Last month we headed to River Cottage Canteen in Axminster to enjoy an exciting lunch celebrating Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal’s new publication A-Z: Our Favourite Ingredients and How to Cook Them. We’ve been fans of River Cottage’s wholesome food and commitment to local providence for quite some time, so we were excited to see what tasty food was going to be on offer.
In true River Cottage style, we took our seats on communal tables and got acquainted with our fellow diners. It’s this communal spirit that has long defined the nature of Hugh’s establishments and the food on offer was also set to be served in the form of sharing platters, in order to enhance the sense of community and encourage all of the diners to get social. I admit, this form of dining might not be for everyone and at £35 a head it should probably have been mentioned prior to the event. However, we were fortunate to have been seated with two lovely groups of people which made conversation throughout the meal easy and comfortable.
A word about A-Z: Our Favourite Ingredients and How to Cook Them
Before dinner was served Hugh took to the floor to welcome everyone present and explain the philosophy behind his latest publication A-Z; the recipe book and encyclopedia of sorts which acted as inspiration for the whole event.
A-Z, Hugh explained, is a collaborative effort by several chefs and experts to highlight unusual and lesser known ingredients: foraged, hunted, preserved and bought. It’s a heavy kitchen tome and to the culinary novice it might come across as a little bit intimidating. However, Hugh was quick to dispel any doubts in our minds as he explained his intention for its use. This is a book to get messy, to have open at all times and to really get stuck in. Each of the courses on offer throughout lunch was created from a recipe within it, meaning that if you particularly enjoyed a dish you could attempt to make it for yourself at home.
The first dish was a Devon Cauliflower soup, served in individual espresso cups and garnished with Nigella Seeds. This was a lovely introduction to what was to be a succession of excellently cooked courses. I was particularly fond of the creamy texture and the quantity was just right. I’m not usually won over by soup but I must say that this was the perfect winter warmer. We also sampled some freshly made butternut squash, shallot & mushroom tarts (which were so tasty I dare say i’lll try recreating them at home) and some Wash Farm cardoon bruschetta with honey & thyme. I’ll admit, I wasn’t familiar with cardoon until I tried these little appetisers, but a quick consultation of my copy of A-Z informed me that it is a vegetable that looks not unsimilar to a large celery and is known for it’s artichoke-like flavour.
Up next things got a little fishy as we were served a fresh lemon cured herring with brown bread & butter. The herring was incredibly creamy and light and had a fresh zingy element to it that meant I could have quite happily eaten more than the serving I was given. There’s really no substitute for homemade bread and I can picture myself making a plate of this food at home for a light and tasty snack.
We were also presented with a few large plates of Pouting fish fingers with herby mayo and lemon. These tender goujons were excellently cooked but the unusual choice of pouting was not something I would opt to have again. I just wasn’t won over by the particularly fishy taste (in fact it was somewhat overpowering) and there were quite a few fish bones here and there that I put down to the quantity of people eating and the kitchen team being pushed for time. I’m pretty certain that the other diners were in agreement with me because they did seem to have an excess of the fish fingers left over..
The Main Event
After a short break we moved onto our main course, which was once again comprised of several sharing plates. You really can’t fault the technical skill of the chefs at River Cottage and each meat on offer was beautifully cooked.
Firstly we all tucked in some Rabbit Ragu with celery, kale & tarragon. This was probably my standout dish of the day. The rabbit was literally falling apart and it had an almost Asian flavour to it that was similar to hoisin duck.
Next we had EPA-braised Reb Ruby cheek with parsnips and a side of Spicy Kolrabi wedges. Again, the beef was perfectly cooked and was very rich and tender. Likewise, the parsnips were just right (which came as no surprise consider River Cottage’s talent for cooking vegetables). If I have any complaints at all it was that there was arguably a little too much food on the table. However, when you’re asking guests to share it’s always better to offer too much rather than too little. The Quicks cheddar, celeriac and apple salad was also very tasty indeed and it was nice to have something a little lighter to contend with all that meaty goodness.
Dessert came in three forms – Chocolate brownies, a crumble and a compote. I admit, I had to pass on this course myself as I was royally stuffed following the several previous dishes However, I am told that the brownie was delicious (one of my fellow guests remarked that she would have to try it at home) and that the crumble was a really lovely alternative to your standard apple or rhubarb variety.
By the time lunch came to an end I think I speak for everyone when I say that we had been very generously fed!
Over the course of our meal we were able to sample a range of excellently cooked dishes made from ingredients that wouldn’t usually be at the top of everyone’s list. I thought that the concept of creating a dinner based on meals available in A-Z was inspired and after getting our copy signed by Hugh we left the event eager to get our own copy open and start cooking delicious locally sourced meals from scratch.
If the look of any of these dishes gets you feeling inspired to try out any of the recipes, you can buy purchase a copy of A-Z: Our Favourite Ingredients & How to Cook Them here.