published on August 11th 2010.

The Field Kitchen, Devon

The Riverford Travelling Field Kitchen, a roadshow featuring some of the country’s finest organic produce, is due on our patch in early September. Manchester Confidential is celebrating Jane Baxter’s award-winning cuisine with a special readers’ event on the opening night.

The menu, of course, changes according to availability. Seasonability? More than that. What’s best on the day. That’s the kind of experience you’re going to get, with minor adjustments according to portable stove cooking and yurt logistics, during the Travelling Field Kitchen’s tenure at Stockley.

Neil Sowerby, a long-time supporter of Riverford Organic Veg founder Guy Watson, finally got to visit the original Field Kitchen at the family farm down in Devon and came away stunned by both the freshness of the produce and the skill behind the dishes.

Giles Coren, Jay Rayner and Gordon Ramsay all agreeing on the magical merits of a dining room set deep among the lush fields of a Devon farm? Amazing. Humbly, I’m making it a foursome in critics’ fan worship for The Field Kitchen.

I’ve cooked from the inspirational Riverford Farm Cook Book (Fourth Estate, £16.99), so I’m familiar with the house style of the on-farm canteen that uses same-day organic produce from the surrounding fields – as well as locally accredited meat, often from their own animals.

Guy Watson runs Riverford, the country’s biggest independent organic box business (47,000 delivered a week), from Wash Farm near Totnes. To save food miles, they have built up five veg and fruit growing outposts, including, in the North West, Stockley Farm at Arley Hall. They are even moving into France now.

Like some Ethical Organic Robin Hood, Watson has been a combative critic of the big supermarkets’ domination of the food industry. His family farm was once used as a test ground for agrochemicals. Now it is a showcase of how organics can get big without copping out.

So turning off the A38 speed track to wind down leafy lanes to Riverford felt almost like a pilgrimage. Even though I knew Guy and his head chef at The Field Kitchen restaurant weren’t going to be there. They were spending the summer touring in a yurt with the travelling version. A yurt, for the non-hippies among you, is a traditional portable shelter used by Central Asian nomads. The Riverford version was crafted using wild-grown ash off the farm.

The original FK, completed in 2005, looks a bit like a health centre, though built from better materials, ethically-sourced wood and terracotta. To get there we ambled past fields of abundant fruit trees where T-shirted lasses toiled, filling basket after basket, then turned down a slope of log-steps. Herbs and bees. Few clouds ruffling the Devon noon.

The only cloud inside was that the local microbrewery couldn’t keep up with demand for their organic bottled ale, so we were forced to slake our traveller’s thirst with a hoppy non-purist version while we read the list of six mains that would arrive at each table.

The Field Kitchen is indeed a kitchen. A very big one with half a dozen cooks working open plan and ten tables or so of eight where one sits and shares with strangers. The day’s menu is chalked up on a blackboard.

Just £17.50 for a two course lunch with the price shooting up by a fiver at supper, kids charged half. For that you get a choice from six puddings and firstly six dishes arriving together, only one meat (in our case rose veal seethed in milk with braised celery and white beans), the rest a selection of veg dishes based on the best pickings of the morning.

Fresh? Guaranteed. Tasty? Well, head chef Jane Baxter has worked at the River Cafe, Carved Angel and across the world. Quite a pedigree.

Glazed carrots and roast kohlrabi with tarragon butter, sauteed hispi cabbage, broad beans and artichokes with mint and lemon... and more, much more. Everything tasted vivid. Hardly, a false note even with very casual ‘help-yourself to it’ service. Puddings are pretty special, too. You only get to pick one but there is the chance of seconds.

The menu, of course, changes according to availability. Seasonability? More than that. What’s best on the day. That’s the kind of experience you’re going to get, with minor adjustments according to portable stove cooking and yurt logistics, during the Travelling Field Kitchen’s tenure at Stockley (September 2-5 and 8-12).

This is a magical place in its own right, a 700 acre working dairy-come-educational ‘open farm’ set in the grounds of Arley Hall near Knutsford. John Walton has been running the veg box scheme at Stockley since 2001 and in 2008 began the partnership with Riverford, which was founded in 1987.

“Our own scheme had got to the point where we were doing 450 boxes a week,” recalls John. “Did we want to invest, expand, take it to the next level? That’s where Guy came in. We’d met him at the Royal Show and got on. He was looking for outlets across the country and was in the process of linking up with Home Farm in Yorkshire and we were the obvious next step. It just made sense.

“Agriculture can so easily be just a quick fix, using fertilisers and sprays. I enjoy it more doing it our way. Everything’s a challenge. It has its negatives when things go wrong, but mostly it’s been a very positive thing.”

Stockley now supply 1,300 boxes a week, 85 per cent to regular customers, from £8.95 to £17.15.

The Travelling Field Kitchen will arrive there on Thursday 2 September, and the Manchester Confidential readers event will take place that evening. Guy Watson will join us on the night. Tickets include a three-course meal, drink on arrival, veg bag and coach travel to and from the city centre. They cost £30 (tickets not including coach travel cost £22.50).

They are booking up fast so if you want to go, click here to book your place.

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